January 16, 2007


16 January 2007
By Andy Lines

SEPARATED from his parents six years ago, tortured by police and abandoned, Ritvan Leknikaj has no idea if his mother and father are dead or alive.

Now 21, the Kosovan youngster fled Montenegro after being arrested and then forced to scavenge alone on the streets for 18 months.

Kids outside Heathrow HostelWING AND A PRAYER: Teenagers watch planes from within the grounds of their hostel.

Luckily, Ritvan managed to get a job and eventually scraped together enough money to flee to the safety of Britain.

Then there's the 14-year-old girl from Rwanda, whose parents were murdered.

And a 15-year-old lad from Eritrea who escaped certain death when he fled across the border on a camel.

And the 16-year-old girl from the Congo who was raped and subjected to a brutal female circumcision.

What has happened in their short lives is heart-breaking. But today these four youngsters - and 1,133 other unaccompanied children - are safe in West London.

Heathrow Airport

CLEARED TO LAND: Busy Heathrow is within the boundary of Hillingdon council, which foots much of the bill for caring for young asylum seekers who jet in from around the world.

They are in the care of a council which is doing all it can to cope with a relentless influx of young asylum seekers landing on its doorstep each day.

It's Hillingdon Borough Council's responsibility simply because one of the world's busiest international airports - Heathrow - happens to be located just inside the borough's boundary.

A decade ago, Hillingdon employed just seven people to assist the traumatised youngsters who arrive from all corners of the globe.

Now there are 100 staff and, despite their dedication, the sheer number of arrivals means they still find it almost impossible to cope.

Caring for the kids costs the authority several million pounds each year and it was further hit when the government cut its funding.

Teenager in Margaret CassidySILENT AGONY: A teenager sits in her room at Margaret Cassidy House

Today, it goes to the High Court for a David v Goliath legal battle. The little council hopes a judicial review will find that it was "unlawful" for funding to be cut.

The social services department of Hillingdon needs the cash because it receives dozens of calls to collect unaccompanied children from Heathrow each week.

There aren't enough foster homes to cope so, sometimes, the arrivals are moved as far afield as Norfolk or Kent, though the council still has to pick up the bill. The costs are crippling and other services have had to suffer funding shortfalls, while dozens of staff have also been laid off to cut costs.

Cathy Bambrough, acting deputy director of Children's Services, explains the predicament.

"All unaccompanied children under 18 arriving at Heathrow become the responsibility of Hillingdon - either because they've been abandoned or they need safeguarding.

"We have to bear the brunt of this and it is clearly unfair.

"If the youngsters remain in fulltime education, they are our responsibility until they reach their 24th birthday - and that is an enormous financial burden."

The Mirror visited Margaret Cassidy House, a hostel where all young asylum seekers aged 16-18 are taken when they land.

It is next to the perimeter fence at Heathrow where every minute a jet lands, often bringing yet another young asylum seeker to join them. Yasmeen Aslam, a support worker, is usually the first person the children see when they arrive.

"We can have up to eight new arrivals a day and some of them are severely traumatised," she says. "Hardly any of them speak a word of English.

"We have 47 beds in 47 rooms for permanent "clients" and 12 beds in three rooms for emergency arrivals.

"Young people can arrive at all times of the day and night, and many are very frightened and don't know what to expect."

Cathy BambroughCOST: Cathy Bambrough

WE spoke to several asylum seekers - who arrived as children in recent years - about their experiences.

Ritvan recalls how his whole family was arrested. "First, the police separated the males and females, so I was with my father.

"Then they separated us by age and I was on my own. The police used to beat me. They did give me food but only after making me drink salt water first. It was terrible."

When he was eventually freed, Ritvan was forced to live on the streets before managing to get a job and saving enough to get out.

"I am so grateful to Hillingdon council and what it does for me and other young asylum seekers," he says. "I just cannot thank the staff enough."

He is now studying at university and does translation work for a charity. He applied for asylum in April 2003 and, almost four years on, is still waiting to hear if he can stay.

Kahssey Desta, now 20, arrived at Heathrow on a flight from Khartoum, Sudan, four years ago.

He escaped war-torn Eritrea on a camel when his brothers were killed after joining the army.

"My father died when I was young and we were deported from Ethiopia back to Eritrea, where my mother was from. We had nothing.

"My mother didn't want to see me killed so I tried to get away. I rode a camel across the border into Sudan and then to Khartoum, where someone paid for my plane ticket and I arrived in London."

Sarah Kuruba was just 13 when she arrived alone in 1999. "My parents were murdered in Africa and I was so frightened when I got to Britain. Now I want to become a social worker or a nurse, so I can help other people."

Among the arrivals last year was a distraught girl who also fled Africa. Her parents were killed, her uncle raped her and she was forcibly circumcised. Gradually, the asylum team have helped conquer her fears. But it all costs money.

Mrs Bambrough explains the financial constraints her team faces.

The government pays the council £721 a week to care for children under 16, £323 a week for 16-17 year olds and £100 a week for 18s and over.

At the moment, Hillingdon is responsible for 98 under-16s, 258 16-17 year olds and 783 post-18s. "So for 18-23 year olds we get just £100 a week from the government and that is not enough to provide for their needs," says Mrs Bambrough.

"Some of them need specialist care, some need psychiatric help and support. If you are going to meet their needs properly, you are not going to kick them out of the door.

"There is no doubt that an unfair burden is being placed on Hillingdon - we're caring for these children with inadequate funding." The council feels it is being financially "punished" for successfully implementing government policy and standing by the children. As well as the court case, staff also believe that as Heathrow is on their doorstep they must be treated as a "special case".

Quite simply, many of the children they help would be dead if they had remained in their own countries.

The council is pinning its hopes on the judicial review and so, too, are the many vulnerable youngsters in the authority's care.

We can have up to eight new arrivals a day.. some are badly traumatised




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