The Unaccompanied Children Scandal

In January this year, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron launched a campaign to bring thousands of "unaccompanied" Syrian children to the UK. Initally defeated in the House of Commons, the campaign has gained strength in recent weeks following defeats in the House of Lords.

No-one is suggesting that unaccompanied children, orphaned in Syria, do not deserve help. The elephant in the room, however, is the disgraceful track record Britain has with regard to children in care. Can Britain provide a safe, secure environment for Syrian child refugees when it has singularly failed to provide one for British children? Or are these children to receive special care?

I raised this question in a post on Facebook back in January. I asked people to contact Tim Farron and ask him what he would do to ensure the safety of migrant children coming to the UK. He refused to answer my questions, or those of any of the people who contacted him.

Today, the media was full of reports of a letter written to David Cameron by Sir Erich Reich, chairman of Kindertransport-Association of Jewish Refugees demanding that Cameron do more for Syrian child refugees. It was "incumbent on us to provide sanctuary to those in need," he wrote.

Well, it looks like David Cameron has caved in to the pressure. Today he announced that Britain will bring thousands of unaccompanied children into the country, from Greece, Italy and France. "No country has done more than Britain when it comes to help for Syrian refugees," Cameron said.

No country has done more to create Syrian refugees in the first place is perhaps what he should have said.

Within minutes, Save the Children reacted to Cameron's announcement, saying:

Refugee children, many of whom have fled war and persecution and have made dangerous journeys to Europe alone are now living on the streets, in overcrowded camps or locked in police detention. The Prime Minister has today offered a lifeline to these vulnerable children and we will work with the government and the UN to ensure that these commitments are rapidly implemented so that thousands of lone, vulnerable children can reach safety in the UK in the coming months.

If we are to have these children, then perhaps it is worth looking at Britain's track record regarding children in care. Let's take Nottingham as just one example of a city where two police operations, Daybreak and Xeres, have identified 130 victims from one childrens home, and a further ten childrens homes where abuse is alleged. This pattern in repeated right across the country - the abuse has been institutionalised.

Then there is the issue of "missing" children, which no-one seems concerned about at all.

In 2012, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults and the APPG for Looked after Children and Care Leavers issued a report (pdf) following an inquiry into missing children. The inquiry was co-chaired by Ann Coffey MP, chair the APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, and Earl of Listowel, vice-chair of the APPG for Looked after Children and Care Leavers. The first few paragraphs of the foreword say it all:

There is a scandal going on in England involving children missing from care and until recent cases of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale and other places put the spotlight on this issue it was going on pretty much unnoticed.

Going missing is a key indicator that a child might be in great danger. When children go missing, they are at very serious risk of physical abuse, sexual exploitation and sometimes so desperate they will rob or steal to survive.

Until recently protecting these children has not been at the top of anyone’s priority list. As a consequence, we do not know for sure how many children go missing from care, where they go missing or what happens to them when they are gone.

In fact, even though police data shows that there arean estimated 10,000 individual children going missing in a year from care, the government’s official data only recorded 930 children going missing from care last year. This is a huge and worrying discrepancy.

Children are taken into care from their parents because we do not think they are safe or cared for well enough at home. But the evidence clearly shows that we fail to keep the most vulnerable children safe whilst they are in our care. In fact, children who go missing from care are being systematically failed and placed in great danger by the very systems and professionals who are there to protect them. This is unforgivable.

Unforgivable indeed. According to the APPG report, there were 68,000 children in care in the UK in 2012:

the local authority with responsibility for a child is required to report on whether they have run away for more than 24 hours to the Department of Education once a year. Data for 2011 shows that 930 individual children went missing. Using this measure of going missing for over 24 hours, police figures suggest 17,000 incidents and 5,000 individual children going missing from care every year. [my emphasis]

How many of these children return? How many end up being trafficked? The APPG report says:

there are also major problems with quality of data collected on trafficked children. The numbers recorded by CEOP approximately 300 between 2007 and 2010 is widely thought to be the very tip of the iceberg and the lack of robust and comprehensive data was also identified by the Inquiry as a key obstacle to keeping these children safe.

In fact, based on our research, the quality of data collected on children abused, missing, trafficked or any combination of these has not improved in the four years since this report was published.

Justifying his calls for Britain to take its share of Syrian child refugees, Tim Farron made the point that ten thousand such children have disappeared in Europe already. Yet he seems totally unconcerned that there is apparently no way to assure ourselves that the same fate does not await them here.

There will be a vote in the House of Commons next week on this issue. Now is the time to raise this issue with every MP in the country, and the so-called "childrens'" charities such as NSPCC and Save the Children. As I said before, Syrian child refugees deserve our help. We created their problems after all. But any help they receive from us must include a guarantee that every single one of them is safe when they get here, and stays safe right through their childhood. How can we be assured of that while those running government and charities choose to do nothing about the appalling situation in our child care system?

main image credit: dfid