SEVERAL CASES: Asylum seeking children go missing from council care
A total of 22 unaccompanied asylum seeking children were detected at Teesport between January and October this year
Cleveland Police is investigating several cases where unaccompanied asylum seeking children have arrived at Teesport from overseas and then gone missing when placed into council care.
The force said there had been a “significant increase” in minors using the port to enter the UK.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) has learnt that police are investigating the recent disappearance of five children in this category, who had been placed in care by Redcar and Cleveland Council, raising fears that they may have been trafficked into the country and could also be potential victims of so-called modern slavery.
The ISU union, which represents Border Force staff operating at Teesport, said that most asylum seekers had travelled in shipping containers and other freight and “sadly from time to time this does include children”.
Between January and October this year 22 children were detected having arrived at Teesport on their own and attempted to claim asylum.
They are usually given temporary admission initially before their status and any potential asylum claim is determined.
As an indication of a rise in numbers this year, last December Redcar and Cleveland Council had 14 unaccompanied children in its care, a figure which had increased by 64% to 23 in July.
Sergeant Rachel Morgan, of Cleveland Police’s missing persons team, said: “In common with many UK forces with port points of entry we have encountered a significant increase in unaccompanied asylum-seeking people, including minors, arriving in our force area.
“Cleveland Police has dedicated officers in our recently established missing persons team whose remit is to work with partners – including the National Crime Agency, our own cyber crime team and local authorities – to investigate instances where new arrivals subsequently go missing.
“The team, alongside Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council, is currently investigating five unaccompanied asylum seekers who have gone missing.
“Where appropriate, for example if [we] uncover any trafficking or slavery link, we will escalate these cases to our complex exploitation team for further enquiries.
“We also regularly issue reminders to our communities to report any suspicions of modern day slavery or human trafficking so that we can protect these very vulnerable people, while making every effort to tackle any criminality involved by those facilitating their entry to our area.”
Councillor Alison Barnes, the deputy leader of Redcar and Cleveland Council and the cabinet member for children’s services, said those on the missing list had absconded from care placements during the night.
She said: “Some are trafficked and they come into Redcar and Cleveland and then disappear because they have been promised jobs and inducements to go down to London mainly.
“It can be very difficult to find these children and even if we do find them and bring them back they disappear again.”
Cllr Barnes added: “The welfare of children is paramount and our highly committed social workers and officers take their duties to asylum seeking children and refugees extremely seriously.
“We work hard to ensure that unaccompanied children are well looked after and we have many examples of children arriving, settling and doing well.
“In terms of children going missing it is a small number and we work with other agencies to try and locate them and provide support.”
‘Upsurge in notifications’
A council report said Redcar and Cleveland was an “outlier” with regard to asylum-seeking children it cared for and supported due to the proximity of Teesport.
It said there had been an “upsurge” in national referral mechanism notifications from the relevant authorities submitted for children in the borough recognised as being trafficked for the purposes of exploitation.
The report said young people waiting for asylum claims to be processed and anxious about the result could engage in “more risk-taking behaviours”.
The local authority worked closely with Cleveland Police to try and locate children who went missing, but this was often without success, it said.
The situation faced by the council recently prompted a debate among members not only about the welfare of the children in question, but the extent to which the local authority is being funded to look after unaccompanied asylum seeking children.
Cllr Barnes said: “Sometimes the costs of their accommodation exceeds the grant funding available to us.”
She said the council was currently receiving £115 per child a day to care for unaccompanied asylum seeking children from allocated Home Office funding.
But it had missed out on higher level funding available to some other areas of £148 per child a day due to a calculation of the rate of unaccompanied asylum seeking children in the borough and a “cut off date” which was applied by the Home Office at the end of March.
Cllr Barnes revealed that council leader Mary Lanigan had asked Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen to make representations to the Home Office about the financial support available and the council’s position.
The council report said the local authority could be left vulnerable financially, particularly when it came to securing accommodation for older children.
It said: “There is an increasing risk in the [children and families] service having to use independent fostering agency placements that are out of area, or high cost supported accommodation.
“Inevitably this results in a shortfall between central government funding and the actual costs of caring for the children.
“To date this hasn’t been a major financial risk for us as we are able to accommodate the majority of our unaccompanied children in local provision, within the allocated funding provided.
“But we continue to liaise closely with the Home Office around this area of vulnerability.”
Lucy Moreton, from the ISU union, told the LDRS that it shared some of the concerns being raised and also suggested not all asylum seekers entering Teesport were being identified.
She said: “Most asylum seekers encountered at Teesport have travelled in shipping containers or other freight.
“Sadly this does from time to time include children.
“Although there has been much media focus recently on those using small boats to cross the English Channel, the number of those encountered in lorries and freight [entering the UK] has also increased in the past year.
“Border Force [officers] search containers and lorries on an intelligence driven basis.
“This does inevitably mean that not all migrants using this route are identified at the port.”
Ms Moreton added: “Where an unaccompanied minor is identified it is the responsibility of the county in which they land to accommodate them.
“Although the majority of this pressure does tend to fall on Kent, Sussex and Surrey [in the south of England] any council has a risk of being asked to accommodate minors.
“There is also an issue about those who are or appear to be borderline – whether they are in fact a minor or not.
“Many councils have expressed concern about the cost of accommodating minors.
“I completely understand the local council’s position.”
‘The mind boggles’
Lucie Fleming, a caseworker with Stockton-based Justice First, which provides practical and emotional help for people who are in the final stages of the asylum process, said she was “shocked” to learn of the possibility that the missing children may have been trafficked.
She said: “It’s just awful.
“The mind boggles what human beings do to each other.
“The whole [asylum] sector is a concern from top to bottom, but in my experience the local authorities do usually step up.
“Everyone is aware of and understanding of budgets and stuff and we are all working within the constraints of the system.
“You have to have a bit of faith in it, otherwise I feel like I wouldn’t do what I do, but every day there is just something that blows your mind.
“Children are always cared for by social services and the legal aid system so they don’t really need the help of a charity like us.
“I know they’ve had real difficulties in some other areas, like Kent, where they have been overwhelmed by unaccompanied children.”
Jon Featonby, an advocacy and policy manager for refugees and asylum seekers at the British Red Cross, said: “We believe that every refugee matters and that all children must be cared for and protected, no matter where in the world they are from.
“With the Government presently overhauling the asylum system, now must be the time to create a more compassionate approach to how we treat people – especially vulnerable children – as they seek refuge here.
“We have a duty to keep vulnerable people from harm, the risks are too high not to.”
The Home Office did not respond to questions about the measures in place to manage asylum seekers attempting to enter the UK via Teesport.
But it did address the issue of unaccompanied asylum seeking children going missing from care and the funding in place for local councils.
A spokeswoman said: “A child going missing is an issue of great concern.
“We work closely across Government and with local authorities to ensure that these vulnerable children are provided with placements they need and deserve.”
The Home Office said local councils were responsible for all looked-after children in their area, including unaccompanied children arriving from overseas, and robust safeguarding procedures were in place to ensure they were safe and supported.
It said that it provided a financial contribution to local councils supporting unaccompanied asylum seeking children and also increased the funding for children previously in this category who were leaving care.
Redcar Conservative MP Jacob Young said: “It is of course right that wherever there are vulnerable people being trafficked into this country, we support them, particularly when they may be unaccompanied children.
“If there is evidence of this happening at Teesport, as there appears to be, I will work with local authorities and the Home Office to ensure we have the right systems in place to deal with it.”
Teesport, which lies less than a mile from the mouth of the River Tees, is the fifth biggest port in the UK and handles 28 million tonnes of cargo each year.
It is used to import goods into the North of England from Scandinavia, the Baltics, the Netherlands, Russia, Belgium, France, Poland and Japan, among others.
Teesport, which is operated by the company PD Ports, also has its own harbour police which supports Government Border Force staff.
A spokeswoman for PD Ports said: “All clandestine-related incidents identified by the Teesport harbour police force within our jurisdiction are passed to Border Force who are responsible for handling such matters.
“Border Force policies and procedures are entirely independent of PD Ports and set by the central Government.”
Words: Stuart Arnold, Local Democracy Reporter
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