I was interviewing ten foster parents in west London for a report on children in care. Foster parents are in great demand, so I was startled to discover that only one of the sets of parents was looking after the sort of vulnerable children you imagine to be in the care system. The others were looking after unaccompanied asylum-seeker children.
They made an alarming claim: three of these seemed to be adults passing themselves off as boys. ‘The first thing they ask for is a razor,’ said one foster parent, ‘They’ve got these big beards.’ A woman admitted she found it embarrassing having a grown man posing as a 17-year-old. But the authorities appeared uninterested. ‘Our concerns are just fobbed off,’ said another.
…The truth is, nobody arrives in this country without the help of a people trafficker. This means it is the people traffickers who control our immigration system — not the Home Office. It is they who dictate who comes here. Refugees who cannot afford to pay never make it. If we really want to help the vulnerable, we should be taking children directly from refugee camps.
…As one immigration officer at a busy UK airport with 20 years’ experience of dealing with refugee children explained to me: ‘Ninety per cent of them are not orphans. Their coming here is very well worked out. Their families have paid the people traffickers to bring them here. The intention is for the families to follow shortly after. These are cash-rich young people.’
…The immigration officer is frustrated because he knows by sight many of the ‘facilitators’ or people traffickers. These are often young men on benefits who appear mysteriously able to travel ten times a year to Dubai and Africa. They charge a high price for a personalised service in which they accompany the young migrants on the plane before leaving them at the terminal. But the traffickers have British or EU passports. ‘I have no power to stop a British citizen longer than five minutes otherwise my bosses upstairs will kick off. I can do nothing without the traffickers’ permission. Nothing — and they know that.’
Despite the security threat, few in authority appear willing to tackle the problem. When a Conservative MP suggested checking the age of young asylum seekers with dental or X-ray tests of the hand to measure bone density, he was accused of ‘vilifying’ refugees. Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said medical tests would be ‘very intrusive and could be re-traumatising’.