Number of missing children falls as new policies adopted


ANALYSIS:HSE reforms dealing with unaccompanied children seeking asylum appear to be working, writes JAMIE SMYTH

ALIYA FLED the civil war in Somalia at the age of 16 years without her parents and arrived in Ireland to claim asylum in 2007.

She is one of about 6,000 unaccompanied children who have arrived in the country seeking refuge in the last 10 years. Yet when she arrived she was placed by the Health Service Executive (HSE) in a hostel with no supervision at night and very little support even though she couldn’t speak a word of English and didn’t know anyone.

“For me it was very hard because I couldn’t speak the language. It took me at least one and half years to settle in,” says Aliya, who has benefited from support from the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

When she first arrived Aliya didn’t even know she was in Ireland. “The man who brought me here just told me we had arrived in Europe,” she says.

Aliya, who now lives safely in an asylum hostel for adults in the Dublin area, is luckier than the 512 unaccompanied children who have gone missing while in State care between 2000 and 2010.

Other children from Somalia have gone missing while living in the hostels. The list of missing children includes Chinese, Nigerian, Romanian, Moldovan, Afghans and Congolese. Just 72 of the 512 children have been found and no one knows if they are alive or dead or if they are still in Ireland.

State agencies point out that some children may go missing because they are nearing 18 years of age and their asylum applications have been rejected. Some may also have been smuggled into the country to join the workforce on a consensual basis or are the victims of traffickers using the child-protection system as an easy access point.

But studies by Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan and the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency identify unaccompanied children as an extremely vulnerable group, who may be victims of trafficking for sexual or other exploitation.

Logan highlighted the HSE’s failure to provide these children with a dedicated social worker or require trained staff to work at the hostels as key problems that added to these children’s vulnerability.

Even the HSE’s assistant national director for children and families, Phil Garland, admitted last year that the policy of treating foreign children differently to Irish children in the care system, was probably racist.

Since then a range of reforms have been introduced under an equity of care plan aimed at providing additional support to unaccompanied children claiming asylum and reducing the numbers going missing each year.

The HSE and the Garda agreed a joint national protocol on children who go missing from care and several measures were introduced to address the specific issue of unaccompanied children. This included better surveillance by gardaí when children arrive at ports, fingerprinting and collaborative interviews involving both social workers and gardaí.

From the start of last year all unaccompanied children under 12 years of age were placed with foster parents. The HSE also contracted the charity Crosscare to provide dedicated care staff to supervise in all the hostels accommodating the children seeking asylum.

The new strategy culminated in the closure of the two last remaining hostels for unaccompanied children at the end of December.

The HSE now aims to provide all unaccompanied children with a place in a residential care home or a foster placement with a dedicated social worker.

The sharply reduced numbers of unaccompanied children going missing in 2010 suggests the new policies may be working and providing better support for some of the most vulnerable children in the State. Whether the 440 unaccompanied children who are still missing will ever be accounted for is a different matter entirely.