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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 November, 2004, 15:51 GMT
Alone in a foreign home
By Cindi John
BBC News community affairs reporter

Selam Kidane
Selam Kidane now works with asylum-seeking children
The government has unveiled details of a new database to keep track of children who arrive in the UK alone. Selam Kidane believes such a system would have helped make her own early days in Britain a lot easier.

Selam can now smile at the situation she and her two sisters found themselves in when they came to the UK as unaccompanied children.

But she says it is a situation no child should be put in.

In 1986, Selam arrived from Ethiopia as a 16-year-old with her sisters. Because the eldest sister was 17, she says, the trio were put into a flat in west London and left to fend for themselves.

"Because my sister was 17 then she claimed benefits and we lived by ourselves.

"But 17 isn't very old to be the head of a family, especially when you come from a very sheltered upbringing where you never had to negotiate anything beyond your front door."

Life savings

The sisters were sent to Britain by their parents. They were Eritreans living in Ethiopia when a war was raging between the Ethiopian regime and Eritrean freedom fighters, says Selam.

We just got on with it but in retrospect it was a very precarious situation
Selam Kidane
Their parents were afraid the girls would be conscripted into the Ethiopian army and decided to send them to safety.

"It was very expensive and they spent most of their life savings on flights for us to the UK. It was too expensive and impractical for them to come too - we had two much younger siblings who they had to stay and care for."

Without their parents or an adult to look out for them, the young sisters made the best of a bad job, says Selam.

"We just got on with it, but in retrospect it was a very precarious situation. I remember at one point we had quite a lot of unpaid utility bills simply because we didn't know where to go or how to pay them," she recalls.

'Accommodation pressure'

Now a refugee project worker with the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), Selam wishes a system like the database unveiled on Tuesday by the government had been in place when she and her sisters arrived.


"It would have alerted social services that there were three very vulnerable young people who had just sought asylum and were on their own.

"But we did lodge asylum claims, so in a way we were known to the authorities and the system should have kicked it but it didn't," she says.

Selam says even though times have moved on, her work with BAAF means she is aware that young asylum seekers can still find themselves in a similar situation.

"I don't think our situation is that unique - I can easily see it happening to young people these days, particularly if it's a sibling group with an older child who's 18 or 19.

"I'm sure some older children are put into bed and breakfasts because of the pressure on suitable accommodation."


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