On the surface Tunde Jaji’s is like many other boys of his age. A keen skateboarder, at twenty he is keen to make a path for himself in the world although he is still unsure of what that might be.
Tunde’s complicated circumstances seem to have arisen since he was sixteen. It was then that he’d fallen out with the people who had had him in their home since he was at primary school. They were not his natural family and they could not (or would not) provide him with documentation to show who he was or how he came to be here in London.
Despite being profoundly dyslexic, by last summer Tunde had worked his way through a BTech qualification at Barnet College and earned himself a place at University to study animation. It was then that his serious problems began.
Assuming that he would be entitled to a Student Loan he applied to his local education authority, Haringey. The education department politely, but firmly, refused him access to state funds because he could not provide evidence of his legitimate status in the UK. For Tunde and his carer this was little short of a bombshell.
He had similar difficulties trying to set up a bank account, was refused any form of benefits and ruled out of assistance with housing. To all intents and purposes he did not exist and despite being in London since he was six, was told he would have to refer to the immigration authorities who may well incarcerate him in a detention centre and consider him for deportation.
At 20 he was no longer subject to the care of children’s services and as an adult he would be subject to the same immigration rules as anyone else. Of course the big question he kept asking was: why was he in this situation. Why had his carers not regularised his status.
This was a question that those carers have been unwilling to answer. These so-called carers were also unable or unwilling to provide Tunde with paperwork to establish his identity to the satisfaction of the state. Potentially this robs him of his means of being in the UK legitimately.
Anecdotally I’d heard of similar cases in the past where children were trafficked into the UK from West Africa and used as domestic servants and wondered if Tunde’s case bore similarities to these. It’s not uncommon for children of poorer parents in West African countries like Nigeria to place their children in private foster care arrangements in Europe.
Tunde’s case was peculiar because he had been told since he was small that both his parents were dead although this turned out to be untrue. Only his mother had died and this when he was 15. I approached an organisation called AFRUCA (Africans Unite Against Child Abuse), to see if they had heard of similar cases.
Debbie Ariyo of AFRUCA had seen a number of cases of young adults who had found themselves in similar circumstances after having been in London for over a decade. The pattern was familiar brought into the country as children of persons not their parents (i.e. illegally) and then at between 16 and 18 kicked out onto the streets to fend for themselves.
There is some evidence to suggest that this happens when young people no longer bring state benefits into the household.
Although difficult to prove, in recent years the numbers of young people reported to have no papers that have either ended up in prison or in mental health facilities has risen. Perhaps unsurprisingly when there are few legitimate means of fending for yourself, many have perhaps gravitated into criminality.
It is a hidden problem. The state does not know how many people there are currently in these circumstances.
live in terror
Since the death of Victoria Climbie, child protection measures should have made private fostering arrangements more transparent. However the reality is that social services rely on early warning signals from schools and there is no guarantee that a child’s home circumstances will be fully appreciated. Often the problems are only identified when it is already too late.
Two brothers I have come into contact with and who are now in their early twenties have found themselves in similar circumstances to that of Tunde. The circumstances in which they were brought to Britain and then according to their testimony abused by a series of carers are altogether more disturbing. They live in terror of revealing their identity to anyone official.
Neither brother feels they were able to work fruitfully through school and the younger of the two has symptoms of a serious mental health crisis. This may well be attributable to the precarious circumstances. Neither young man is able to work legitimately nor do they have any fixed accommodation rather they rely on a network of friends to keep a roof over their itinerant heads whilst living in constant fear of discovery.
All three of these young men believe they have reason to fear the authorities. They may not have done anything wrong but their very circumstances could lead to them being deported to a country they cannot remember and away from the only friends they have ever known.
They cannot work legitimately nor claim benefits. They are in principle and in practice vulnerable to those who would abuse them. They cannot get protection from the law or assistance from any other official agency. They are in an unimaginable limbo.
Those who bring children into Britain and then abandon them without paperwork would have trouble explaining to the authorities that they are not traffickers. At present those found guilty of trafficking people into the UK can face imprisonment of up to 14 years.
In October the Home Office set up the Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield. Its new head, Detective Chief Superintendent Nick Kinsella says finally the state recognises there is a problem of child trafficking into the UK although they are unclear on the scale or the principal purposes of such a trade.
Using the logic that creating a victim centred approach will help eventually to undermine the large organised criminal networks responsible for the trafficking of humans the UKHTC aims to put in place a state response to avoid the “limbo land” that someone like Tunde occupies.
For this strategy to work there needs to be a greater degree of confidence amongst victims of trafficking that the authorities will not simply deport them to their country of origin irrespective of the circumstances which brought them to the capital.
For the moment Tunde’s circumstances are not looking entirely bleak. BBC London has been able to track down a birth certificate after identifying his birthplace in Nigeria. Through our investigations we also discovered that Primary School records showed he had been in the country for fourteen years. This entitles him to apply for legal status because he has been in the country for fourteen years or more.
Hearing of his difficult circumstances the University has offered to keep his place open pending future funding once his status is regularised. Tunde has now asked the Home Office, with the help of a lawyer at the Immigration Advisory Service, to give him permanent leave to remain in the UK. He may yet get student finance if his circumstances are regularised.
The other two men also have applications pending with the Home Office. However, there can be no guarantees any of the men will be given indefinite leave to remain.
All three young men are modern examples of people robbed of legitimate identities. This appears to have happened to ensure that they fulfil the functions of domestic service, or whatever purposes the carers deem fit, as they grow up.
These practices may be seen by some as culturally specific; a fair trade for raising a child who is not your own, in exchange for the chance of a more prosperous life in the rich world. It remains illegal to abuse children in this way.
Although the State sees this treatment of children as illegal if it is not aware of the scale of the problem until these people present themselves as serious issues once they are adults it begs the question: who is defending the best interests of these children?
In these circumstances it may be fair to ask is slavery in our great capital city really over?