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Kahssey Desta, a scared and apprehensive 16-year-old, arrived at London’s Heathrow airport on a dark morning in September 2002 oblivious to what awaited him. Five weeks earlier, his mother had paid a man to collect him from his village in a war-torn province of Eritrea and take him across the border into Sudan to escape the mandatory military service that had seen his three brothers disappear without a trace two years before. From there he was put on a plane to the UK.

“When I landed here I was alone, but I knew if I was made to go home I would be punished and thrown in jail,” says Desta, now a bright, articulate 20-year-old, granted indefinite leave to stay by the Home Office and currently halfway through an accountancy degree. “When I arrived at Heathrow I just turned up and told them what had happened. I prayed they wouldn’t send me back.”

His story is repeated day after day as unaccompanied children – terrified, often traumatised and speaking no English – arrive at airports across the UK. Desta is just one of the young asylum seekers looked after by Hillingdon council, a local authority in west London that, because of its proximity to Heathrow, the largest airport in Europe, is responsible for more than one-third of all unaccompanied minors arriving here.

The problem for public services posed by these young asylum seekers, according to Hillingdon, is not the number entering the UK – which is falling year on year – but the concentration. The average council has a duty of care to 50 young asylum seekers, but Hillingdon is responsible for around 1,140 and is warning that it is nearing financial crisis as a consequence.

Click here to read the rest of the article, which appeared in The GuardianĀ“s Society section in January 2007

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