The UK immigration authority has defended its procedures following claims it could do more to protect children brought to the UK from abroad.
In a Newsnight probe, welfare groups criticised the failure of the UK Border Agency to tell all adults accompanying children about private fostering law.
They said this left many children unregistered and vulnerable to abuse.
But the UK Border Agency (UKBA) said it was better to look for signs of risk and then make direct intervention.
Research shows there are at least 10,000 children in Britain, many from West Africa, growing up in informal fostering arrangements unknown to local authorities.
The law requires guardians to notify their local council of the arrangement, but few do.
Legislation since the death in 2000 of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie, who was brought to Britain from the Ivory Coast and tortured for months by her great-aunt and her partner in north London, also requires local authorities to spread awareness of the rules.
But that obligation does not extend to the UKBA, which says it does not generally inform adults accompanying children of the law.
Savita de Sousa of the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) described that failure as “absolutely shocking”.
Debbie Ariyo, head of the voluntary agency Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca), which works to reduce the abuse of African children in Britain, said the lack of UKBA oversight was “a huge gap in terms of protection”.
“That’s probably one of the reasons why the local authorities are not aware, obviously, and can’t monitor the children,” she added.
But Lin Homer, head of the UKBA, told Newsnight current immigration procedures were more than adequate.
“The way we’ve gone about this is to train our staff to look for signs of risk and then make a direct and specific intervention,” she said. “We think that is better way of keeping children safe than a general warning.”
She added that last year in Nigeria, UKBA staff turned down more than 40% of applications for unaccompanied children to travel.
Godwin Morka, of the Nigerian government’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (Naptip), said he accepted the UKBA had become more rigorous than before in checking the relationship between children and accompanying adults.
But he added that “most of the time” such adults and children were “not even related at all”.
“They just bring someone they want to work in the house,” he said.
As part of its investigation, Newsnight traced the journey of one young Nigerian, Tunde Jaji, now 24, who was brought to London when he was five years old to live with a woman he called his “aunt”. Years later, he discovered they were not related.
Mr Jaji said his “aunt” lied to him by telling him both his parents were dead and he described how she used to hit him, verbally abuse him, and force him to perform chores she did not demand of her own children.
His local authority, Haringey in London, apparently never suspected that he was being privately fostered, Newsnight found.
This was despite the fact that the given names of his carers on various documents did not match, and the fact that the family was contacted several times by social services for other reasons.
Haringey Council said it had improved its monitoring procedures since then.
The Department for Education, which is responsible for child protection, also said it was looking at what more could be done to increase the number of privately fostered children known to local authorities.
But Andy Elvin, head of another welfare agency, Children and Families Across Borders, warned: “If Victoria Climbie was coming over today, in exactly the same way, she would get through the border in exactly the same way – and the questions that weren’t asked then wouldn’t be asked now.”
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