A place of refuge

21st September 2001 at 01:00
West Sussex isn't Kent. There's no tunnel, or huge ferry terminal; so it comes as a surprise to hear that the county has a sizeable population of asylum-seekers.

"It's Gatwick," says Francesca Gray, assistant head of the county's social inclusion team. "They don't hide on planes - they go aboard with tickets and documentation."

Desperate people raise money and pay agents. Many come from Africa. Some are children.

Helen Rosenfeld, a senior advisory teacher, says: "Sometimes they come to meet a member of the family who isn't there. We've had a few cases of younger children who have arrived and the person who was due to meet them has been known as a schedule 1 offender - so social services have stepped in."

Graham Newall is the head of the county's inclusion unit.

"We have a child from Somalia who had spent four days hiding down a well alongside his mother's body," he says.

Children who arrive as part of a family are assisted by the county's ethnic minorities team. Unaccompanied children are seen by social services, then passed on to the looked-after children's team.

The county's support for these children's educational needs drew praise from Ofsted's inspectors.

Helen Rosenfeld says: "With help from the international department at Chichester College, we provided a package to teach English as an additional language. That was very successful, but we're now trying to spread that provision."

The college environment was suitable for older children, but the team was determined that younger children should have their needs met appropriately.

It's a tribute to the scheme that young people often choose to stay within a relatively monocultural environment, rather than move out.

Ms Rosenfeld says: "Sometimes children have a relative in London. But many stay with us until they find a placement. Sometimes these children wish to stay here and be fostered by West Sussex English families."

The team sees these youngsters as children first and asylum-seekers second.

"These children succeed best in schools with a good ethos and a good pastoral support system," she says.

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