Independent Guardian Service marks a year of helping children in desperation
There is a boy in Northern Ireland who arrived here recently, a victim of human trafficking.
For part of his journey he travelled with a friend. One day that friend was shot dead in front of him.
Traffickers forced the boy to sleep beside his friend’s corpse. Forced him to sleep in his friend’s blood. The next morning they made him take the corpse outside and dig a grave.
This boy is now in NI, and in full-time education. He has been able to make contact with his siblings, back in his country of origin.
He still struggles with trauma and he will need ongoing help and guidance for a long time – however, he is now in a position where he can receive that care.
All this has been achieved with support from the Independent Guardian Service (IGS), operated by Barnardo’s NI.
The IGS was established just over a year ago. The service was mandated under the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (NI) Act 2015 and came into effect in April 2018. Barnardo’s is contracted by the Health and Social Care Board to provide the service.
Several children arrive here as unaccompanied minors or via trafficking every year. Their stories can be similar but are never the same.
In its first year, the service helped a total of 55 children and young people who either arrived in Northern Ireland alone or were victims of human trafficking. Not all arrived in those 12 months - some were already living in NI when the service was established and immediately required its support.
The IGS was established out of need. In NI there is little historical experience of both recognising the signs of human trafficking or of meeting the needs of children who arrive here unaccompanied.
The 2015 act safeguards the rights of unaccompanied minors and establishes a dedicated role for Independent Guardians.
The role is, in one sense, easy to understand. The name is perfectly descriptive. These adults act as guardians and they have to be independent of government.
When the IGS was launched, HSCB Commissioning Lead Deirdre Coyle said: “Independent Guardians will undertake a crucial role for children who are victims or potential victims of trafficking and those who are separated. These children often face great anxiety and uncertainty about their futures and must also navigate a number of unfamiliar processes to reach durable solutions about their future.
“The regional Independent Guardian Service is intended to strengthen the safeguarding arrangements to such children and specifically to assist, represent and support such children by listening to their views and making representation to, and liaising closely with, all other agencies that fulfil key functions in the arrangements for their immediate and future care and protection.”
Barnardo’s NI is a large local charity that was well placed to handle this. It works with over 11,000 children, young people and families in NI and has over 40 services offering assistance in all aspects of life.
Work of Independent Guardians
The Independent Guardians are highly trained and experienced social workers and their role is to ensure all the child’s needs are met.
They guide and support young people through the complex and stressful asylum process and ensure they have a legal representative with extensive experience in immigration and asylum work. Barnardo's marked the first anniversary of the service with a video outlining how it works and why it is so important.
The majority of these children and young people have been through incredibly traumatic experiences.
Many have been travelling for several years and some have been exploited by traffickers, during their journey to the safety of the UK. In other cases they have been internally trafficked within the UK.
Head of Barnardo’s NI, Michele Janes said: “Once we receive a phone call that a child or young person has been identified as being ‘unaccompanied’ and/or trafficked, one of our Independent Guardians will be by their side within 24 hours, no matter where in Northern Ireland that may be.
“Our main concern is the safeguarding and welfare of the child and we act as a voice, to represent their views, wishes and needs.
“Those first few days are about trying to settle a young person, to build a relationship and to reassure them that they are now safe. A pivotal part of our role is supporting that child or young person to start to disclose the harrowing details of their experiences and providing them with a safe space to do this. These children are simply striving for the same freedom as you and I have.”
The work of the Independent Guardians is invaluable.
These children who arrive in NI could be fleeing horrors at home, might not want to be here, or both. They might speak little or no English.
Thankfully, anyone in these circumstances now can rely on dedicated help, guidance and advocacy as they try to rebuild their young life.
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