Missing Spotlight


Missing

Peter Coulter investigates how many children, separated from their families after fleeing their home countries, have disappeared in Northern Ireland.


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Transcript


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In 2011, Nadra Ali, a 16-year-old Somali girl,

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arrived in Northern Ireland - alone.

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She was placed in care in east Belfast.

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Just 18 days later, she vanished.

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These CCTV pictures from the Belfast Islamic Centre

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are the last known images of Nadra Ali.

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She is still missing.

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This is the man who alerted me to her story, Suleiman Abdullahi.

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He, like Nadra, fled the Somali Civil War,

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that's raged for 25 years.

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In January 2012, he met Nadra for the first and last time,

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outside the Belfast Islamic Centre.

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I spoke to her in Somali language and she spoke to me.

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And I said, "Are you new?" And she said, "Yes, in Belfast."

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And I said, "When did you come?"

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And she said, "Very recently."

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I know you only met her very, very briefly, but what was she like?

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She was a very pretty girl. A young girl.

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She had a headscarf, at the time, and was dressing in a Somali way.

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Slim build.

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Did she seem scared, or frightened of anything to you?

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No, she seemed to me very happy,

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liked the people she was with,

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and smiling.

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Suleiman learnt that Nadra was with a foster family in Castlereagh.

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Then, later that day,

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she vanished.

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What happened to her, nobody knows.

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Suleiman saw this missing appeal for Nadra.

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When I heard the news,

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I just...

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..shocked.

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But shock turned to worry when he googled the story,

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to find Nadra wasn't the first Somali girl to go missing.

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The first keyword I put was,

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"Somali girl missing in Belfast".

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And then there was another girl in 2005.

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And then I found out that that other girl was never found.

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That girl is Zahra Abdi.

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She went missing from care aged just 14.

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Over a decade later, no-one knows where she is either.

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Suleiman felt not enough was being done to try and find either girl.

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He contacted me. I checked the PSNI missing list.

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Neither girl was there.

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I first contacted the police back on the 26th May last year,

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about the two girls, but it took them more than two weeks

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to be able to confirm that Nadra and Zhara still haven't been found.

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As the girls were under 18 and alone,

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they were classed as separated children

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and would have been in the care of the local health trust.

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I've been in contact with the Belfast Trust

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for more than a year now and, in that time,

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all they've told me is that one of the girls was in their care.

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Here's more than a dozen e-mails that I've sent them,

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on top of countless calls, trying to get more information.

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And yet all they keep saying to me is that they can't tell me

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any more because of client confidentiality and data protection.

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And, in all that time, Nadra and Zahra are still missing.

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As no-one will give us answers, I begin to put in dozens

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of freedom of information requests,

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asking hundreds of questions,

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meaning the authorities are legally obliged

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to hand over the information.

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It seems scandalous that no-one is actively looking for these

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two girls, and I'm going to try to find them myself.

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I start with Nadra. I know she was with a foster family.

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The charity Barnardo's run many foster placements

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across Northern Ireland. Will they know Nadra's?

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I first contact Barnardo's back in March this year,

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and initially they say that no children have gone missing.

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But then, a few weeks later, I get an e-mail saying,

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"It has since come to our attention...

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They say new managers

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and systems meant I'd been sent inaccurate information.

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Confusion over facts

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and, crucially, figures, would characterise much of my search.

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I ask the Belfast Trust if I can meet Nadra's foster family.

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They say no.

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But the police tell me some curious facts.

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When Nadra went missing, she had 40 cigarettes

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and a pack of clean underwear with her,

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but she didn't take her toothbrush.

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They add, they have her DNA from a strand of hair.

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There seems little other trace of Nadra.

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As the girls were Muslim, I go to see Brenda Skillen

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from the Muslim Family Association.

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-Hi, Peter.

-Hi, Brenda.

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-If you don't mind to take your shoes off.

-Oh, yeah, no problem.

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Do you know many of the Somali community?

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I know a few Somalian community.

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I've seen the photos of the girls.

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They weren't familiar to myself,

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and when you pass that to me,

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I'll share it with them and see if anybody has seen the girls.

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Brenda invites us to Friday prayers, where around 400 people,

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many of them Somali, will gather.

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We begin designing a missing poster, explaining what we're doing.

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Shall we try the writing a bit bigger?

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'The photos are from the original police appeals.'

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Could we put them in caps? Yeah. That's it.

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'It needs to be in three languages and, while making it,

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'we discover some fundamental problems

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'with the original search for the girls.'

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'Their names are spelt wrongly.'

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Sorted?

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The Somalis we talked to all tell us that the

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letter 'z' is never followed by the letter 'h' in their language.

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The name of the girl they were looking for couldn't possibly

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have been Zhara spelt "Zh".

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They also tell us that Nadra's middle name isn't Somali.

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It suggests their names weren't taken down correctly.

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Zahra's photo is of really bad quality, but it's all I have.

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I knock doors on the last known street where she was staying.

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She was placed in a B&B, but it's no longer there.

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We know she made a few friends in the three months

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she was in Northern Ireland.

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Is she someone that you recognise?

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No, not at all. Good luck in finding her, anyway, guys.

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Cheers, thank you.

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We know she kept her clothes in a black bin bag,

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but when she went missing, the bag had no clothes, just towels in it.

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-Do you recognise her?

-No, I've never seen that girl before.

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And how long have you lived on the street?

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I've lived about 40 years on this street.

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But I don't recognise that girl.

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Dressed like that there, you'd probably remember.

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We also know her friends said she use a phone box,

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and would sometimes hang up when people got close.

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Who was she calling?

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We discover it took two days for her to be reported missing.

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Why did the authorities not realise she had gone?

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PRAYER IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE

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I take up Brenda's offer of spreading the word at prayers.

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PRAYER IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE

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THEY CHANT

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We're making a programme about two Somali girls that are missing.

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-They've gone missing?

-Yeah.

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So we're trying to see

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-if we can get any information about trying to find them.

-Can I get a...?

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Do you mind if I take a photo and post it on Facebook,

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saying that two girls are missing?

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I'm overwhelmed by the positive interest in our appeal,

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and surprised by who I then meet.

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First time I saw this girl

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was working at immigration, that worked in the outreach.

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-So you've met this girl before?

-Yes.

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OK, and what was she like?

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She was a young girl who just came to the country.

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You're actually the first person

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-that we've met that has met Zahra Abdi.

-No, I...

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Kamal seemed a great lead. I met up with him later.

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The police had told me they didn't know how

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Zahra entered the country. Did he know how she got here?

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She was saying that she came in a boat,

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and then a truck, to come to Belfast,

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but she said that they gave her an overall and a bucket and a brush,

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like she's one of the cleaners, till she got into the boat.

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She said that her uncle

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paid the agent to bring her over.

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-To bring her to Northern Ireland, or to...?

-No.

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No, no, to take her to a safe country.

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She didn't know that she's in Northern Ireland.

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How did she seem when you met her?

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She was really scared from something.

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Tears coming from her eyes.

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But she didn't really say at that time.

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Gary Reid from the PSNI's Organised Crime Branch

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reviewed the cases of both girls earlier this year.

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Zahra presented herself here with no papers.

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She'd come from Mogadishu,

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and she was being looked after by the health trust.

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And she went missing then about three months after that, in June.

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Now, that's when the police got involved.

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All children who arrive here alone,

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like Zahra and Nadra,

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are termed "separated children", and are placed in care.

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A separated child or young person is someone who comes to

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Northern Ireland totally alone.

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They're completely bewildered by this system.

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What role does the state take on and what does that involved?

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Well, the state them becomes their parent.

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Last year, more than one million migrants

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and refugees crossed into Europe.

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Among them, thousands of separated children.

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The Prime Minister says we've already taken in many of them.

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We've got 2,500 unaccompanied children came

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to Britain last year, who we're looking after.

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The Northern Ireland Executive is considering what help to offer.

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Labour's Yvette Cooper is leading the charge to bring in more.

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Urgent question. Yvette Cooper.

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300 children by the beginning of the next school year.

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I meet her just after her speech.

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She's pleased more children are coming in,

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but is worried that those who make it here might then go missing.

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I mean, look, they're about the same age as my children.

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We, all of us, I think, as parents, would be appalled

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to have a 14-year-old girl missing.

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What would you like to see happen now?

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Well, I think you need local authorities to take responsibility,

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but also the police to take responsibility.

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You can't see these as immigration cases.

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It's a serious child protection issue.

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So, how many separated children have gone missing in Northern Ireland?

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It appears there are no official figures,

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so I start trying to add them up.

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The numbers are there,

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in reports and written questions in Stormont.

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They appear to show that nine have gone missing since 2012.

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Aidan McQuade believes a double standard is operating.

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If it was local kids, this would be a national scandal.

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It would be a scandal across these islands.

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The fact that we can be indifferent

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to kids who are

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from somewhere else going missing,

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I think that's arguably worse.

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I ask the Health And Social Care Board

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if nine children have gone missing, and they ask me to meet with them.

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So, I went into this meeting hoping to come out with a clear idea

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of the number of children who'd gone missing.

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Now, they say three children have gone missing since 2012,

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and that doesn't tally with our figures.

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Then they asked us where we got our figures from.

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But the irony is, those figures came from their own reports.

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As they'd asked to see where I found my information,

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I print out their own reports and take some copies round to them.

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Hi, there. I'm Peter Coulter, I'm filming with the BBC.

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We've been asked to drop in copies of these reports.

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Jim Gamble, the former head of the Child Protection Unit, CEOP,

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is highly critical of the Trust's confusion over numbers.

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It's inexcusable.

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If the trusts don't know how many children, you know,

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who were unaccompanied children, are now in their care

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and how many have gone missing, well, you couldn't excuse that.

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I would expect the Trust to be able to articulate that position

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to you in the same way as I'd expect a parent who has a family

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of five or six or seven children to know where their children were.

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That isn't acceptable.

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Suleiman, one of the last people to see Nadra, is eager to help us.

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He feels great empathy for the girls who, like him, fled Somalia.

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-TALKING TO CHILD:

-Window. Of the house?

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When civil war broke out in Somalia, Suleiman had two choices -

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fight for his tribe, or leave everything.

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It's obvious the pain of leaving his home and family has never gone away.

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You can imagine that I have my dad, my sisters,

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my brothers live in Somalia,

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and they still keep calling me back, even to go back and see them,

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touch them, physically. So that's very difficult.

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Is it hard for you that they're still there?

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It's very hard.

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Suleiman understands people go missing in Somalia,

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but he can't understand how children could have gone missing here.

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Jim Gamble believes the way the authorities file

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and deal with a missing separated child report

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is fundamentally flawed.

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So, this system doesn't work, and once the children...

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the report is made, once they're put on the website,

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I believe there is a vacuum, because the agencies

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and the organisations involved in this work go back to their day jobs.

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Nobody is actually out there looking for these kids,

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and over the years they've been away,

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what fresh work has been done?

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What fresh appeals have gone out?

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We decide to do our own appeal.

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Suleiman says the radio is a vital way that Somali families,

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torn apart by the war, trace each other.

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So, Suleiman, how important is radio in Somali culture?

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It's very important

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because after the Civil War,

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it was the only source of information.

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Nearly two million people listen

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to the BBC Somali service in Somalia alone,

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but it's listened to across the world.

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THEY SPEAK IN OWN LANGUAGE

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So, we are glad to have you here at the BBC Somali service.

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Peter, could you please tell us first of all

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what this programme's about, and those Somali missing girls.

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All we really want to know is that they are safe, that they are alive.

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We just want some kind of proof of life that they're OK.

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That's the most important thing to us.

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Reaction is immediate.

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-BBC Somali have already put the post on Facebook.

-Yeah.

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And more than 60 people have already commented on it. It's incredible.

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Yes, I'm quite actually optimistic about this.

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Chloe Setter, an expert in child trafficking, isn't so positive.

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Her organisation identified something quite startling.

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There were 13 cases of alleged child trafficking

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in Northern Ireland last year.

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What we have now is modern slavery,

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and traffickers are using modern technology, modern methods,

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in order to exploit people, and it might not be as visible

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as people in chains, but people are enslaved in our society now.

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People are enslaved in Northern Ireland.

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She can't say Nadra or Zahra were trafficked, but she thinks

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it's important someone finds out what has happened to them.

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Suleiman and I went to Shepherd's Bush

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where there is a big Somali community.

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We're told that there's another vital clue that has been missed.

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Without having a middle name, they don't know who you are.

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I think it's very important because it's part of our culture.

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Through father, grandad.

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So, that's how we sort of identify who you are.

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If we had more than the three names,

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if we had, let us say, five names, of these young ladies,

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there might be a big possibility, some big chance,

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that we could identify exactly who they are.

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If this was any other scenario,

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would they have got something as important as a name wrong?

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Those are very important details. If you're looking for somebody,

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you need to get that kind of information correct.

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And if enough effort wasn't put into ensuring that the name was correct,

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how much effort was really put into looking for these people?

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They agree to help us spread the word,

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even uploading the appeal to Snapchat.

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We found out about Nadra and Zahra, who were last seen

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in Belfast, and we want to get the message out there on social media.

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Solicitor Fidelma O'Hagan represents separated children.

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She believes the majority don't make it here alone.

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It is predominantly, without question,

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the involvement of an adult who has facilitated or assisted them

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-in that route for whatever reason.

-In a sinister way?

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Without question of a doubt.

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As a solicitor who represents a lot of these children,

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is it worrying for you that some of your clients are going missing

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-and enough is being done?

-I think it's absolutely shocking.

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The traffickers consider the children to be commodities.

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Traffickers will always be one step ahead

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of the law enforcement agencies,

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and I think that's probably got something to do with

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why we see a rise in numbers coming in here.

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Could Zahra have been trafficked? The police have no evidence.

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Is that a possibility that she was trafficked?

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Yes, it was a possibility.

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Equally, it was a possibility that she came into the country

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and has gone off with friends somewhere else.

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We don't have evidence to prove or disprove either of those

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particular hypotheses.

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The little that's known of Nadra's story, that she

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had cigarettes and clean underwear with her,

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could be seen as an indicator that she expected to leave.

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What that would suggest to me is,

0:19:520:19:55

this girl knew she was about to move, she knew

0:19:550:19:58

she was about to go somewhere else, so she had prepared for that move.

0:19:580:20:02

I'm not suggesting that she agreed,

0:20:020:20:04

or was complicit, that she'd given her consent to move,

0:20:040:20:07

but actually she had prepared for the move herself.

0:20:070:20:10

So she knew. That would imply that

0:20:100:20:12

there's a third party who has influence

0:20:120:20:14

over her movements, so to be able to direct

0:20:140:20:17

and control where she was going to go and when.

0:20:170:20:20

And Zahra?

0:20:210:20:22

The police tell us she had been in contact with a health spa

0:20:220:20:25

that may have operated as a brothel.

0:20:250:20:28

The police went to the home of a man connected with it,

0:20:280:20:31

but he had gone when they got there.

0:20:310:20:34

Do you think that Zahra was trying to reach a brothel there?

0:20:340:20:39

We have nothing to suggest that,

0:20:390:20:40

other than a telephone call that came back to what was

0:20:400:20:43

described to us as a health spa type area,

0:20:430:20:46

with possibility of it being run as a brothel at times.

0:20:460:20:51

We went there and we looked at it. It was searched by the police.

0:20:510:20:55

She wasn't there.

0:20:550:20:58

As I say, that line of inquiry went cold for us.

0:20:580:21:01

Why she had that number, where she got back from, that remains

0:21:010:21:05

a mystery to us till today and, certainly, it was never

0:21:050:21:08

indicated, during that three-month period that she was here,

0:21:080:21:11

to her social worker,

0:21:110:21:13

that she was being trafficked in any shape or form.

0:21:130:21:15

But is it not a bit strange that a young teenage Muslim girl

0:21:150:21:20

would be making contact with a place like that?

0:21:200:21:23

I suppose when you sit back and look at it, yes, that is correct.

0:21:240:21:28

There does appear to be another lead from the Somali appeal.

0:21:280:21:32

Yesterday morning, I woke up to this interesting e-mail.

0:21:320:21:35

It's from a guy from Northern Ireland who lives in Kenya,

0:21:350:21:38

which is just across the border from Somalia.

0:21:380:21:41

He saw our appeal on the BBC Somali service website

0:21:410:21:44

and got in touch to offer his help.

0:21:440:21:47

He works as an interpreter for the Somali delegation

0:21:470:21:49

for the International Committee Of The Red Cross.

0:21:490:21:52

And they do a lot of tracing for families who become separated

0:21:520:21:55

due to the conflict.

0:21:550:21:57

Now, what are the chances of finding someone from Northern Ireland

0:21:570:22:01

who speaks Somali, who might be able to help us

0:22:010:22:04

get some information about the missing girls' families?

0:22:040:22:07

He later agrees to talk to me in a personal capacity on Skype.

0:22:090:22:13

But David appears to end any hope I have of finding the girls.

0:22:130:22:18

He tells us of the vital importance

0:22:180:22:20

of knowing the girls' tribal background,

0:22:200:22:23

another key fact we just don't have.

0:22:230:22:26

Only having their first name

0:22:270:22:29

and their second name isn't a lot of information to go on.

0:22:290:22:34

In the Somali context, it's very important that you have the details

0:22:340:22:39

of their tribe,

0:22:390:22:40

because that's the way the Somalis connect with each other.

0:22:400:22:44

Aidan McQuade believes the police have questions to answer.

0:22:440:22:47

Well, I suspect this may be an issue for the police ombudsman,

0:22:470:22:50

to look at the failings or otherwise within the investigation.

0:22:500:22:56

Given the information that we had

0:22:560:22:58

and leads that we had in and around that,

0:22:580:23:00

I'm confident that the investigation teams that were dealing with

0:23:000:23:03

it at that particular time exhausted every avenue of the investigation.

0:23:030:23:08

The police acknowledge failings in how

0:23:100:23:12

they engaged with the Somali community.

0:23:120:23:15

We have spoken to Somalis across the UK,

0:23:150:23:18

and they said to us that the

0:23:180:23:21

name "Zhara", Z-H-A-R-A,

0:23:210:23:23

can't possibly be spelt in that way.

0:23:230:23:26

They've said that an 'h' ever follows a 'z' in Somali,

0:23:260:23:30

and that Nadra's middle name, Sharis, is not a Somali word.

0:23:300:23:34

We are a learning organisation.

0:23:340:23:35

We're learning all the time and, certainly,

0:23:350:23:38

we didn't endeavour to look at the diversity issues around that,

0:23:380:23:42

but certainly it never came

0:23:420:23:43

up during our investigation that the spelling of this was...

0:23:430:23:46

it couldn't have been that.

0:23:460:23:48

So there was no direct approach to the Somali community

0:23:480:23:50

-until we approached you about the cases?

-No, there wasn't.

0:23:500:23:54

Where do you think the girls might be now?

0:23:540:23:56

I wish I knew the answer to that question.

0:23:570:24:00

Jim Gamble believes it is the trusts who have a case to answer.

0:24:000:24:03

Actually, when a child has been identified,

0:24:030:24:06

when we know they're vulnerable,

0:24:060:24:07

that's when I think we lose any excuse

0:24:070:24:10

about the difficulties that surround us.

0:24:100:24:13

We ask to interview the directors of the Belfast And Southern Trust,

0:24:130:24:16

and the director of the Health And Social Care Board,

0:24:160:24:19

to explain why children had gone missing under their watch.

0:24:190:24:24

They declined.

0:24:240:24:25

Deirdre Coyle was put forward,

0:24:250:24:27

but we were told she couldn't answer questions on behalf

0:24:270:24:30

of the Belfast or Southern Trust,

0:24:300:24:32

or any questions about Nadra or Zahra.

0:24:320:24:35

Five other representatives from the Health And Social Care Board

0:24:350:24:38

stayed in the room while the interview took place.

0:24:380:24:41

I'm going to show you two pictures.

0:24:410:24:43

This is Nadra and Zahra,

0:24:430:24:47

the two girls that went missing.

0:24:470:24:49

We've been told that you won't answer any questions about them.

0:24:490:24:53

Is that acceptable, that we still can't get

0:24:530:24:56

any accountability for these two girls?

0:24:560:24:59

I think what I would say...

0:24:590:25:01

you've already raised this in terms of...it's not my...

0:25:010:25:04

It was the board who said three children were missing.

0:25:090:25:12

Of the nine we told them about, one turned out to be aged 18.

0:25:120:25:16

The board's now checked its figures

0:25:160:25:19

right back to when Zahra disappeared.

0:25:190:25:22

Since Zahra Abdi went missing on the 20th June, 2005,

0:25:220:25:26

how many children have gone missing in Northern Ireland?

0:25:260:25:29

I would say that eight children went missing

0:25:290:25:32

and remain missing.

0:25:320:25:34

Behind all of these numbers,

0:25:340:25:36

there's an individual life, a child's life,

0:25:360:25:39

which we take extremely seriously.

0:25:390:25:43

Our efforts, at this time,

0:25:430:25:45

are concentrated on preventing

0:25:450:25:48

these children going missing.

0:25:480:25:50

Preventing it ever happening.

0:25:500:25:53

From the 1st April, 2014,

0:25:530:25:55

I would also stress to you that no children have gone missing.

0:25:550:25:59

Since that interview,

0:25:590:26:00

the Belfast Trust that looked after Nadra have issued a statement.

0:26:000:26:04

They said they were unable to talk about individual cases,

0:26:040:26:08

but all relevant steps were taken before and after her disappearance.

0:26:080:26:13

And a Serious Adverse Incident Review involving all agencies

0:26:130:26:17

had subsequently taken place.

0:26:170:26:18

The Children's Commissioner thinks that the trusts

0:26:200:26:23

and the police should now review the cases of the eight missing children.

0:26:230:26:27

Yes, I think

0:26:270:26:29

any sort of incident where a child in the care -

0:26:290:26:32

in anybody's care,

0:26:320:26:34

but particularly in the care of the state - that the

0:26:340:26:36

outcome hasn't been the way that was intended, should be constantly

0:26:360:26:39

under review, but do I think the Trust need to give assurances?

0:26:390:26:42

Yes, I do.

0:26:420:26:45

And as for Nadra and Zahra, well,

0:26:450:26:47

nothing came from the Somali service appeal.

0:26:470:26:49

But just last night, I spoke to an organisation in Manchester

0:26:490:26:53

who I'd first contacted several days ago.

0:26:530:26:56

Incredibly, they think they might have found the girls.

0:26:560:26:59

So, you have actually got leads? That's incredibly exciting.

0:27:010:27:05

What more can you tell us about them?

0:27:050:27:08

I was as surprised, actually, as anybody.

0:27:080:27:10

We think we might have some reasonably strong prospects

0:27:100:27:16

to identify the current locations of both these young women.

0:27:160:27:21

We've got three separate reports that suggest that both of these

0:27:210:27:26

girls did come to Manchester around that time that they left

0:27:260:27:30

the Northern Ireland area.

0:27:300:27:33

So, the girl that you believe to be Nadra might well

0:27:330:27:37

be in the Northwest?

0:27:370:27:39

We believe that Nadra may well be still in the Northwest.

0:27:390:27:42

One of the lines of inquiry we're looking at is that she might

0:27:420:27:46

be still working in the Manchester area.

0:27:460:27:49

So, tell me what you've been able to find out

0:27:490:27:51

about the girl that you think might be Zahra.

0:27:510:27:54

The report that's come through to us is that somebody who knew Zahra

0:27:540:27:58

reasonably well thinks that this

0:27:580:28:01

missing girl from Northern Ireland

0:28:010:28:05

was in fact somebody that he knew,

0:28:050:28:07

and that she is now settling down

0:28:070:28:10

and living in the West Yorkshire area.

0:28:100:28:14

So, what are you going to do now?

0:28:140:28:17

We've got a lot to do yet before we've got to the point where

0:28:170:28:21

we think we can make, you know, we can perhaps

0:28:210:28:23

approach them and see if they're OK.

0:28:230:28:25

So, perhaps, after all this time, a breakthrough.

0:28:270:28:31

Stormont is soon to bring in new provisions to provide

0:28:330:28:36

guardians to look after separated children.

0:28:360:28:39

It is hoped this will prevent girls like Nadra

0:28:390:28:41

and Zahra going missing again.

0:28:410:28:43

I started looking for two missing children.

0:28:450:28:47

If we have found them, that's remarkable.

0:28:470:28:50

But if we can do that in a matter of weeks, why can't the police?

0:28:510:28:55

And why has more not been done to find the other children

0:28:560:28:59

the board have belatedly accepted have gone missing?

0:28:590:29:03

Peter Coulter searches for two missing girls and investigates how many children, separated from their families after fleeing their home countries, have disappeared in Northern Ireland.


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