Peter Coulter investigates how many children, separated from their families after fleeing their home countries, have disappeared in Northern Ireland.
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In 2011, Nadra Ali, a 16-year-old Somali girl,
arrived in Northern Ireland - alone.
She was placed in care in east Belfast.
Just 18 days later, she vanished.
These CCTV pictures from the Belfast Islamic Centre
are the last known images of Nadra Ali.
She is still missing.
This is the man who alerted me to her story, Suleiman Abdullahi.
He, like Nadra, fled the Somali Civil War,
that's raged for 25 years.
In January 2012, he met Nadra for the first and last time,
outside the Belfast Islamic Centre.
I spoke to her in Somali language and she spoke to me.
And I said, "Are you new?" And she said, "Yes, in Belfast."
And I said, "When did you come?"
And she said, "Very recently."
I know you only met her very, very briefly, but what was she like?
She was a very pretty girl. A young girl.
She had a headscarf, at the time, and was dressing in a Somali way.
Did she seem scared, or frightened of anything to you?
No, she seemed to me very happy,
liked the people she was with,
Suleiman learnt that Nadra was with a foster family in Castlereagh.
Then, later that day,
What happened to her, nobody knows.
Suleiman saw this missing appeal for Nadra.
When I heard the news,
But shock turned to worry when he googled the story,
to find Nadra wasn't the first Somali girl to go missing.
The first keyword I put was,
"Somali girl missing in Belfast".
And then there was another girl in 2005.
And then I found out that that other girl was never found.
That girl is Zahra Abdi.
She went missing from care aged just 14.
Over a decade later, no-one knows where she is either.
Suleiman felt not enough was being done to try and find either girl.
He contacted me. I checked the PSNI missing list.
Neither girl was there.
I first contacted the police back on the 26th May last year,
about the two girls, but it took them more than two weeks
to be able to confirm that Nadra and Zhara still haven't been found.
As the girls were under 18 and alone,
they were classed as separated children
and would have been in the care of the local health trust.
I've been in contact with the Belfast Trust
for more than a year now and, in that time,
all they've told me is that one of the girls was in their care.
Here's more than a dozen e-mails that I've sent them,
on top of countless calls, trying to get more information.
And yet all they keep saying to me is that they can't tell me
any more because of client confidentiality and data protection.
And, in all that time, Nadra and Zahra are still missing.
As no-one will give us answers, I begin to put in dozens
of freedom of information requests,
asking hundreds of questions,
meaning the authorities are legally obliged
to hand over the information.
It seems scandalous that no-one is actively looking for these
two girls, and I'm going to try to find them myself.
I start with Nadra. I know she was with a foster family.
The charity Barnardo's run many foster placements
across Northern Ireland. Will they know Nadra's?
I first contact Barnardo's back in March this year,
and initially they say that no children have gone missing.
But then, a few weeks later, I get an e-mail saying,
"It has since come to our attention...
They say new managers
and systems meant I'd been sent inaccurate information.
Confusion over facts
and, crucially, figures, would characterise much of my search.
I ask the Belfast Trust if I can meet Nadra's foster family.
They say no.
But the police tell me some curious facts.
When Nadra went missing, she had 40 cigarettes
and a pack of clean underwear with her,
but she didn't take her toothbrush.
They add, they have her DNA from a strand of hair.
There seems little other trace of Nadra.
As the girls were Muslim, I go to see Brenda Skillen
from the Muslim Family Association.
-If you don't mind to take your shoes off.
-Oh, yeah, no problem.
Do you know many of the Somali community?
I know a few Somalian community.
I've seen the photos of the girls.
They weren't familiar to myself,
and when you pass that to me,
I'll share it with them and see if anybody has seen the girls.
Brenda invites us to Friday prayers, where around 400 people,
many of them Somali, will gather.
We begin designing a missing poster, explaining what we're doing.
Shall we try the writing a bit bigger?
'The photos are from the original police appeals.'
Could we put them in caps? Yeah. That's it.
'It needs to be in three languages and, while making it,
'we discover some fundamental problems
'with the original search for the girls.'
'Their names are spelt wrongly.'
The Somalis we talked to all tell us that the
letter 'z' is never followed by the letter 'h' in their language.
The name of the girl they were looking for couldn't possibly
have been Zhara spelt "Zh".
They also tell us that Nadra's middle name isn't Somali.
It suggests their names weren't taken down correctly.
Zahra's photo is of really bad quality, but it's all I have.
I knock doors on the last known street where she was staying.
She was placed in a B&B, but it's no longer there.
We know she made a few friends in the three months
she was in Northern Ireland.
Is she someone that you recognise?
No, not at all. Good luck in finding her, anyway, guys.
Cheers, thank you.
We know she kept her clothes in a black bin bag,
but when she went missing, the bag had no clothes, just towels in it.
-Do you recognise her?
-No, I've never seen that girl before.
And how long have you lived on the street?
I've lived about 40 years on this street.
But I don't recognise that girl.
Dressed like that there, you'd probably remember.
We also know her friends said she use a phone box,
and would sometimes hang up when people got close.
Who was she calling?
We discover it took two days for her to be reported missing.
Why did the authorities not realise she had gone?
PRAYER IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE
I take up Brenda's offer of spreading the word at prayers.
PRAYER IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE
We're making a programme about two Somali girls that are missing.
-They've gone missing?
So we're trying to see
-if we can get any information about trying to find them.
-Can I get a...?
Do you mind if I take a photo and post it on Facebook,
saying that two girls are missing?
I'm overwhelmed by the positive interest in our appeal,
and surprised by who I then meet.
First time I saw this girl
was working at immigration, that worked in the outreach.
-So you've met this girl before?
OK, and what was she like?
She was a young girl who just came to the country.
You're actually the first person
-that we've met that has met Zahra Abdi.
Kamal seemed a great lead. I met up with him later.
The police had told me they didn't know how
Zahra entered the country. Did he know how she got here?
She was saying that she came in a boat,
and then a truck, to come to Belfast,
but she said that they gave her an overall and a bucket and a brush,
like she's one of the cleaners, till she got into the boat.
She said that her uncle
paid the agent to bring her over.
-To bring her to Northern Ireland, or to...?
No, no, to take her to a safe country.
She didn't know that she's in Northern Ireland.
How did she seem when you met her?
She was really scared from something.
Tears coming from her eyes.
But she didn't really say at that time.
Gary Reid from the PSNI's Organised Crime Branch
reviewed the cases of both girls earlier this year.
Zahra presented herself here with no papers.
She'd come from Mogadishu,
and she was being looked after by the health trust.
And she went missing then about three months after that, in June.
Now, that's when the police got involved.
All children who arrive here alone,
like Zahra and Nadra,
are termed "separated children", and are placed in care.
A separated child or young person is someone who comes to
Northern Ireland totally alone.
They're completely bewildered by this system.
What role does the state take on and what does that involved?
Well, the state them becomes their parent.
Last year, more than one million migrants
and refugees crossed into Europe.
Among them, thousands of separated children.
The Prime Minister says we've already taken in many of them.
We've got 2,500 unaccompanied children came
to Britain last year, who we're looking after.
The Northern Ireland Executive is considering what help to offer.
Labour's Yvette Cooper is leading the charge to bring in more.
Urgent question. Yvette Cooper.
300 children by the beginning of the next school year.
I meet her just after her speech.
She's pleased more children are coming in,
but is worried that those who make it here might then go missing.
I mean, look, they're about the same age as my children.
We, all of us, I think, as parents, would be appalled
to have a 14-year-old girl missing.
What would you like to see happen now?
Well, I think you need local authorities to take responsibility,
but also the police to take responsibility.
You can't see these as immigration cases.
It's a serious child protection issue.
So, how many separated children have gone missing in Northern Ireland?
It appears there are no official figures,
so I start trying to add them up.
The numbers are there,
in reports and written questions in Stormont.
They appear to show that nine have gone missing since 2012.
Aidan McQuade believes a double standard is operating.
If it was local kids, this would be a national scandal.
It would be a scandal across these islands.
The fact that we can be indifferent
to kids who are
from somewhere else going missing,
I think that's arguably worse.
I ask the Health And Social Care Board
if nine children have gone missing, and they ask me to meet with them.
So, I went into this meeting hoping to come out with a clear idea
of the number of children who'd gone missing.
Now, they say three children have gone missing since 2012,
and that doesn't tally with our figures.
Then they asked us where we got our figures from.
But the irony is, those figures came from their own reports.
As they'd asked to see where I found my information,
I print out their own reports and take some copies round to them.
Hi, there. I'm Peter Coulter, I'm filming with the BBC.
We've been asked to drop in copies of these reports.
Jim Gamble, the former head of the Child Protection Unit, CEOP,
is highly critical of the Trust's confusion over numbers.
If the trusts don't know how many children, you know,
who were unaccompanied children, are now in their care
and how many have gone missing, well, you couldn't excuse that.
I would expect the Trust to be able to articulate that position
to you in the same way as I'd expect a parent who has a family
of five or six or seven children to know where their children were.
That isn't acceptable.
Suleiman, one of the last people to see Nadra, is eager to help us.
He feels great empathy for the girls who, like him, fled Somalia.
-TALKING TO CHILD:
-Window. Of the house?
When civil war broke out in Somalia, Suleiman had two choices -
fight for his tribe, or leave everything.
It's obvious the pain of leaving his home and family has never gone away.
You can imagine that I have my dad, my sisters,
my brothers live in Somalia,
and they still keep calling me back, even to go back and see them,
touch them, physically. So that's very difficult.
Is it hard for you that they're still there?
It's very hard.
Suleiman understands people go missing in Somalia,
but he can't understand how children could have gone missing here.
Jim Gamble believes the way the authorities file
and deal with a missing separated child report
is fundamentally flawed.
So, this system doesn't work, and once the children...
the report is made, once they're put on the website,
I believe there is a vacuum, because the agencies
and the organisations involved in this work go back to their day jobs.
Nobody is actually out there looking for these kids,
and over the years they've been away,
what fresh work has been done?
What fresh appeals have gone out?
We decide to do our own appeal.
Suleiman says the radio is a vital way that Somali families,
torn apart by the war, trace each other.
So, Suleiman, how important is radio in Somali culture?
It's very important
because after the Civil War,
it was the only source of information.
Nearly two million people listen
to the BBC Somali service in Somalia alone,
but it's listened to across the world.
THEY SPEAK IN OWN LANGUAGE
So, we are glad to have you here at the BBC Somali service.
Peter, could you please tell us first of all
what this programme's about, and those Somali missing girls.
All we really want to know is that they are safe, that they are alive.
We just want some kind of proof of life that they're OK.
That's the most important thing to us.
Reaction is immediate.
-BBC Somali have already put the post on Facebook.
And more than 60 people have already commented on it. It's incredible.
Yes, I'm quite actually optimistic about this.
Chloe Setter, an expert in child trafficking, isn't so positive.
Her organisation identified something quite startling.
There were 13 cases of alleged child trafficking
in Northern Ireland last year.
What we have now is modern slavery,
and traffickers are using modern technology, modern methods,
in order to exploit people, and it might not be as visible
as people in chains, but people are enslaved in our society now.
People are enslaved in Northern Ireland.
She can't say Nadra or Zahra were trafficked, but she thinks
it's important someone finds out what has happened to them.
Suleiman and I went to Shepherd's Bush
where there is a big Somali community.
We're told that there's another vital clue that has been missed.
Without having a middle name, they don't know who you are.
I think it's very important because it's part of our culture.
Through father, grandad.
So, that's how we sort of identify who you are.
If we had more than the three names,
if we had, let us say, five names, of these young ladies,
there might be a big possibility, some big chance,
that we could identify exactly who they are.
If this was any other scenario,
would they have got something as important as a name wrong?
Those are very important details. If you're looking for somebody,
you need to get that kind of information correct.
And if enough effort wasn't put into ensuring that the name was correct,
how much effort was really put into looking for these people?
They agree to help us spread the word,
even uploading the appeal to Snapchat.
We found out about Nadra and Zahra, who were last seen
in Belfast, and we want to get the message out there on social media.
Solicitor Fidelma O'Hagan represents separated children.
She believes the majority don't make it here alone.
It is predominantly, without question,
the involvement of an adult who has facilitated or assisted them
-in that route for whatever reason.
-In a sinister way?
Without question of a doubt.
As a solicitor who represents a lot of these children,
is it worrying for you that some of your clients are going missing
-and enough is being done?
-I think it's absolutely shocking.
The traffickers consider the children to be commodities.
Traffickers will always be one step ahead
of the law enforcement agencies,
and I think that's probably got something to do with
why we see a rise in numbers coming in here.
Could Zahra have been trafficked? The police have no evidence.
Is that a possibility that she was trafficked?
Yes, it was a possibility.
Equally, it was a possibility that she came into the country
and has gone off with friends somewhere else.
We don't have evidence to prove or disprove either of those
The little that's known of Nadra's story, that she
had cigarettes and clean underwear with her,
could be seen as an indicator that she expected to leave.
What that would suggest to me is,
this girl knew she was about to move, she knew
she was about to go somewhere else, so she had prepared for that move.
I'm not suggesting that she agreed,
or was complicit, that she'd given her consent to move,
but actually she had prepared for the move herself.
So she knew. That would imply that
there's a third party who has influence
over her movements, so to be able to direct
and control where she was going to go and when.
The police tell us she had been in contact with a health spa
that may have operated as a brothel.
The police went to the home of a man connected with it,
but he had gone when they got there.
Do you think that Zahra was trying to reach a brothel there?
We have nothing to suggest that,
other than a telephone call that came back to what was
described to us as a health spa type area,
with possibility of it being run as a brothel at times.
We went there and we looked at it. It was searched by the police.
She wasn't there.
As I say, that line of inquiry went cold for us.
Why she had that number, where she got back from, that remains
a mystery to us till today and, certainly, it was never
indicated, during that three-month period that she was here,
to her social worker,
that she was being trafficked in any shape or form.
But is it not a bit strange that a young teenage Muslim girl
would be making contact with a place like that?
I suppose when you sit back and look at it, yes, that is correct.
There does appear to be another lead from the Somali appeal.
Yesterday morning, I woke up to this interesting e-mail.
It's from a guy from Northern Ireland who lives in Kenya,
which is just across the border from Somalia.
He saw our appeal on the BBC Somali service website
and got in touch to offer his help.
He works as an interpreter for the Somali delegation
for the International Committee Of The Red Cross.
And they do a lot of tracing for families who become separated
due to the conflict.
Now, what are the chances of finding someone from Northern Ireland
who speaks Somali, who might be able to help us
get some information about the missing girls' families?
He later agrees to talk to me in a personal capacity on Skype.
But David appears to end any hope I have of finding the girls.
He tells us of the vital importance
of knowing the girls' tribal background,
another key fact we just don't have.
Only having their first name
and their second name isn't a lot of information to go on.
In the Somali context, it's very important that you have the details
of their tribe,
because that's the way the Somalis connect with each other.
Aidan McQuade believes the police have questions to answer.
Well, I suspect this may be an issue for the police ombudsman,
to look at the failings or otherwise within the investigation.
Given the information that we had
and leads that we had in and around that,
I'm confident that the investigation teams that were dealing with
it at that particular time exhausted every avenue of the investigation.
The police acknowledge failings in how
they engaged with the Somali community.
We have spoken to Somalis across the UK,
and they said to us that the
name "Zhara", Z-H-A-R-A,
can't possibly be spelt in that way.
They've said that an 'h' ever follows a 'z' in Somali,
and that Nadra's middle name, Sharis, is not a Somali word.
We are a learning organisation.
We're learning all the time and, certainly,
we didn't endeavour to look at the diversity issues around that,
but certainly it never came
up during our investigation that the spelling of this was...
it couldn't have been that.
So there was no direct approach to the Somali community
-until we approached you about the cases?
-No, there wasn't.
Where do you think the girls might be now?
I wish I knew the answer to that question.
Jim Gamble believes it is the trusts who have a case to answer.
Actually, when a child has been identified,
when we know they're vulnerable,
that's when I think we lose any excuse
about the difficulties that surround us.
We ask to interview the directors of the Belfast And Southern Trust,
and the director of the Health And Social Care Board,
to explain why children had gone missing under their watch.
Deirdre Coyle was put forward,
but we were told she couldn't answer questions on behalf
of the Belfast or Southern Trust,
or any questions about Nadra or Zahra.
Five other representatives from the Health And Social Care Board
stayed in the room while the interview took place.
I'm going to show you two pictures.
This is Nadra and Zahra,
the two girls that went missing.
We've been told that you won't answer any questions about them.
Is that acceptable, that we still can't get
any accountability for these two girls?
I think what I would say...
you've already raised this in terms of...it's not my...
It was the board who said three children were missing.
Of the nine we told them about, one turned out to be aged 18.
The board's now checked its figures
right back to when Zahra disappeared.
Since Zahra Abdi went missing on the 20th June, 2005,
how many children have gone missing in Northern Ireland?
I would say that eight children went missing
and remain missing.
Behind all of these numbers,
there's an individual life, a child's life,
which we take extremely seriously.
Our efforts, at this time,
are concentrated on preventing
these children going missing.
Preventing it ever happening.
From the 1st April, 2014,
I would also stress to you that no children have gone missing.
Since that interview,
the Belfast Trust that looked after Nadra have issued a statement.
They said they were unable to talk about individual cases,
but all relevant steps were taken before and after her disappearance.
And a Serious Adverse Incident Review involving all agencies
had subsequently taken place.
The Children's Commissioner thinks that the trusts
and the police should now review the cases of the eight missing children.
Yes, I think
any sort of incident where a child in the care -
in anybody's care,
but particularly in the care of the state - that the
outcome hasn't been the way that was intended, should be constantly
under review, but do I think the Trust need to give assurances?
Yes, I do.
And as for Nadra and Zahra, well,
nothing came from the Somali service appeal.
But just last night, I spoke to an organisation in Manchester
who I'd first contacted several days ago.
Incredibly, they think they might have found the girls.
So, you have actually got leads? That's incredibly exciting.
What more can you tell us about them?
I was as surprised, actually, as anybody.
We think we might have some reasonably strong prospects
to identify the current locations of both these young women.
We've got three separate reports that suggest that both of these
girls did come to Manchester around that time that they left
the Northern Ireland area.
So, the girl that you believe to be Nadra might well
be in the Northwest?
We believe that Nadra may well be still in the Northwest.
One of the lines of inquiry we're looking at is that she might
be still working in the Manchester area.
So, tell me what you've been able to find out
about the girl that you think might be Zahra.
The report that's come through to us is that somebody who knew Zahra
reasonably well thinks that this
missing girl from Northern Ireland
was in fact somebody that he knew,
and that she is now settling down
and living in the West Yorkshire area.
So, what are you going to do now?
We've got a lot to do yet before we've got to the point where
we think we can make, you know, we can perhaps
approach them and see if they're OK.
So, perhaps, after all this time, a breakthrough.
Stormont is soon to bring in new provisions to provide
guardians to look after separated children.
It is hoped this will prevent girls like Nadra
and Zahra going missing again.
I started looking for two missing children.
If we have found them, that's remarkable.
But if we can do that in a matter of weeks, why can't the police?
And why has more not been done to find the other children
the board have belatedly accepted have gone missing?
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.