Photocredit: Guillem Trius/Al Jazeera

Since September 2016, I have been working with unaccompanied minors in refugee camps in Northern France and on the streets of Paris and Calais, and have witnessed how policy decisions made by the British government have affected their lives. UK policies have removed unaccompanied minors from dangerous camps and street situations in Europe and have given children new lives in the UK, in social care and with their families. Yet, simultaneously, other policy decisions, branded as border securitization measures, have not only been an incredible cost to the UK government but have also exposed unaccompanied minors in Europe to threats such as human trafficking, exploitation, abuse, and death due to unsafe passage. To negate these risks, the UK government must make policy decisions that prioritize humanitarian action and human rights over political ideology such as the reduction of immigration and austerity. Such policies must include safe and legal routes from mainland Europe to the UK to protect the lives of lone refugee children and to secure for them a future. In investigating this topic, I will draw on my own first-hand observations in the field, on data collected by Refugee Rights Data Project and Help Refugees, on research completed by Unicef and Harvard and on news sources.

There are estimated to be at least 95,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. As many as 20,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Italy by sea in the first nine months of 2016, up from 16,500 in 2015, with a further 2,300 in Greece. From Greece and Italy, unaccompanied minors looking to reach the UK, travel overland to the North of France, and specifically to unofficial refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk. At the end of October 2016, the French government evicted and demolished “the Jungle,” an informal camp in Calais that was home to over 10,000 people from the Middle East and Africa.[1] This massive logistical operation ended with the shifting of 1,752 unaccompanied minors from Calais to accommodation centers spread across the whole of France, where minors were assessed by the UK Home Office for eligibility for transfer to the UK. Those not eligible were expected to settle in France.

Unaccompanied minors with family in the UK have the legal right to be reunited with them under EU Law known as the Dublin III agreement. In addition, a humanitarian amendment to the UK’s 2016 Immigration Bill known as the “Dubs” amendment (after Labour Peer and Kindertransport refugee Alf Dubs) was passed in Parliament in May 2016, with the intention of bringing a number of vulnerable unaccompanied minors to the UK. During the eviction of the Calais camp and in the period afterwards, the UK Home Office agreed to come to France, interview and then transfer a number of children. This operation, the “Home Office Calais Procedure”, transferred 550 children to the UK through a fast-track family reunification process and a further 200 children under the “Dubs” amendment.

On February 8th 2017, the Conservative Government Minister of Immigration announced that the “Dubs” amendment would take only 150 more children from Europe, far fewer than had been expected when the amendment to the bill was proposed. The minister also announced the completion of the Home Office Calais Procedure and the closure of the fast-track family reunification process, meaning that the majority of those children previously living in Calais would not be brought to the UK. Without an active fast-track family reunification process, lone children in Europe are not sought out by Home Office or other officials, but are expected to first seek asylum in the European country they are in and then wait, sometimes six months to a year, for an answer to their family reunification request. In reality, this appears to rarely happen, as children do not have access to legal knowledge to make such a request. Further, many do not trust the system to work in their favor, and so often chose “illegal”, clandestine routes and destitution over asylum and the safety of state protection.

In minimizing the number of transfers from France to the UK during the Home Office Calais Procedure through restrictive eligibility criteria, and in failing to provide avenues to appeal a rejected request for family reunification, the UK Home Office ensured that the majority of unaccompanied minors previously living in the Calais camp were prevented from entering the UK through safe and legal routes. Children fleeing from the Middle East and Africa seek out the UK as a destination for a variety of complex reasons, including having family and friends there, speaking English or because of pressure from family and/or people smugglers. Others reject France because of their experiences of police violence, lack of security and their view on the French asylum system. As such, a large number of those minors rejected by the Home Office did not choose to settle in France as the Home Office expected them to. In the months since the Home Office Calais Procedure, many children have exited French social care and returned to Paris, to Dunkirk, to other small squats, and back to the streets of Calais where they sleep rough and attempt to reach the UK by clandestine means. There is now estimated to be as many as 350 unaccompanied minors in Calais, and more in Hazebrouck and Norrent-Fontes. Refugee Rights Data Project reports that 56% of unaccompanied minors interviewed on the streets of Calais in March 2017 were former residents of the Calais camp. This also means that in addition to Calais returnees, just under half of the children on the streets of Calais are new arrivals, attempting to cross to the UK for the first time.

The Calais municipal state, in seeking to prevent a return to the town as a location of transit, is denying these migrants shelter, food, and legal advice, and is increasing police presence and detention. The state’s view is that many of these young migrants were offered accommodation and support, and it’s not a local concern if they choose destitution and life on the street. Outside of state protection, these minors are vulnerable to exploitation by people smugglers and are at further risk of trafficking and abuse. In the absence of humanitarian assistance by the French government, the humanitarian crisis that previously existed in Calais is fast returning. To prevent this, a collaborative effort by the British and French is needed – one that includes the ongoing provision of safe passage for the most vulnerable unaccompanied refugee children. Yet in ending the “Dubs” scheme and the fast-track family reunification process, the UK government has shown itself to be firmly opposed to supporting refugees on the move in Europe.

Government policy and restrictions to the “Dubs” amendment

British government policy in response to the refugee crisis in Europe has been aimed at reducing immigration from “refugee-producing” countries by denying the imperative of movement, heavily increasing border security, and minimizing and removing safe and legal routes to the UK through Europe. While the government has a relocation scheme that intends to relocate 3,000 children and adults directly from the Middle East and North Africa region over a period of several years, the UK Conservative government, much like the EU, does not politically support free movement into the open border European Schengen Area, so refugees and migrants are forced to undertake incredibly dangerous routes across the Mediterranean Sea, resulting in at least 9,000 fatalities since January 2015. In March 2016, the border between Greece and FYR Macedonia was closed and the EU-Turkey agreement took effect, preventing refugees arriving by boat into Greece from Turkey from entering the Schengen Area. Since these border restrictions took effect, Unicef estimates at least 23,700 refugee and migrant children remain stranded in Greece, Bulgaria and the Western Balkans, living in “extremely inappropriate conditions.” Additionally, a Harvard research team found that unaccompanied children in Greece are selling their bodies for sex in order to pay smugglers to help them reach the UK and Northern Europe.

During the Home Office Calais Procedure and the implementation of “Dubs” transfers, the nationality of unaccompanied minors was used as justification for the denial of their relocation to the UK. Shortly after the eviction of “the Jungle,” the British government released guidance on implementation of the “Dubs” amendment. The eligibility criteria were arbitrary and especially harsh: while those few unaccompanied children under 12 were considered for transfer, only Sudanese and Syrian children under 15 were also considered. In practice this ruled out the vast majority of children present in Calais, disregarding the vulnerability of 16 and 17 year olds, as well as Afghan teenagers fleeing the Taliban and Eritrean teenagers fleeing conscription. Rather than establishing a best-interest framework that considered vulnerability, risk of abuse, trafficking, mental health and disabilities, the Home Office’s eligibility criteria only considered the minor’s age and nationality. The Home Office justified this by stating that Sudanese and Syrian nationalities “have a first instance asylum grant rate in the UK of 75% or higher, based on the asylum statistics for the period from July 2015 to June 2016.” But this asylum grant rate is manufactured by the Home Office itself, who make the final decisions on whether asylum is granted and can chose to minimize the evidence of risks for those forcibly returned.

A 2015 UN inquiry on human rights in Eritrea found that the authoritarian regime forcibly and indefinitely conscripts teenage boys into the armed forces, and that the regime tortures and disappears those critical of the government. Yet a fact-finding mission to the capital by British officials shifted the UK country guidance for Home Office asylum caseworkers, and successful asylum claims for Eritreans dropped from 86% during the year ending March 2015 to 42% during the year ending March 2016. Only after a tribunal later found that “the position of the Home Office was essentially unsupported by the weight of the evidence” did the position readjust – but not in time for the Eritrean teenagers in the Calais camp who were, as a result, not considered for transfer during the Home Office Calais Procedure. In Afghanistan, the Taliban conflict continues to affect the civilian population: the UN reports that in 2016, 923 children were killed and 2,589 injured through fighting in populated areas, with further attacks by Islamic State militants and greater civilian exposure to landmines posing an ongoing risk. Yet a tribunal over the UK’s country guidance for Afghanistan concluded that the “level of violence is not such that all civilians are at high enough risk to qualify for protection.” As a result, Afghan minors older than 12 were also not considered vulnerable enough for transfer to the UK under “Dubs” during the Home Office Calais Procedure.

While Iraqi, Pakistani, Iranian, Somali and Ethiopian teenagers all lost out on the initial opportunity during the Home Office Calais Procedure to be considered for safe transfer to the UK under “Dubs”—and all of these countries are currently experiencing either widespread conflict, ethnic violence or political oppression —this policy decision primarily affected Eritrean and Afghan teenagers. RRDP found that 44% of unaccompanied minors on the streets of Calais in March and 71% of minors living on the streets of Paris in January were from either Afghanistan or Eritrea. Additionally, a Help Refugees census in March 2017 found that 53% of minors in another separate camp at Grande-Synthe were from Afghanistan, while, from observation, Eritreans make up the majority of those minors in Hazebrouck and Norrent-Fontes.

On 14th March 2017, the Home Office published new selection criteria in a plan for the final 150 minors to be brought to the UK from France, Greece, and Italy. These new criteria maintain that children “must be likely to be granted refugee status in the UK” but also requires an assessment of risk factors that will prioritize individuals including, but not limited to, those who are “victims of trafficking and sexual abuse; survivors of torture; survivors of violence; and children with mental and physical disabilities.” As of yet, the Home Office has provided no information on how these minors will be found, or on whether the government might consider those minors missed out from initial selection during the Home Office Calais Procedure and now living on the streets of Calais and Paris.

The “Other” Camp

While the unaccompanied minors in Calais all received an opportunity to be considered for transfer to the UK, minors in Grande-Synthe, just 50 km away, were not considered. After the eviction of “the Jungle,” the number of people living in Grande-Synthe swelled above capacity, with refugees, including children, sleeping as many as 14 to a 6-man shelter and on the floor of the community kitchen buildings. Kurdish people smugglers controlled access to facilities in much of the camp and a Unicef report found that children regularly faced exploitation and threats of violence and sexual violence by armed men. On 10th April 2017, frustrations led to an outburst of fighting between ethnic groups, and the camp was burnt down in an arson attack, leaving 10 people injured and the camp’s 1,500 inhabitants homeless. A census carried out by Help Refugees and L’Auberge des Migrants the week before the arson found at least 120 unaccompanied minors living amongst adults in the camp. The charity Safe Passage discovered that, of this 120, at least 80 of these minors have family in the UK – and so possess a legal right to be in the UK with them. At the time of writing, it is difficult to say what the outcome for these children will be, and whether all 120 have been successfully located by the authorities after the fire. However, the origins of this catastrophe can be traced back to failures in management by French charity Afeji and to French and British immigration policy. No unaccompanied minors needed to be in Grande-Synthe—nor would they have been, if they had been granted transfer to the UK under the fast-track family reunification process or the “Dubs” amendment.

The Home Office Justification

Faced with criticism regarding the closure of “Dubs” amendment, Home Secretary Amber Rudd has given various justifications. The low number of spaces for unaccompanied children was supposedly decided by the Home Office in consultation with local authorities, yet Freedom of Information requests made by VICE, with responses from 80 percent of councils, revealed that they “had voluntarily offered to accept 1,572 more children than they were currently supporting”. The UK’s largest fostering and adoption charity, TACT, found that foster-carers were so forthcoming with offers of support that 100 children a week could have been offered sanctuary, yet the Home Office turned down repeated offers by fostering agencies. On 26th April 2017 – just over a month before the hearing of a court case brought by Help Refugees over discrepancies in the Home Office’s “Dubs” consultation process – the total number of eligible transfers was increased to 480 after the Home Office noticed what they described as an ‘administrative error’.

Rudd has claimed that the “Dubs” scheme “acts as a pull” for more children to make dangerous journeys while also pushing children into the hands of people smugglers. Yet logic and evidence point to the opposite being true. People smuggling can only exist in the absence of safe and legal routes. The lack of such routes creates opportunities for a people smuggling economy that is self-exacerbating: as more people make it to the UK through clandestine routes, more people see this as an option for themselves. The Independent found that “the numbers of illegal stowaways detected in vehicles at the Eurotunnel port have been on the rise since November, with an estimated 2,100 individuals found at the port and arrested in January, including a large number of minors”. People smugglers charge between €3,000 and €10,000 for passage to the UK from France. This illicit economy has been able to flourish because of the absence of safe and legal routes.

The British government spent £36 million shutting down the Calais camp and a further £17 million on extending security measures (including the construction of a £2 million wall along the highway to the port); it has pledged a further £80 million over the next three years to pay for private security firms to patrol northern French ports. In comparison, David Simmons from the Local Government Association puts the cost of taking in an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child at £50,000 per year per child, which is mostly covered by local councils. For every 100 unaccompanied minors taken into the UK from Calais, the UK government would pay a maximum of £3.3 million a year until they reached adulthood. While monetizing the cost of saving a child’s life does a disservice to the true value of a human, the money the UK spent on securitization and has pledged to security measures far exceeds the cost of supporting even several thousand minors.

The Consequences

As a result of increased border security, unaccompanied minors are now turning to more dangerous routes of passage: climbing onto trucks and lorries to reach the UK. As typical routes shut down, the reduced selection of available clandestine routes are mostly controlled by people smugglers, who require payment for access to lorry parking areas and control the allocation of shelters and other privileges in informal camps such as those in Norrent-Fontes and in Hazebrouck. If payment in such circumstances is not immediately forthcoming (and children often do not have easy access to funds), then minors become more at risk of non-monetary transactions such as sexual exploitation, or payment might be sought upon their safe arrival in the UK. Traffickers exploit children who arrive in the UK with smuggler-debt, through forced labor, domestic servitude, and prostitution. In the past five years, 360 asylum-seeking children have gone missing in the UK.

Increased border security in the Calais border region has not only driven people into the hands of smugglers, but it has also increased the vulnerability of minors. Refugees regularly become injured attempting to climb onto trucks or navigating the ring-roads. Volunteers at charity Help Refugees compiled a list from news reports of “at least 45 deaths of ‘migrants’” in Calais and the surrounding area since 2015 – the youngest being 14-year-old Raheemullah Oryakhel, who fell off a lorry in Calais and was struck by a car in September 2016. Refugees are also physically injured in their attempts and in their interactions with local people and with the police. Living on the street, they cannot access psychological care, yet a large number are suffering from post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems. The long term consequences of untreated psychological trauma and mental distress in Europe’s unaccompanied minors is unknowable but likely devastating in terms of future levels of alcoholism, abuse, anxiety, aggression, and the real risk of the radicalization of the vulnerable by fundamentalist groups. The more time children spend in the kinds of conditions present in Calais, the longer before those children can lead normal lives, access education, or receive psychological treatment and support through social care.

The Anti-Immigrant Politics in France

In the absence of safe passage to the UK, unaccompanied minors in France need the support of the French municipal state to lead safe, dignified lives and if they are to be convinced of the merits of claiming asylum in France. However, humanitarian support has not been forthcoming due to the current political climate. Like much of the rest of the Western political sphere, France has seen an uptick in far-right populism, with Front National’s Marine Le Pen leading a hardline anti-immigration stance that sought the expulsion of all “illegal immigrants.” This rhetoric was particularly popular in regions (such as Pas-da-Calais) near borders and refugee camps, where towns have felt especially burdened by the refugee crisis (further compounded by inadequate state funding and response to people on the move). In response to this uptick, both the incumbent Socialist party and the center-right Republicans adjusted their immigration and refugee policies in an attempt to push back against Le Pen’s popularity. However, on 7th May 2017 France elected Emmanuel Macron and Le Pen garnered only 34% of the overall vote. Despite her loss, Le Pen’s impact on France has been incredible.

Since the eviction of the Calais camp, efforts have been made to make the North of France as unappealing as possible to migrants and refugees. In March, Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart banned the distribution of food to migrants as part of a campaign to prevent the establishment of a new refugee camp in the area. Police violence towards migrants has been ongoing, with RRDP finding that 96.5% of unaccompanied minors on the streets of Calais had experienced tear gas, physical abuse and/or verbal abuse from the police. Children have had their shelters destroyed by the police and so sleep outside (sometimes in sub-zero temperatures) in the open air, at risk of attack from violent fascist groups that patrol the area. 92% of minors interviewed had been moved on from where they were sleeping by the police, while 86% reported feeling not safe. In this environment and with trust in state protection so low, minors cannot be expected to freely exit their precarious situation. New President Emmanuel Macron has been vague on his policies relating to refugees in France and so it is yet unclear whether he will seek out a humanitarian response or a more hardline stance.

A Resolution to the Crisis

To deal with the humanitarian crisis in France, the British and French governments need to provide a collaborative, humanitarian support system that respects both the human rights of refugees and the special protections that children deserve to be afforded. In the short term, unaccompanied minors need local accommodation, provision of food and shelter and access to legal support and advice on their asylum opportunities to convince them to move off of the streets, out of camps and into state protection. The continued provision of safe and legal routes to the UK is vital to resolve this ongoing crisis. Whilst 37.6% of unaccompanied minors on the streets of Calais reported having family in the UK to RRDP, there are no officials or state bodies seeking to locate these children and no fast-track process in place to transfer them to the UK. Those without family in the UK, but who choose to seek out the UK as a destination, should not be in harm’s way because of that choice, and so a state-led child protection strategy must take priority over border policing. In the long term, some freedom of movement is the only way to avoid the threats facing unaccompanied minors in France and elsewhere in Europe. As such a total re-evaluation of the Dublin regulation is needed – one that includes the implementation of humanitarian corridors for unaccompanied refugee children moving across European borders. As it currently stands asylum seekers are forced to cross an international border before they can claim asylum in the UK. Immigration control should be moved from the French side of the English Channel to the British side, as it was before Le Tourquet accord took effect in 2003, to prevent the bottle-necking of people at the border, which has resulted in so much suffering, abuse, and death. Unfortunately, under the current Conservative government, any resolution involving freedom of movement would be incredibly unlikely. While the “Dubs” amendment was brought through Parliament thanks to support from both the opposition and some moderate Conservative MPs, a recent attempt to widen the remit of the scheme by way of a new amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill put forward by Conservative MP Heidi Allen, was defeated by government on 7th March 2017. Even with such moderate Conservative voices, Prime Minister Theresa May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd remain opposed to immigration and assisting refugees and migrants in Europe.

Conclusion

While the UK took 750 unaccompanied minors from Calais in 2016, this number includes 550 the UK government was legally obliged to reunite with family, and the smaller number of 200 transferred under the “Dubs” amendment, primarily brought through Parliament by the opposition. Many more unaccompanied minors could have been transferred to the UK than were during the closure of the Calais camp – and with much more urgency than was presented. To date the government has not acknowledged the destruction of the camp in Grande-Synthe, nor announced any procedure to protect minors from exploitation by smugglers by providing opportunities to transfer to the UK. It is apparent that the government is politically opposed to a humanitarian response to the crisis facing unaccompanied refugee children in France, presumably viewing it as being in opposition to its aims to reduce immigration and expenditure to the welfare state. With the triggering of Article 50 and the UK’s imminent exit from the European Union, the country’s participation in The Dublin Regulation and the future rights of refugees are now even more at risk.

To negate the risk of trafficking, abuse, suffering, and death faced by vulnerable unaccompanied minors, the safe passage of unaccompanied refugee children from mainland Europe to the UK is vital to solve this humanitarian crisis. Yet under a Conservative government opposed to refugees freely moving through the Schengen zone and overland to the UK, such a policy U-turn is inconceivable. Securitization and efforts to reduce “illegal” immigration has taken precedent over any humanitarian and human rights-based policy decisions, while costing the government millions of pounds and contributing to the demonization of refugees and migrants and the rise of xenophobia in the UK. In the long run, these efforts will likely only have a minimal impact on reducing net immigration (in the year ending March 2016 asylum seekers made up only 6.6% of net immigration to the UK). Meanwhile, in the past month the number of people on the streets of Calais has approximately doubled and this number will only continue to increase in the coming months. In the absence of safe and legal routes from the EU to the UK, Calais will remain a transit space for people looking to seek asylum in the UK—a space where people smuggling, exploitation, and abuse of children thrives.

  1. Help Refugees Census October 2016
Benjamin Hunter

Written by Benjamin Hunter

Benny Hunter is a writer, artist and activist. He has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the Huffington Post and Canadian Art Magazine and his artwork has been curated in shows in Canada, Finland and the UK. He is a volunteer for the charity Help Refugees and has worked with...
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