Is there really hope on the horizon for refugee children in Europe?
Parliament passed an amendment to the Immigration Act 2016 requiring the government to make arrangements ‘as soon as possible’ for the relocation to the UK of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe.
Catherine Baksi explores the government’s response to the plight of child refugees in Calais and across Europe, and how the clearance of the ‘Jungle’ camp might affect those who lived there.
The Calais migrant camp was no place for anyone, let alone people whose lives have been devastated by war, and particularly not for children. Situated next to an industrial site, about a 15-minute cab ride from the centre of Calais, and a mere hour from London, the huddled masses from conflict zones around the world had made makeshift homes in the so-called ‘Jungle’. The nickname derives from the translation of the Pashto word ‘dzhangal’, meaning forest, and was how Pashto-speaking migrants and refugees initially referred to the shanty town that the area has become.
At the time of writing, the camp was being ‘cleared’ after French president François Hollande vowed to dismantle it by the end of the year and disperse the 10,000 people estimated to reside there to centres around France. On the first day of the clearance, around 2,000 were bussed away.
The British government had come under repeated and sustained pressure to do more to protect vulnerable children in the ‘Jungle’, particularly those with close family links to the UK and who were therefore entitled to come here under the Dublin III Regulation. In May, parliament passed an amendment to the Immigration Act 2016, proposed by Labour peer Lord Alfred Dubs, a former child refugee who fled the Nazis on the Kindertransport, requiring the government to make arrangements ‘as soon as possible’ after the passing of the Act for the relocation to the UK and support of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe, not simply for those with family here (s67(1)).
Despite these two processes, very few of the estimated 1,000 unaccompanied children in the camp, around 400 of whom are eligible to come to the UK, were brought here until the days before the camp was due to be demolished. Two parliamentary reports criticised the lamentable response to the migrant crisis. In its report, Children in crisis: unaccompanied migrant children in the EU (2nd report of session 2016–17, HL Paper 34, 26 July 2016), the House of Lords European Union Committee told the government that unaccompanied child migrants living in squalid conditions should not be treated as ‘someone else’s problem’. Baroness Prashar, chair of the Home Affairs Sub-Committee (which conducted the inquiry), called on the British government to take its ‘fair share’ and said: ‘It is particularly shocking that so many unaccompanied child migrants are falling out of the system altogether and going missing. How can member states, including the UK, tolerate a situation where there are more than 10,000 missing migrant children in the EU?’
An equally damning report followed in August from the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee (Migration crisis, seventh report of session 2016–17, HC 24, 3 August 2016), which again highlighted the plight of unaccompanied children left in dangerous conditions. Commenting at the time, the committee’s chair, Keith Vaz, said: ‘Europe’s efforts to address this “colossal” refugee crisis have been lamentable. The atrocious conditions in migrant camps within and on the borders of the richest countries on earth are a source of shame.’ The child refugees, he said, had become the EU’s ‘disappeared ones’.
Government ‘dragging its heels’
Following the demolition of half of the camp in the spring, over 100 children went missing, and in September, due to the delays in dealing with his application to bring him to the UK, it was reported that a 14-year-old Afghan boy, legally entitled to be here, was killed trying to board a lorry to cross the Channel. Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy (Labour), who has been at the forefront of the campaign calling for more to be done, says: ‘This young boy should never have been in a position where he thought his only option for a future was to try to run across a motorway and jump on a lorry.’ She is critical of politicians for ‘spending more time arguing about refugees than helping them’ and says: ‘We made a pledge to these children to help them – now it’s time we honoured that.’ Former DPP and now Labour’s MP for Holborn and St Pancras, Sir Keir Starmer, adds: ‘The situation in Calais is wholly unacceptable. The government is dragging its heels in family reunification cases and it is vulnerable children on the ground who are paying the price.’
So little was done, even after the imminence of the closure had increased the urgency, that the charity Help Refugees, represented by solicitors Leigh Day, lodged a claim for judicial review in October, challenging the failure of the home secretary, Amber Rudd, properly to interpret and implement Immigration Act 2016 s67 (the ‘Dubs amendment’). Days later, Rudd made a statement to the House of Commons, telling MPs that she and her French counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve, ‘have a moral duty to safeguard the welfare of unaccompanied refugee children’. Stating that she and Cazeneuve take their ‘humanitarian responsibilities seriously’, Rudd said: ‘The UK government have made clear their commitment to resettle vulnerable children under the Immigration Act 2016 and ensure that those with links to the UK are brought here using the Dublin Regulation.’
‘I’m not saying that the camp should not have been cleared, but that it shouldn’t have been done in this inhumane and chaotic fashion.’
While asserting that the primary responsibility lay with the French authorities and that the UK had no jurisdiction to operate on French territory, she promised the government would work with the French to ‘speed up mechanisms to identify, assess and transfer unaccompanied refugee children to the UK where that is in their best interests’. Rudd said she would prioritise those under the age of 12, because they are the most vulnerable, and work to ensure the safety and security of children during any camp clearance (Hansard HC Debates vol 615, col 25, 10 October 2016).
Still, there was little action until the days before the planned camp dispersal. Media coverage of the shambolic process that followed led to claims that some of the children brought into the UK were older than 18, with calls for them to be subjected to dental checks to determine their age. The more sympathetic elements of the press expressed concern that, despite all the refugees allowed into Britain at the end of October having relatives in the UK, only a few had been settled with them; others had been placed in foster care while the required background checks on family members were conducted.
As the French clearance operation got under way, in a statement to the Commons Rudd denied that the government had acted too slowly and blamed French officials for not granting access to the camp and for delays in processing vulnerable children, prompting Labour MP Diane Abbott’s accusation that she was hiding behind the French. Rudd told MPs that 200 children, including 60 girls, many of whom had been at risk of sexual exploitation, had arrived in the UK. In addition, she said that 800 others claiming family links in the UK had been interviewed by the Home Office in the past week.
Rudd reiterated that the children chosen to come to the UK would be selected on the basis of three factors: how likely they were to be granted refugee status; whether they were aged 12 or under; and whether they were at high risk of sexual exploitation. To discourage others from attempting to make the journey to Calais, she stressed that no child who arrived in the ‘Jungle’ after the process of clearance began would be considered and added that unaccompanied refugee children will not be allowed to sponsor their parents to come and join them in the UK (Hansard HC Debates vol 616, col 55 onwards, 24 October 2016).
In the press, Abbott has criticised the ‘disgraceful’ treatment of the refugees and observed: ‘The refugees should have been processed and checked before any dispersal and destruction of the camp.’ Wendy Pettifer, a solicitor with Hackney Community Law Centre who has been to the ‘Jungle’ several times to provide legal advice through the Calais Legal Shelter, is also critical of the manner in which the camp was closed: ‘I’m not saying that the camp should not have been cleared, but that it shouldn’t have been done in this inhumane and chaotic fashion.’
Pettifer had commissioned an independent environmental health officer’s report on the conditions in the camp in July, which highlighted, in particular, the lack of drainage and inadequate lavatory facilities. However, she chose not to publish it for fear that it would have added weight to the calls from the French authorities that the camp should be destroyed.
The UK’s response to the situation, Pettifer says, has been ‘inadequate, facile and inhumane’. She adds: ‘For the last week the government has been doing what it should have been doing for the last year.’ Her dozen complex cases that she says ‘have been sitting for months, without the government doing anything about them’ have now all been dealt with and all 12 people have arrived in the UK. While she is pleased for the individual clients, Pettifer says the work should have been done sooner and has only begun now because the camp is being cleared.
Life in the camp
The observer arriving at the camp was greeted by the sight of French police dawdling at its outskirts. As an unofficial camp, people did not have to register and could come and go as they pleased. Hopeful and often ironic graffiti covered the concrete walls, bearing the words ‘London Calling’ or ‘Home sweet home’. Walking along the track into the camp, individuals crouched on the muddy slopes, huddled over their mobile telephones – their precious means of contacting friends and family back home.
Wandering around, the camp was relatively quiet, broken by the call to prayer from one of the mosques established there. The smell of charcoal hung in the air, and a few men and boys wandered or cycled through the muddy lanes in between the tents, caravans, other dwellings and pools of fetid water.
Shops and restaurants had reopened in one of the main thoroughfares, after being closed earlier in the year, and someone had pinned a printed sign to a lamp post, naming the main road ‘Theresa May Street’. Other signs asked people not to take photos, as the migrants had too often been bitten by journalists pretending to be friendly and then filing columns spewing anti-refugee sentiments.
Following a visit there, Labour MP Diane Abbott said: ‘[W]ords cannot convey the horror of the conditions there. People are sleeping under canvas in sub-zero temperatures; there is squalor, a lack of sanitation, violence, and threats of sexual assault. Nobody should have to be in those conditions for a minute longer than necessary, and that is particularly true for children.’
But the camp had been home to thousands for months or even years. It was not an entirely hopeless place: outside one tent, rows of brightly coloured flowers had been planted and tended. The place came alive in the evening, as residents prepared for the night’s attempts to board lorries for the UK. It was a place where time and lives were on hold. Its closure spells an end to the hopes of many to start a new life in the UK.
Sea sorrow, directed by Vanessa Redgrave
Oscar-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave has been out to the ‘Jungle’ and has campaigned for more to be done to help the refugees. To spread the message, she has directed a short documentary, Sea sorrow, highlighting the plight of refugees, there and across Europe, who make perilous journeys in the hope of starting new lives in safety. With extracts from Shakespeare and historical documents, read by Emma Thompson and Ralph Fiennes, and interviews with refugees, Redgrave has sought to put the present refugee crisis in a historical context.
At a screening of the film, hosted by London’s Doughty Street Chambers, Redgrave explained that she made the film because she felt that her life experiences ‘threw light’ on what is happening now. She had been evacuated during the war, remembered hearing Eleanor Roosevelt reading out the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and had helped Hungarian refugees who fled to London after the Hungarian uprising. The actress accused the British government of being ‘responsible for the death of children’ by ‘deliberately’ delaying the process of getting those with family members in the UK out.
The screening was organised by the Human Rights Committee of the Bar Council. Commenting on the situation, its chair, Kirsty Brimelow QC, said: ‘We are in the middle of a historic wrong.’
Labour MP Stella Creasy is critical of politicians ‘spending more time arguing about refugees than helping them’.