Last Friday, a group of child refugees from the French Calais camp arrived at an immigration centre in Croydon, London. After months of political tug of war between Britain and France, the first 14 minors had been brought to the UK on the Monday before, and more are expected to follow during the upcoming weeks.
Responsibility for about 1,000 underage Calais refugees, of whom an estimated 600-900 are unaccompanied minors, has been handed back and forth between France and the UK for months. The EU’s Dublin Regulation, signed in 1990, allows immigrants under 18 to join their parents or siblings in a European country. In addition, the British government passed the Dubs amendment this May, which offers sanctuary to the most vulnerable child refugees in Europe. Still, in the first 9 months of 2016, only 80 children have been transferred from France to the UK. While the Dubs amendment predicted that 3,000 children would be eligible, Home Secretary Amber Rudd has stated that even 300 would be a “good result”. According to the Home Office, French authorities have recently been requested to verify a list of 387 children legally qualified to be united with family members in Britain.
The hesitant British resettlement programme emerged under the pressure of the imminent demolition of the Calais camp promised by the French government, but the situation had become unsteady long before. The camp, also called “The Jungle”, is located close to the Eurotunnel, about 31 miles from the UK border. It currently hosts about 10,000 refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and other war-torn countries, and another 100 immigrants arrive every day. The camp is packed with wooden shacks and huts, with little space left for the newly arrived to put up their tents.
Conditions are particularly harsh for children, some of whom have made their way alone through several countries – Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria or Italy – stuffed into the trunks of cars and lorries. The Jungle is run by dedicated volunteers – mostly young Britons and several Frenchmen with prior NGO experience. There are youth centres and one makeshift school. Despite their efforts, children in Calais are exposed to “abuse, exploitation and road accidents while awaiting their uncertain fate”, according to UNICEF.
Raheemullah Oryakhle, a 14-year-old Afghan boy, is one of eight Calais migrants who have died in road accidents since the beginning of the year. Encouraged by human traffickers, some refugees induce roadblocks on the motorway, attempting to secretly board the trucks headed for Britain. The situation has long been unbearable, not only for the residents of Calais and especially the camp’s growing population, but also for British lorry drivers, who protested by blocking traffic on the English side of the tunnel this month. So far, attempted solutions to the problem have included a 12ft fence topped with barbed wire, now followed by a planned 13ft concrete wall on both sides of the motorway. The British immigration minister Robert Goodwill spoke of “building this big new wall very soon”.
Aid groups on both sides of the channel have heavily criticised what they see as inefficient crisis management. French charities attempted to force a delay of the camp’s clearance, but their appeal was rejected last week. Citizens UK threatened legal actions against the UK government, should it fail to start transferring children under the Dubs amendment’s terms. Home Office has reacted by promising to welcome further child refugees. In France, 4,400 Calais migrants will be placed in nearby French towns, and 80 migrants can study at a public university in Lille. Still, many are agreeing with Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who stated that “the safety of up to 400 unaccompanied children stranded in Calais is put at risk by the government’s ‘foot-dragging’”.
The dispute over Calais has also put its toll on the British-French relationship. French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve has recently warned of the “damaging blame game between France and the UK”. In 2003, the two states agreed that British border control takes place on French ground. The UK’s refusal to welcome immigrants at that time transformed Calais into a bottleneck. Since then, politicians of all levels of government have used Calais for political purposes. In France, the upcoming presidential elections have incited the candidates Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy to promise a renegotiation or elimination, respectively, of the 2003 border deal. A Downing Street source replied that they assume the agreement to continue as planned.
The Front National mayor of the town of Béziers, which will receive 40 Calais refugees, put up posters reading: “The state imposes them on us – that’s it, they arrive … the immigrants in our city centre”. In Britain, Tory MP David Davies suggested dental checks to determine the refugee children’s age, which was immediately dismissed by the Home Office (“inaccurate, inappropriate and unethical”). Via twitter, Nigel Farage also engages in speculations over the child refugees’ age.
The Sun was the first media outlet to publish pictures of alleged refugees, questioning their age. However, it failed to report that it was illegal to print photos of children under 16 without a guardian’s consent, which explains why it was only older minors in the photos; nor did it mention that the refugees are thoroughly screened. However, while immigration minister Robert Goodwill promises that children under 13 will be prioritised, Tina Brocklebank, a volunteer for the French NGO L’Auberge des Migrants, expressed concern that the most vulnerable children could still be overlooked in the camp in Calais.
Comments on social media range from the tasteless to hate speech. In response to a migrant’s death on the motorway, one user tweeted: “one down … thousands to go give that driver a medal ……… made my day LOLOLOL”. Others like Alastair Harper, who works for UNICEF, attempt to fight such online racism. Last Tuesday he posted a photo of himself aged 16 with the hashtag #refugeeswelcome, demonstrating that age cannot be determined from pictures. UNICEF UK condemns the hatred towards immigrants, stating that “at a time when the UK has shown real humanity and commitment […], it’s a great shame that a vocal few are now questioning their right to be here”.
The Calais crisis has for many become a symbol of the EU’s inefficiency in handling immigration, and it highlights the harmful roles played by populist politicians and scandalmongering media outlets. Right now, the Calais refugees, the overworked police forces and the volunteers are in desperate need of a plan, which should arguably include the transfer of eligible children to the UK. Solving the immigration crisis will require inter-European cooperation, and will need to include ensuring safe and humane living conditions in refugee camps to those traumatized by war or political prosecution. British undergraduate student Sophie Flinder received international attention for her analysis of the “improvised urban space” of the Calais “Jungle”, which could serve as a starting point for improving future immigrant facilities. Without any doubt, the current situation is a disaster, not to mention inappropriate for basic human rights. As a 14-year-old Afghan refugee has remarked: “Only animals live in the Jungle”.
Image: Global Justice Now