In the face of unprecedented numbers of people in forced displacement world-wide, European states have been forced to consider their own policy responses with the arrival of significant numbers of people seeking sanctuary in Europe. In the UK, the so-called ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais, France, was a highly salient issue on the UK political agenda, not least because it appeared that most of the individuals in this makeshift camp were hoping to continue their journey onto the UK. However, since the camp’s demolition in 2016 many have now returned, and there are again approximately 700 displaced people living in the area, among them, hundreds of unaccompanied children. As is so often the case in large-scale humanitarian crises, the situation in Calais being no exception, children are amongst the most vulnerable individuals. They face an increased risk of exploitation and abuse, often at the hands of traffickers, where high levels of insecurity and precarity directly affect their rights to health, education and development at a crucial time in their lives.
As a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the British Government is committed to upholding the rights of the child regardless of nationality, race, colour, sex, language or religion. The unaccompanied children who currently reside in Calais are of direct relevance to the UK and its policy makers – many hope to reach the UK and are likely to have family and support networks there. Due to the lack of legal routes to seek asylum or apply for family reunification in the UK, these vulnerable children continue to risk their lives at the back of lorries each night, and their day-to-day existence is characterised by violence and ill-health. Despite its international commitments, in February 2017 the UK Government withdrew its support for a piece of legislation known as the Dubs amendment. First introduced in 2016, the legislation was intended to provide a safe, legal route for unaccompanied children to reach the UK from France, Greece and Italy.
Our findings clearly indicate that schemes like the Dubs amendment are still very much needed to protect the human rights of vulnerable children. After the aforementioned demolition of the ‘Jungle’ camp, 98.8% of the children we interviewed in April 2017 were unaccompanied. The living conditions for these vulnerable children are far below any internationally expected standards, with the majority finding themselves in destitution and without access to clean water or shelter. An alarming 85.9% of children said they don’t feel safe in and around the Calais area, and 96.5% of children had experienced police violence in the area, including tear gas, physical violence and verbal abuse. Alongside violence and detrimental living conditions, our research found that only 16.9% of children had access to information about their rights and how to break out of their current situation. Instead, they continue to endure inhumane conditions and abuse in the hope that they will eventually be able to cross the border and, for many of them, submit their asylum case or family reunification application to the British Home Office.
In order for the British Government to move towards effective policy action to resolve the situation in Calais, the rights of the child as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child need to be at the centre of policy making. A key decision that would help the Government honour its tradition of human rights and child protection would be to re-open the Dubs scheme, allowing unaccompanied children safe, legal passage to reach the UK. Once re-opened, its criteria ought to be expanded to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not risk being excluded, and a revised cut-off date should be implemented to address additional concerns. Importantly, a multi-agency effort is required to ensure that those children who qualify under the Dublin lll regulation with relatives in the UK are identified and quickly transferred. Safe legal routes such as the Dubs scheme and Dublin lll are integral in combatting the growing power of traffickers who are known to exploit vulnerable children. As well as this, the UK must continue to work with French counterparts to advocate for the safeguarding and rights of the child on French soil. The current approach of intense policing and heavy-handedness revealed by RRDP research needs to stop, as it does nothing to resolve the situation. Instead, resources should be dedicated to setting up a standard safeguarding framework, comprising monitoring mechanisms to minimise the risk of unaccompanied children going missing and falling into the hands of traffickers, along with an adequate team of social workers, medics and interpreters. The provision of water and shelter is also urgently required in the interim.
While much of the discussion in Britain on unaccompanied children in displacement has revolved around proof of age, nationality and the strength of family ties, the human rights situation faced by displaced children in Europe continues to deteriorate. Due to the serious nature of the child protection failure unfolding in Calais and beyond, it appears to be of utmost importance that the debate in the UK moves beyond such divisive matters and that the focus is shifted towards finding constructive solutions to the situation. Regardless of the motivation for the journey, unaccompanied children must be treated as children first and foremost and afforded adequate levels of protection under national and international law.
Alice Lucas is the Senior Programme Officer at Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP)
RRDP envisions a world in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to all individuals, including refugees and people in displacement. To work towards their vision, they conduct first-hand field research, develop partners’ awareness of the situation on the ground, and actively engage in dialogue with all stakeholders to inform policies and practices that affect refugees and displaced people seeking sanctuary in Europe.
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