The first children from the Calais refugee camp who can come to the UK under fast track arrangements are thankfully starting to arrive here after their ordeals.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to protect these vulnerable children. As the Jungle’s closure looms, the focus must be on getting all those children with family here transferred to the UK as soon as possible – whatever this takes. For those children who arrive, there must also be support in place for them to recover from their traumatic experiences, to ensure they have access to education and school places, as well as have any health treatment they may need.
When I recently visited the Calais refugee camp, along with my counterparts from France and Belgium, I was able to see for myself the scale of need of those that have made this miserable place home. I was struck how noticeably bigger and noisier the camp had become since the last time I was there before the summer. There was undoubtedly heightened activity. Charities including Citizens UK and Safe Passage have been doing a fantastic job in identifying and assessing children. But the clock is ticking and the French are impatient to get the camp closed.
One explanation for the timing I was given was a little known law which prohibits people being made deliberately homeless during the winter months. The amnesty for tenants, or ‘trêve hivernale’, means proceedings by landlords to evict a tenant may continue, but no one can be turned out on to the streets from winter till spring, with certain exceptions, such as alternative lodgings being found. Winter starts very soon.
I support the closure of the jungle camp, which is no place for anyone, least of all a child. It is dangerous and there are ruthless traffickers ready and waiting at every turn to exploit desperation. Let’s remember that the 1200 children in Calais have fled war and persecution. Many will be traumatised yet face their temporary homes being demolished with little detail about where they will be accommodated, or how they will be supported.
Postponement of the camp’s clearance created a last window of opportunity to protect children but that window will soon close.
The signs from my conversations are that the UK Government fully understands the urgency. Around 300 or even more children from the camp could be on their way to the UK within days, eligible to come here under Dublin III and potentially the ‘Dubs’ amendment. A mammoth effort is underway to identify these children, make contact with family members, and get all the necessary paper and safeguarding work done.
But what of the other children, with more than 1,200 at the camp? Most of these children are unaccompanied and they will all need support and proper accommodation before clearance of the camp starts. The French Government has said that children will be transferred to reception centres around the country – but with dismantling of the site imminent there is a desperate need to register all children in the camp and for the authorities to properly process them. On my last visit, those working at the camp told me of their fears about what would happen to these children.
Not all children want to come to the UK, despite what some say. This may be the case when they don’t know their rights. But one NGO said 90% of the children they worked with want to stay in France. Many of the children and young people I’ve spoken to while in the camp tell me the same thing.
The last time a section of the camp was cleared around 130 children went missing, off the radar of authorities and charities working at the camp. The fear is that some fell into the hands of traffickers. There must not be a repeat of this, or worse, when a far more extensive operation begins. The UK appears to have stepped up to the challenge of protecting hundreds of children. Efforts from France must show a similar level of commitment long before the bulldozers go in.