Breakdown: the dismantling of the Calais “Jungle” and of the promises to its unaccompanied children
24-25 October 2016
Between 24th and 28th October 2016, the Calais refugee camp, known colloquially as ‘theJungle,’ was dismantled and evacuated by French and British authorities. BHRC sent two legal observers, Kirsty Brimelow QC and Jelia Sane, on the 26th and 27th October to observe the processing of the camp’s estimated 1900 unaccompanied minors.
BHRC met with representatives of Médecins Sans Frontières France (‘MSF’), Avocats Sans Frontières, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (‘UNHCR’), media representatives, the Refugee Youth Service, Save the Children, all local French lawyers seeking access to the Jungle, and two France Terre d’Asile (‘FTDA’) officials who became “whistleblowers” and requested anonymity.
Whilst BHRC was denied access to the Jungle by police on 26th October, the delegation gained access to the campsite on 27th October and spoke with many residents, including unaccompanied minors from Sudan and Eritrea. The delegation comprised the only barristers in the Jungle during this time, with local French lawyers and others remaining excluded.
Of note is that MSF, UNHCR and two FTDA officials pulled out of the processing of minors and other vulnerable people in the camp in protest of the arbitrariness, inhumane treatment and chaos.
The evidence collected by BHRC suggests that in the rush to demolish the camp, the French and British authorities failed to take effective steps to safeguard the welfare and safety of unaccompanied children, leaving many at risk. The authorities failed to ensure that children had access to safe accommodation before the demolition began and to provide both them and the organisations on the ground with clear and reliable information about the clearance operation.
The delegation witnessed first hand the terrible conditions that prevailed during the dismantling of the Jungle and gathered information as the camp periodically exploded in flames and then sank back in black smoke.
Children were subjected to a chaotic and unlawful age verification and registration process, based in many cases on physical appearance alone. The methods employed by officials were arbitrary and discriminatory. The delegation heard reports that the authorities did not provide any proper information to children about the age assessment process and that the guidelines that should have been followed were severely curtailed or ignored altogether.
The little information that was provided by the authorities was confused and constantly changing, adding another layer of distress and mistrust to an already vulnerable and traumatised population. BHRC saw and spoke with many unaccompanied minors who had no clear idea of what would happen next. Age disputed children were not given written reasons for decisions or an opportunity to challenge negative age assessments, failings which were compounded by the restrictions placed by the Préfecture on lawyers’ ability to access the campsite and provide legal advice and support. As a result, many children have ended up in adult reception centres, giving rise to obvious safeguarding concerns, while others refused to engage with the authorities and have since gone missing.
British authorities had announced that they would handle family reunification claims under the Dublin III Regulation as well as claims for admission to the UK under the Dubs scheme on-site, under a so-called ‘expedited’ process. Home Office staff were deployed to the Jungle to conduct interviews, raising expectations amongst many children that they would be able to travel to the UK. However this policy was quickly abandoned and children were instead told that they would be relocated to specialist reception centres across France from where their applications would be examined. Approximately 1,000 children were thus bussed out of the Calais camp and dispersed during the demolition and in November and December 2016 Home Office officials travelled to these centres to conduct interviews.
BHRC has learned that family reunion cases under Dublin III were poorly handled such that an estimated 400 unaccompanied minors claiming to have relatives in the UK are now stranded in France having had no proper decisions on their cases. Moreover, BHRC is troubled by the decision of the UK government to cap the number of unaccompanied minors to be resettled from all of Europe at 280 and considers that the sudden cessation of the scheme is contrary to the spirit of the Dubs amendment.
BHRC condemns the failure of the French and British governments to adequately protect the rights of unaccompanied minors prior to the demolition of the Jungle. BHRC further condemns the implementation by the Home Office of the ‘expedited’ process to bring children into the UK, which was rigged with procedural irregularities and manifestly unjust.
The dismantling of the Jungle camp provided a unique opportunity for the French and UK authorities to design and implement suitable procedures to identify and safeguard the welfare and best interests of the unaccompanied children living there in accordance with their obligations under international and domestic law. Given the comparatively small number of children in the camp, the considerable resources of the French state and of the UK, and the repeated warnings by local actors and international human rights bodies of the dangers of dismantling the camp without a clear plan in place for the children, more could and should have been done.
Based on its observations, BHRC makes the following recommendations:
I. Prioritise and provide resources, financial and practical, for locating children who fled Calais or where displaced from “The Jungle.” Vulnerability to trafficking is a pressing concern;
II. Provide support for the children relocated from Calais – including providing access to legal advice in order to challenge rejected Dublin III and Dubs claims.
III. Implement basic safeguarding processes. This is essential in order to protect children from trafficking;
IV. Fill the protection gap which has resulted in children living rough;
V. The national and international legal principle that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration must be properly implemented by the British and French authorities in all actions concerning unaccompanied asylum-seeking children dispersed from Calais.
VI. Remove the arbitrary cut–off date for applications into the UK from children pursuant to the Dubs amendment;
VII. Re-consult upon the Dubs amendment with a view to increasing the number of children eligible under the scheme.
VIII. The British and French authorities must cooperate to implement an effective Dublin III system which is not dependent on private actors, including identifying children with family members in the UK, investigating family links, supporting children in their applications and ensuring that ‘take charge’ requests are promptly dealt with.