Written for and published in New Statesman, Friday 19th January 2018.
Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron met on Thursday to discuss border security and defence, following Macron’s visit to Calais earlier this week. Macron will press May to take in more child refugees from the area, while the UK pledges an extra £44.5m to enhance border security in Calais. This extra money might sound generous, but in fact it displays once more the shirking of responsibility on the part of the UK in dealing with the situation in Calais.
Aid organisations on the ground in Calais, including Help Refugees, a charity founded in 2015 to respond to the refugee crisis in Europe, are concerned that the human rights of refugees and displaced people in Northern France are being systematically violated on French territory. An open letter to Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron was drawn up ahead of their meeting. It listed specific issues that we see every day on the ground, including the heightened risk of sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking to which children and young people are exposed to. It also highlighted the recent deaths on Calais’ motorways, including that of a 15-year-old boy.
Displaced people in Calais are the UK’s responsibility. Why? Because many have a legal right to be reunited with family in the UK. This is nothing new, and should not be a contentious issue. Both France and the UK have a responsibility to ensure that displaced people in the area gain access to family reunification processes under the Dublin Procedure.
However, associations in Calais have observed that, currently, the average waiting time for children and unaccompanied minors waiting for access to family reunification or the Dub’s scheme is around nine months. During this waiting period, young people are sleeping rough in the streets and woods of Calais. Children as young as ten are also taking potentially fatal risks in their attempts to cross illegally. We call for a timely, safe and legal passage for children and young people in Calais to prevent wholly unnecessary deaths at the border. There are still 200 placements available for unaccompanied minors to be transferred to safety under the Dubs Amendment, which was incorporated after much lobbying from Alf Dubs and others into the Immigration Act 2016. The proposers of the scheme wanted the UK to take in 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children. In fact, the government has only taken a tenth of the number.
The UK currently provides £80m to France for three years of border security, and has pledged a further £44.5m to strengthen border security through yet more fencing, as well as CCTV and infrared detection devices. Macron has also promised extra funding to the police forces operating in Calais, and has praised them for their work thus far, glossing over reports of endemic police brutality in the region.
We call for a proportion of these funds to be allocated to reception centres for people whose claims are being processed. It is the UK government’s responsibility to ensure that those with a legal right to be in the UK are not left sleeping outside in the current cold temperatures and inadequate living conditions, risking their lives each night. According to our records, five children with a legal right to be in the UK have died at the border in the past two years.
A further proportion of these funds should go towards child protection and anti-trafficking services, with high priority. Children and young people in Calais are extremely vulnerable to sexual violence, trafficking and exploitation, and are routinely let down by the authorities in France. We call for funds to put towards adequate shelter, mental and physical health services and other basic services such as food, water and sanitation for unaccompanied minors in Calais, urgently.
The UK has a responsibility to displaced people in Calais, yet is continuing to ignore this. Downing Street’s statement prior to the Franco-British summit barely mentioned Calais at all, instead choosing to make vague statements about defence and security, which suggests that the UK government intends to continue shirking responsibility for the situation in Calais. Since the meeting, Britain has promised to process child asylum seekers’ claims within 25 days, but Downing Street played down the idea that this would lead to the UK taking in more refugees. In the meantime, 600+ people are sleeping rough in freezing temperatures, many with a legal right to asylum in the UK, with no means of achieving this right beyond dangerous and potentially fatal means.