Rise Up

These Activists Are Helping Unaccompanied Child Refugees Find Safe Sanctuary

90,000 unaccompanied refugee minors to have arrived in Europe since 2015. Most have nowhere to go, but some are finding help.

by Alice Rowsome
Oct 2 2017, 5:30pm

"I am only 16—you can imagine what it means living in an open forest for three months among young and adult men who I know nothing about. I should tell you that I have been hunted by these boys for three months… What would my mother say if she hears about this? I was not born to be used by strange boys. I was not born to be a sex slave. But, what can I do?"

S16, who cannot be named to protect her identity, is one of 90,000 unaccompanied minors to have arrived in Europe since 2015. Having fled Eritrea a year ago, the 16-year-old made her way through Sudan, Libya and Italy before ending up in Calais, northern France.

Across the English Channel from the clifftop town of Dover, the port city is the principal ferry crossing point between France and England and has, since the 1990s been an important transit route for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Syria, Darfur and South Sudan, wishing to reach the UK. With no legal safe passage, many attempt to cross the channel by stowing away on lorries, ferries and cars, often risking (or losing) their lives in doing so.

"Many children in Calais have family in the UK and have the legal right to be in the UK while they claim asylum."

Issues escalated in 2015. The UK blamed the French authorities for not doing enough to keep refugees out and bought nearly £2 million worth of fences to stop refugees and migrants from crossing into the UK. And finally, in October 2016, French authorities cleared the makeshift refugee camp, which had become home (usually in the shape of a soaked through tent) for 9,000 refugees and migrants. Six months later, the camp in Dunkirk (a few kilometres away from Calais), home mostly to Iraqi and Syrian Kurds (many of which were children) fleeing the so-called Islamic State was burnt down.

The Dunkirk camp after the incident. (Photo via the author)

But with nowhere to go, and no end in sight of the war in Syria and elsewhere, the north of France is once again home to a growing number of refugees and migrants, around 200 of whom minors.

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VICE Impact spoke to Laura Diskin, an activist who is based in Calais with Safe Passage, an organization that exists to help unaccompanied child refugees, like S16 and vulnerable adults find safe, legal routes to sanctuary, to find out why it is so important that vulnerable children are given a safe passage into the UK before the winter sets in.

VICE Impact: What threats do these children and teenagers face?

Laura Diskin: The situation is extremely difficult — refugees including the children are homeless — they face constant police aggression and intimidation. Reports of minors being pepper sprayed while sleeping, beaten up by police. Police are constantly removing sleeping bags, blankets and items and minors need to be on the move to avoid the police and eviction from sleeping spaces. More water taps have been provided but there is a lack of showers and sanitation facilities.

Minors are outside the protective structures of society and face many risks — risks from traffickers, risk of exploitation, the police, lack of sleep, illness, weather conditions particularly as we move into autumn.

In 2016, a 15-year old Afghan refugee suffocated in a lorry on his way to the UK from northern France even though he actually had a legal right to be in the UK. What are you doing to make sure this all-too common tragedy stop happening?

Many children in Calais have family in the UK and have the legal right to be in the UK while they claim asylum. We are working to try and speed up the Dublin III [EU legislation that allows family reunification] process. We want to make the system is more accessible for children as it is so hard to navigate. Ultimately, we want the French and UK government to work together to come up with a longer term, sustainable solution.

Refugees at a distribution site in Calais. (Photo via Safe Passage)

Safe Passage has a three pronged approach to its work: Casework, Strategic Litigation and Advocacy. In Calais we are predominantly working with lawyers on refusal cases as well as cases which are blocked by the system. We have a case of a 13-year-old who still hasn't managed to have an appointment at the prefecture (where he will claim asylum and this request will be sent to the UK government). It has been over 6 months and no appointment has been confirmed highlighting the failures of the system.

For those without straightforward family links, Safe Passage alongside Lord Alfred Dubs, who was himself a child refugee who came to the UK during the Second World War when the Nazis occupied his country, Czechoslovakia, pushed to create the Dubs amendment , a scheme that allows a number of unaccompanied children in the European Union to come to the UK safely. Can you tell us more?

The Dubs amendment was passed in April 2016 amid a campaign to bring 3,000 lone refugee children stuck in camps in Europe to Britain. The Dubs campaign was supported by Safe Passage and one of our staff actually drafted the Dubs amendment.

Ministers initially estimated local authority capacity at 350 but extended it to 480 in April after saying there had been "an administrative error" in the initial figure.

"Post-Brexit is an opportunity to help children access family reunion from beyond Europe - they should not have to reach Europe to be entitled safe and legal reunion with family members."

So far, 200 children have been brought to the UK. One of the criteria for children to meet is that they need to have been in Europe before the EU Turkey deal (20 March 2016), this was to prevent causing a 'pull' factor, and not have claimed asylum in another country. There are not a lot of children who meet that criteria. It's important that the government reconsiders the cut off date for qualification. Hundreds of vulnerable children fail to qualify because of this criteria.

The Dubs campaign was supported by Safe Passage - one of our staff actually drafted the Dubs amendment.

And Safe Passage doesn't just work in Calais?

We recently carried out our first transfer from Greece to Italy, opening up an inter-Europe route. Over 1000 children were safely transferred thanks to the routes we helped open last year.

What next?

We are continuing to open up inter-European routes, currently working with children in Italy who we are trying to reunite with their families in Switzerland and Germany.

Post-Brexit is an opportunity to help children access family reunion from beyond Europe - they should not have to reach Europe to be entitled safe and legal reunion with family members.

There is a lot you can do to support child refugees. You can add your name to the 55,826 signatures-strong petition asking Theresa May to make family reunion fast and safe for child refugees. You can also write or request a meeting with your MP to ask them to stop more children going missing. And this pack gives lots of other concrete ways you can help campaign to save the Dubs scheme. It also explains how you can help recruit new foster caregivers and schools to welcome refugee children.