Yvette Cooper has warned that child refugees risk slipping into the hands of smugglers as the Calais “Jungle” camp is demolished.
After violence overnight in the Calais camp, Cooper, who is chair of the Home Affairs select committee, expressed her concerns that there were not enough plans in place for dealing with the hundreds of children left in the Jungle.
The clearing of the settlement began on Monday morning, with buses used to transport the majority of the camp’s estimated 6,500 residents to temporary accommodation centres.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Cooper said: “There are children and teenagers who have family in the UK who could be looking after them…they are still stuck in Calais today.
“Once the clearances start we know that there is a significant risk that those children and young people just disappear, that’s what happened last time when part of the camp was closed without a plan.
“The consequences are they slip into the hands of the smuggler gangs and traffickers and just at the point where they might have been able to be reunited with their family, they are lost.
“There are also other children. We passed the Dubs Amendment back in May, so that Britain could do its bit to help lone child refugees, for example more than 50 teenage girls from Eritrea, who will no doubt have faced all kinds of sexual exploitation and abuse as part of being trafficked and it’s right that Britain should be doing its bit to help. But we know there are many more who could be helped as part of the Dubs Amendment but again they’re not being assessed and we don’t know what the plan is for them.”
She added: “I’m really worried that Britain left this far, far too late to do its bit in terms of helping with children and teenagers.”
The last census carried out by Help Refugees identified 1022 unaccompanied minors living in the camp, at least 387 of whom have a legal right to be in the UK.
Dismantling of the camp is expected to begin on Tuesday, a spokesman for the French interior ministry said.
He told the Press Association: “Our priority is to welcome immigrants in order to protect them in France in good structures, good houses.
“We hope there will be numerous (people) but we don’t know, and we hope to welcome just on Monday about 2,000-3,000 people.”
Ahead of the looming eviction, violence in the camp flared, with tear gas released by police on Saturday and Sunday evenings amid clashes involving small rocks being thrown.
Camp residents yelled and jeered as a convoy of police vans drove by the edge of the camp as darkness fell on Sunday.
Images from the scene also showed fires burning and Sky News reported French police reportedly fired tear gas at refugees throwing stones.
Protesters from the No Borders group are also reported to have travelled to Calais in an effort to frustrate the evictions.
Over the last 48 hours, volunteers have been delivering thousands of rucksacks and urging residents to be prepared to leave in a bid to minimise the risk of violence.
Refugees queued for hours in the muddy, waterlogged main thoroughfare running through the centre of the camp for bags to pack their belongings into.
From Monday, 60 buses are expected to take thousands of the camp’s residents to temporary reception centres where they will have to claim asylum in France within a set period of time or face deportation.
It is believed they will be sorted into groups of families, minors, vulnerable or ill people and others travelling alone at a registration centre at the edge of the camp and given coloured wristbands depending on which region they say they would like to be sent to.
Aid workers are advising refugees to register for the buses together as they believe this will give certain groups of friends or communities the best chance of being moved together and not separated.
A further 85 buses are expected to arrive on Tuesday and Wednesday as the mass eviction continues.
Those who refuse to leave Calais risk being arrested and deported, charities warn.
The UK government has called for as many unaccompanied children with links to the UK as possible to be transferred from the camp before it is closed.
Some 70 young people who have come to the UK from the camp will be housed in emergency accommodation in Devon before being reunited with family members or moved to other parts of the country.
The latest groups of refugee children to arrive in the UK from the camp have kept hidden behind a screen, with campaigners insisting this was to protect them rather than to hide their age - a subject which has been the focus of much debate in recent days.
Immigration minister Robert Goodwill said: “We are absolutely committed to safeguarding and protecting children in Calais and have already transferred a considerable number of unaccompanied minors to the UK so far this year.
“We are working closely with our French partners and the immediate priority is to ensure those who remain in the camp are provided with secure accommodation during the clearance operation. UK officials will continue to identify those eligible to come to Britain.
“Our focus is, and will continue to be, transferring all eligible minors to the UK as soon as possible and ensuring they arrive safely. This must be done through an agreed and proper process and with the agreement of the French.”
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais said: “We are extremely disappointed that demolitions have gone ahead despite the fact that the necessary steps to safeguard children and move people calmly were not fully in place. There is a very clear emphasis on the rush to destroy buildings rather than on peoples’ safety and well-being.
“In the coming days we are focusing on providing as much support and information as possible to refugees who have already been through so much and now face an uncertain and frightening future.
“For the last year Care4Calais and a small number of other charities have been the only ones providing vital aid to refugees; we are extremely concerned for their well-being once they are out of our care and in the hands of the French Government who have so far failed to offer this support.
“Following the February evictions we heard reports of serious failings at some of the welcome centres including a lack of basic necessities and access to the interpreters and legal information needed for refugees to be able to claim asylum. Without this, they face unfair deportation.
“We are also concerned that unofficial camps in the North of France will now grow, these suffer from a severe lack of infrastructure, no running water, toilets or medical facilities, and so where possible we will also direct aid to these areas.”
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