We are three volunteers who met working in the Ashram Kitchen, a small community kitchen in the Calais 'Jungle' which served tea, coffee and 600 hot meals a day. The Ashram became part of the informal child protection network in the camp. We worked closely with the organisations providing specific support for the children living there, and tried to ensure that any minors who passed through Ashram had access to the right services. Being a static point in the camp meant we were able to check up on many of the minors on a daily basis when they came in to get food and hot drinks.
We began the Voices for Child Refugees campaign and wrote this open letter as a reaction to the inaction of both the U.K. and French governments, and to address their failure to work together in the best interests of these children. After the closure of the camp, we kept in touch with a number of young refugees. Almost all of them are still waiting to hear about legal cases which have stagnated.
The recent announcement about the end of the Dubs Amendment was the culmination of months of neglect and inaction on the part of the U.K. government. 129 children went missing during the eviction of the south side of the camp earlier in 2016. Despite this, and despite warnings by organisations on the ground that it would happen again, prior to the closure of the camp in November 2016 there was no plan to properly implement measures to safeguard the minors. This, even though there was a serious risk that many children would again be vulnerable to traffickers.
Throughout the evictions, there was extreme confusion about the what the French and U.K. Governments intended to do about the minors. They were registered multiple times in a fashion so chaotic, that even those organisations who had been working exclusively to safeguard children in the camp, were at a loss as to what was happening. 1500 children were accommodated in a set of repurposed shipping containers by the camp for a full week after the evictions, without running drinking water.
When the children were eventually moved to accommodation centres located across France, it seemed transfers to the U.K. under the Dubs Amendment and through a family reunification scheme, would continue. The minors we were in touch with seemed hopeful, as they continued to be interviewed by Home Office officials. However, a month or two later this process began to stall. The Home Office announced stricter criteria for which children were to remain eligible under the Dubs Amendment, determining that only Sudanese and Syrian children were to be taken, and setting an age cap at 14 years. Why were the boys from Afghanistan, fleeing the Taliban, and those from Eritrea, fleeing lifelong conscription, not also considered to be in need of refuge? And are unaccompanied fifteen year olds not considered vulnerable?
Furthermore, months on, those hundreds of minors with family in the U.K who have been denied family reunification, have still not been issued reasons for the rejection of their cases and as a result, are unable to appeal. They are living in centres in France, and are often without proper care, all while they have family members waiting to welcome them in the U.K.
The continuously confusing nature of their situation and the lack of any new information about their cases has led to to a rise in mental health problems in many of the minors. Many have expressed feeling abandoned, lied to, and that they have had their rights taken from them. In many ways they are right. This frustration is causing hundreds of children to run away from youth accommodation centres, with the idea of reaching the U.K. in other ways. They are sleeping in the freezing cold, vulnerable to traffickers, unable to set up tents for fear it will attract attention from the police.
We put our letter on change.org on Saturday and we got 25,000 signatures within 24 hours. By Monday we had over 50,000. Reading the comments on the petition is particularly uplifting, as so many people have left messages of support for these children. There is clear outrage that the government could behave so dishonestly.
One of the goals of our campaign is to make clear what concrete actions the government should be taking regarding the care of these unaccompanied minors, as a result of these often obscure-seeming legal agreements: The Dubs Amendment and the Dublin III Regulations. We want to make the information accessible, so that people understand how European governments are neglecting unaccompanied minors. High-powered politicians are often able to avoid the real issues by discussing them in complicated political language and making large and general claims. We want to bring national attention to the real, tangible issues to inspire people to call for change and demand the Home Office stop reluctantly doing the bare minimum, and start actively protecting the lives and rights of these minors.