France and the United Kingdom should ensure that all unaccompanied children in informal migrant camps in Calais receive adequate accommodation and care before the camps are demolished, Human Rights Watch said today.
French authorities have signaled that demolition of the camps, sometimes called the “Jungle” by their residents, will begin on October 24, 2016. An estimated 1,300 or more unaccompanied asylum-seeking and migrant children, most from Afghanistan, Sudan, and Eritrea, are now in the camps. Many have stayed there for months.
“French authorities have set an unrealistic and artificial deadline for providing adequate alternatives for the many unaccompanied children in Calais,” said Michael Bochenek, senior counsel on children’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “French and British authorities are making last-minute efforts to find solutions for these children, but these steps are too little and too late: no closure should happen until these kids’ rights are guaranteed.”
About 400 children are considered eligible for transfer to the UK because they have family members living there, aid agencies working in the camps report, but fewer than 50 of those have arrived in the UK since French authorities announced that demolition was imminent. Nor have French authorities put into place arrangements for the accommodation and care of the children remaining in the camps.
In addition to the small number of unaccompanied children transferred to the UK to date, some other children and adults have been relocated to accommodations elsewhere in France. Nevertheless, at the current pace of relocation, hundreds of unaccompanied children will not have been offered alternatives by the time demolitions are scheduled to begin.
French authorities do not appear to have a realistic plan for unaccompanied children who are not transferred to Britain or relocated elsewhere in France by October 24.
Authorities have told aid workers that they intend to move the remaining unaccompanied children into an area of the camp made up of converted containers before demolishing the rest of the camp. These temporary shelters are currently occupied by adult migrants, who would need to be evicted before children can be moved there, an operation that is likely to be contentious.
French authorities expect to house about 550 children in the containers, almost certainly insufficient for the numbers of unaccompanied children who will remain after the last of this week’s transfers to the UK.
The British transfers for family reunification have taken place under a European asylum regulation, known as “Dublin III,” that allows unaccompanied children to be transferred to another European Union member state where they have family members. Most adult asylum seekers are instead required to seek asylum in the first EU country they reach.
The UK could also admit other unaccompanied children, regardless of family ties, under a humanitarian provision of immigration law adopted by its parliament in July. The provision, known as the “Dubs amendment” after its chief proponent, has not been used. While France should assume primary responsibility for securing the rights of children in Calais without family ties, British authorities should facilitate admission of as many Dubs cases as possible.
Nearly all the children in the camps, as well as the adult migrants there, are hoping to reach the UK – and may try to do so as stowaways on trucks, shipping containers, and trains, if necessary.
Unaccompanied children are not immediately deported when they reach the UK. But asylum applications from Afghan and Eritrean children are often denied, despite the risks they face in their home countries, and the Home Office seeks to deport them as soon as they turn 18.
Unaccompanied children from these and other countries are far more likely to receive asylum or other status in France, but some of those Human Rights Watch spoke to were not aware of that option. Children who seek asylum in France face formidable bureaucratic obstacles and protracted delays, however. Mistreatment at the hands of police also deterred children from seeking to stay in France, children and aid workers told Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch documented excessive use of force by police against adult asylum seekers in Calais in January 2015.
Human Rights Watch identified other concerns in advance of the camps’ demolition.
Aid workers and camp residents have received limited and sometimes contradictory information about demolition plans. The lack of clear information suggests both that French authorities have not adequately prepared for the demolitions to minimize the risk of violent protest and that they do not have sufficient alternative accommodation available for those who wish to remain in France to pursue asylum claims.
Other actions by French authorities seem needlessly provocative. As one example, aid workers told Human Rights Watch that riot police fired water cannons and tear gas along the emergency access road at one end of the camp early on the morning of October 16, 2016, in what the aid workers surmised was a drill. The exercise was audible throughout the camp, and children and adults told Human Rights Watch researchers that they had heard tear gas canisters being fired.
French authorities should ensure that all unaccompanied children have alternative care and accommodation before the camps are demolished, if necessary by postponing demolition. The UK government should accept humanitarian transfers under the Dubs amendment as well as transfers based on family ties.
All adult asylum-seekers should also be offered alternative accommodation before the existing ad hoc camps are demolished. Finally, French authorities should ensure that any evictions from the camps are carried out in accordance with international standards and in particular that any use of force is strictly necessary and proportionate to the circumstances.
“Unaccompanied children should have real access to asylum or other long-term protection in accordance with their best interests,” Bochenek said. “For France, that means ensuring that these children get the information and support they need to make claims, and for Britain, it means ending the practice of deporting children when they turn 18.”