(Calais) – Local authorities acted prematurely on October 26, 2016, in ending registration and relocation of children and adults from the Calais migrant camp, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Pas-de-Calais prefect, Fabienne Buccio, declared, “Mission accomplished,” claiming that all migrants and asylum seekers had either been moved to centers elsewhere in France or, in the case of unaccompanied children, registered and provided shelter in converted containers. But at least 100 unaccompanied children and hundreds of adults who had been waiting in line when authorities closed registration on October 26 spent the night in the camp, Human Rights Watch researchers observed.

A group of boys and young men from the Calais migrant camp tries to stay warm after gathering before dawn in the hope that registration of unaccompanied children and adults would resume, October 27, 2016.

© 2016 Zalmaï/Human Rights Watch

“In their rush to declare victory and pull out, local authorities in Calais marred what had been a generally peaceful operation,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “It is utterly unacceptable to leave people in the lurch at Calais who need protection.”

Registration for unaccompanied children ended just after noon on October 26, and authorities turned away all remaining adults about three hours later.

In their rush to declare victory and pull out, local authorities in Calais marred what had been a generally peaceful operation.

Bénédicte Jeannerod

France director

French authorities reported that 1,200 unaccompanied children had been registered before the process ended, in addition to 235 who had been transferred to the United Kingdom. Authorities had estimated that the camp held at least 1,300 unaccompanied children before they began to close the camp down on October 24. But aid workers had been saying for the past week that the true number of unaccompanied children in the camp was more likely closer to 1,600.

In all, nearly 5,600 people, counting adults as well as children, were given alternative accommodation between October 24 and the end of the day on October 26, according to the Interior Ministry.

For the thousands of adults who were relocated to other parts of France before registration abruptly ended, the process appears to have largely gone smoothly. But the decision to end the process on October 26 left hundreds of children and adults in limbo, unable to relocate to the alternative accommodation they had been promised, Human Rights Watch said.

For unaccompanied children, the registration process was plagued by other significant problems, Human Rights Watch found.

Unaccompanied children were supposed to have had a designated line to allow them to register and receive temporary accommodation in an area of the camp made up of converted shipping containers. But each of the three days of registration ended with large numbers of children still waiting to be seen. Most of the children turned away on October 26 had lined up before dawn after being sent away at the end of the day on October 25.

Unaccompanied children’s sense of safety diminished with each day as the adults they had lived with departed. A volunteer in the camp told Human Rights Watch, “Many of these adults were, in effect, raising other people’s children, and now they’re gone – leaving kids without the little protection they had.”

Authorities failed to ensure that accurate information reached all children, and unaccompanied children faced practical barriers in access to the registration process.

Arbitrary age assessments meant that some children were turned away. Police arbitrarily ejected some from lines and waiting areas based on their appearance – and in some cases for failure to follow commands in French, a language most do not understand. Others were screened out before they entered the warehouse on the basis of a few questions, other aid workers reported.

Local authorities rejected calls to resume registration at the start of the day on October 27. But in apparent recognition that they had not relocated all adults from the camp, buses resumed service at 10:30 a.m. Authorities also announced at 12:30 p.m. that registration for unaccompanied children would reopen for an hour and a half.

Just before 5:00 p.m., riot police corralled all remaining migrants, including about 15 unaccompanied children, down a side street, with no word on what would happen to them.

Local authorities should work with aid groups to ensure that all remaining unaccompanied children are registered and offered appropriate care and protection, Human Rights Watch said.