I recently met “Birhan” in a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in southern France. Birhan is a friendly 17-year-old boy from Eritrea —he was open to speaking to me and offering to make me tea, which I accepted gratefully on a cold day.

Birhan did not experience much kindness on his long journey to France. In Libya, he was imprisoned by smugglers for four months, who beat him, along with other migrants.  He had one meal a day, no clean water. After paying to get out, he boarded a boat to Italy. He survived the treacherous trip across the Mediterranean and travelled from Italy to Calais, to the makeshift camp in northern France near the English Channel, in the hope of crossing the Channel and joining his brother in the United Kingdom.

Unaccompanied children in the Calais migrant camp await interviews with the UK Home Office, October 22, 2016. 

© 2016 ZALMAÏ/Human Rights Watch
But things turned out differently: in October, French authorities dismantled the camp and put Birhan on a bus to an interim shelter, a Reception and Orientation Center for Unaccompanied Minors (Centres d’accueil et d’orientation pour mineurs isolés, CAOMI) in southern France, where he would wait while his claim to go to the UK would be reviewed.

There are many teenagers and young men like Birhan. Travelling on their own, they flee war-torn or repressive countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan, and go to Calais in the hopes of joining relatives or friends in the UK. After the camp’s closure, authorities registered over 1,900 migrants as children and took them to 85 CAOMIs across France. UK officials interviewed them to assess their eligibility under European family reunification regulations and under a humanitarian provision of the UK’s 2016 immigration law, the “Dubs amendment” on unaccompanied children. They also assessed their ages and found some to be young adults.

By mid-December, the process was largely finished; the UK had admitted about 550 migrant children for family reunification and another 200 children for entry under the Dubs amendment. There was no such process for adults.

I met Birhan the day after he had learned that the UK had rejected his claim. His brother, the government decided, was too young at age 24 to care for him. Birhan was dumbfounded, angry, and sad. “He has his own home in London, a job, and [British] nationality,” he told me.

The outlook for child migrants took a turn for the worse when on 8 February, the UK immigration minister, Robert Goodwill, announced that the UK had ended transfers under the Dubs amendment—even though the government had spoken of accepting between 1,000 and 3,000 children when the provision was debated in Parliament. The UK’s decision to end this humanitarian program tarnishes its history as a refuge for thousands of refugee children during World War II. The UK should restate its commitment to the Dubs amendment and ensure that an overly narrow application of the criteria does not lead to unfair or arbitrary decisions.

The young migrants in France whose claims have been rejected feel that their dreams have been shattered. Birhan recently texted me: “Hi julyana am fine… am in calise [Calais]”. “Am sleep in the street.”  “There is no shelter all people sleep in different place.”

Already since the beginning of the year, many of them have been leaving the shelters and returning to Calais and surrounding areas. There are reportedly 300-400 unaccompanied minors in the Calais area, relying on assistance from local refugee support groups that distribute food, blankets, and sleeping bags. Despite the cold weather, they are sleeping rough on the streets, risking sickness and even death from the cold as well as abuse by the police or local residents. They risk abuse or lorry accidents when they put their trust in smugglers to take them to the UK.

The fate of these young migrants depends also on the French government response. The French government has left these young migrants in limbo, placing them in CAOMIs outside the regular asylum and child protection system as an interim measure. The agencies hired to run the centers have varied in quality—while some have done an excellent job, others have lacked experience in supporting unaccompanied child migrants. Communication between the young migrants and French social workers or government officials has often been difficult due to the absence of qualified translators. In one shelter that I visited in December, a crowd of young migrants gathered around me to voice their anger and distrust toward the staff running the place.

CAOMIs were officially planned to close on January 31. While some have closed, others have been extended. Now, in mid-February, the authorities have finally started to conduct age determinations by interviewing migrants. Those found to be still under the age of 18 need to be moved into the regular child protection system and given support to file asylum applications. Those found to be over 18—officials told Human Rights Watch that about half of migrants interviewed were in fact adults—should be moved into the regular asylum system for adults.

French authorities need to ensure that all migrants—adults and children—are given information about the asylum process in France and their rights, including the procedure to seek family reunification under the Dublin regulations. It is vital for these young migrants that they quickly access the support they need, begin French language lessons, and start school. Delaying this process further will make their integration harder and increase the likelihood that they will leave the shelters.

As for the young migrants in the Calais area, a new approach is needed. In the past, French police have harassed and ill-treated migrants in the Calais area. This has to change—otherwise, trust cannot be rebuilt and young migrants will avoid approaching state officials, even if they desperately need help. French authorities should urgently put in place emergency child protection measures in northern France to reach out to migrant children and ensure they can get shelter, food, and protection. And these services need the cooperation of the police, who are likely to be the first ones to come in contact with and identify child migrants.