UK and France argue over fate of 1,000 unaccompanied children in ‘the Jungle’ camp

Many of them are legally entitled to cross the English Channel into Britain and campaigners say both countries have a moral duty to ensure a safe future for the children – some of them are as young as eight – before the migrant camp closes, reports Kate Shuttleworth.

Afghan refugee Safi, 14, looks out of the window of a caravan he is sleeping in with five other Afghan refugees in Calais' so-called 'Jungle' camp. Kate Shuttleworth for The National
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CALAIS // With bulldozers on standby to begin demolishing the Calais migrant camp next week, French and British officials are discussing what to do about more than 1,000 unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK.

Many of them are legally entitled to cross the English Channel into Britain and campaigners say both countries have a moral duty to ensure a safe future for the children – some of them are as young as eight – before the camp, nicknamed “the Jungle”, closes.

But neither the French nor British can agree whose responsibility that should be.

Before a meeting with his British counterpart, Amber Rudd, in London earlier this week, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said, “We are in the process of drawing up a precise list, but the British need to live up to their responsibilities. We have lived up to ours.”

After the meeting, Ms Rudd said it was up to France to determine which children were eligible. “The primary responsibility lies with the French authorities. The UK government has no authority in France,” she said.

A British human rights group, Help Refugees, has created a census of all the migrants living in the Jungle but the French authorities question its accuracy and insist on carrying out their own. It identified 1,022 unaccompanied minors living in the camp, of whom at least 387 had a legal right to be in the UK.

The British Red Cross said 178 unaccompanied children in the camp had been identified as having the right to claim asylum in Britain because they had relatives there.

But the fate of another 800 children remained unclear. Earlier this year 127 children living in the camp without any relatives went missing when parts of the camp were demolished. As conditions deteriorate, with facilities shutting down in preparation for complete closure, some are taking greater risks to reach Britain.

Three weeks ago a 14-year-old boy from Afghanistan, with the legal right to travel to the UK, died in a hit-and-run incident on the motorway leading to Calais port. Eyewitnesses said he was trying to climb on to the roof of a lorry that had slowed down near the port.

Another Afghan teenager tried to pull him on to the moving lorry, but he lost his grip and the boy fell on to the road and was hit by a car. The driver did not stop.

His death was the 13th of a refugee from the Jungle this year and the third of a child, according Help Refugees.

In September, seven-year-old Ahmed Sabour, also Afghan, addressed 22,000 people at a rally in London’s Parliament Square and told of his own narrow escape last year.

Ahmed was trying to join his older brother in Britain, and was one of 15 asylum seekers in the back of a refrigerated lorry. Oxygen levels inside the lorry were getting low but the driver refused to stop. Ahmed sent a desperate text message in broken English to Liz Clegg, a volunteer in Calais who had given him a basic mobile to use in emergencies. Ms Clegg was with refugees at a conference in New York when she got the message but she alerted a colleague in Help Refugees in London who called the police. Ahmed’s mobile phone was tracked to a motorway service station in Leicestershire, central England, and police were able to break open the doors, rescuing all those inside.

All of them except Ahmed were arrested on suspicion of entering Britain illegally and another man was arrested on suspicion of assisting illegal entry. Ahmed was taken into protective custody.

He told the London rally he was grateful but added, “I still feel for those people who are stuck in the Jungle and around the world and I am one of the lucky few. “

It took three months for 14-year-old Safi to reach Calais from Afghanistan. He crossed Iran and Turkey on foot, crossed to Greece in a boat with other migrants and then walked across Europe to the northern shores of France. He has languished in Calais for more than a year. Almost every night he tries to hide in a lorry bound for the UK. So far he has been unsuccessful. He is crushed with frustration.

When asked about the dangers of stowing away, he is monosyllabic. Safi does not want to stay in France but he has no family in Britain and therefore no automatic right to settle there.

However, under an amendment to Britain’s immigration laws passed in May, he could qualify for acceptance as a vulnerable unaccompanied minor.

Save the Children estimates there are 90,000 unaccompanied minors currently in Europe but Unicef says only 100 children have been brought to the UK through the family reunification process. Half were from the Jungle. The UK has not accepted any more since the immigration law was amended.

The UK children’s commissioner Anne Longield accepts closing the Jungle is inevitable but says it “needs to be done in a proper and planned way so that the children currently there are protected from harm, so they don’t disappear off the radar, or put themselves in danger in the back of a lorry.”