The government of the United Kingdom should make full use of all existing laws and regulations to accept transfers of unaccompanied migrant children currently in France, Human Rights Watch said today. The government of France should ensure that unaccompanied migrant children on French territory have full access to asylum procedures, mental health support, and other essential services.
“Many unaccompanied migrant children in France are desperate and want nothing more than to join their relatives in the UK,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “In the absence of any meaningful hope that their status will be resolved soon, there is a real risk that some of them will leave their shelters to reach the UK, risking homelessness, exploitation, and violence.”
An estimated 1,900 unaccompanied migrant children who previously sought to reach the UK from the informal camp in Calais, in northern France, were moved into provisional reception centers across France when government authorities closed the camp in late October 2016. Officials from the UK Home Office interviewed these children in Calais and in the new Reception and Orientation Centers for Unaccompanied Minors (Centres d’accueil et d’orientation pour mineurs isolés, CAOMI) to assess their eligibility for family reunion under European regulations as well as under a humanitarian provision of the UK’s 2016 immigration law that covers unaccompanied children, the “Dubs amendment.” To its credit, the Home Office mobilized considerable resources to interview and review the cases in this expedited process.
On December 9, the Guardian reported that the Home Office had ended this process after accepting about 750 children for transfer. Home Office officials confirmed this figure to Human Rights Watch and clarified that approximately 200 of those children had been accepted under the Dubs amendment. Children with relatives in the UK who were not accepted for transfer during expedited processing can still be considered for transfer once they apply for asylum in France, the Home Office said.
Between December 5 and 16, Human Rights Watch interviewed 41 unaccompanied migrant children fromEthiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan in reception centers in France’s Nouvelle Aquitaine, Auvergne-Rhône Alpes, and Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur regions, as well as CAOMI staff, local government officials, and nongovernmental groups. Human Rights Watch had also interviewed child and adult migrants and staff of nongovernmental groups in Calais, and observed the camp’s closure.
Human Rights Watch found that that the process for children to seek transfer to the UK has been non-transparent and arbitrary, and that children’s mental health has suffered. Children said they did not have information about how and when they would learn the outcome in their cases, the selection criteria, what recourse, if any, they have if they are not accepted, and how they could follow up with the UK Home Office.
Several said they were so upset that they could not sleep or eat, and two said they thought of taking their own lives. A 17-year-old boy who had been detained in his home country, Ethiopia, and in Libya en route to France, said that he was desperate to join his aunt in the UK: “I am very lonely here…. I am going to kill myself [if I cannot go].”
European regulations set out detailed rules for family reunion. Under the regulations, unaccompanied children should be allowed to reunite with their father, mother, or other adult who is responsible for them, and with siblings, uncles, aunts, or grandparents if they are able to take care of the child and the transfer is otherwise in the child’s best interest.
Human Rights Watch interviewed children who had aunts, uncles, or grandparents in the UK but who had not been approved for transfer. These children did not know why others had been told they could go to the UK to join their family, but they had not, and said that they could not follow up with the Home Office as they had no contact. One 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan has an uncle, aunt, and grandparents in the UK. A 17-year-old boy from Ethiopia stayed behind while his half-sister was accepted for transfer because she has an uncle in the UK that he is not related to.
While the Dubs amendment is broad in its call on the UK government to make arrangements to transfer unaccompanied minors, the transfer criteria adopted by the Home Office for children from Calais are restrictive. The child’s best interest is not the predominant factor, and many children told Human Rights Watch they felt arbitrarily excluded.
The criteria limit entry mainly to children who are 12 or younger or who are at high risk of sexual exploitation. Sudanese and Syrian children up to age 15 are eligible for entry under the Dubs criteria because they have a first-instance asylum grant rate of 75 percent or higher in the UK.
Human Rights Watch identified situations under the Dubs amendment in which the criteria do not appear to have been correctly followed. For instance, under the Dubs criteria, older siblings should be allowed to join younger ones who qualify. Yet, in one case, two brothers from Ethiopia, ages 12 and 15, were separated, with the older one staying behind. While the law does not specify the number of children to be admitted, the Home Office minister spoke of accepting between 1,000 and 3,000 children from Calais and elsewhere in Europe when the provision was debated in Parliament. The 200 accepted for transfer seems embarrassingly low for a provision intended as a humanitarian measure, Human Rights Watch said.
The UK Home Office should broaden their criteria for application of the Dubs amendment to ensure that older children are not precluded from consideration.
French authorities set up the new reception centers under the central administration, outside of the regular child protection service, where unaccompanied migrant children are usually placed. Children in the provisional centers have not had access to asylum procedures or the regular child protection system in France, pending transfer decisions by UK authorities. French authorities considered the centers temporary, assuming that a significant number of children would be transferred to the UK. However, in mid-December, some local authorities told Human Rights Watch they were about to start asylum processes soon, in line with Interior Ministry instructions.
“France should move expeditiously to ensure that all migrant children get full access to asylum procedures in France, including comprehensive information about the process, legal representation, family reunion procedures, and a fair hearing based on the best interests of the child,” Kippenberg said. “France should no longer leave these children in legal limbo.”
Many centers are located at vacated holiday or training centers, and staff have been hired rapidly to address the Calais camp closure. While some centers are run by professional staff with experience in refugee support, others are managed by organizations and individuals without such experience. Many centers also lack regular access to translators, making it impossible for some children to communicate with staff.
Most unaccompanied children interviewed had experienced arrest or violence in their home country or en route, including in Libya. Several children cried during interviews; others said that they suffered from sleeplessness, nightmares, or anxiety, possible consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite the clear need for psychosocial support, some centers also lacked systematic, professional support by psychotherapists.
Some children also said they had experienced abuse from French police, other migrants, or ordinary French citizens while in Calais. In one center, local residents attacked unaccompanied minors, making racist remarks or throwing bottles at them on several occasions. The children decided to stay on the premises as they feared further attacks.
“Unaccompanied migrant children have lived through horrific events and are a highly vulnerable group,” Kippenberg said. “Both the UK and France should make sure their rights are protected.”