2016 was an eventful year. We made it through two Prime Ministers, a referendum, an escalating crisis in Syria and ‘the Donald’. Amid all of this we also welcomed around 1,000 unaccompanied children to the UK from the camp known as ‘the Jungle’, a project which we had some involvement in, working with the fantastic charity Safe Passage.
It was estimated that at its busiest the Jungle was home to 2,000 of the 30,000 unaccompanied children who arrived in the UK last year. Of those 2,000, Safe Passage identified hundreds of children who were eligible for transfer to the UK under either Dublin III or the Dubs Amendment. But by July 2016 the UK had only resettled 40 children, an inexplicably low number.
Many of the children in Calais that we spoke to told us of their nightly attempts to board lorries, trains or ferries and the brutality they suffered at both the hands of the Jungle’s gangs and the French police. We also learned of the constant danger they lived in. The majority of the children had been in the camp for more months living in makeshift tents, which flooded when it rained, were not secure and offered very little protection. The physical signs of the emotional and psychological strain their situation was having on the children we spoke to were clear, they often looked much older than they were. It was difficult to reconcile their situation with the fact that they were entitled to be living in the UK.
The responsible course of action would have been to get as many of these children out of the Jungle, to safety, as quickly as possible. However, despite promises from the UK Government, nothing actually happened for months on end, that is, until the French authorities fired up their bulldozers.
In October, the French authorities announced that the Jungle would be demolished. It was only after that announcement that we saw the first meaningful response from the UK Government to the plight of the children in Calais.
In the days before the demolition and during it, busloads of children were brought to the UK through an expedited process. Some 900 children were brought to the UK and settled by local authorities, working in collaboration with central government, in a matter of weeks. However, despite many local authorities privately showing a willingness to accommodate more children, as the last makeshift tent collapsed in Calais so did the Government’s assistance.
While it was truly amazing to see what could be done when the Government actually mobilised the resources at its disposal, it raised the question, “why not more?”
The makeshift camps on our doorstep may have gone but the crisis has not ended. Unaccompanied refugee children continue to find themselves in dangerous and inadequate camps, now located in Greece and Italy. The work of charities like Safe Passage continues in those countries, but since the demolition of the Jungle the UK has returned to its piecemeal resettlement of the many unaccompanied children eligible to come here.
To resolve the unaccompanied minor problem and the wider migrant crisis, or to even take a step toward resolving them, governments must pull their weight. This means establishing programs which resettle refuges in numbers which are proportionate to the size and wealth of a country, not waiting for an impending disaster to move things forward.
It also means each country abiding by the legal obligations it is bound by and governments avoiding the tendency to push back where they perceive that they are not directly affected by an issue.
This week offers a great opportunity to get the plight of Europe’s unaccompanied children and their fellow refugees back onto the agenda and to ensure that we are doing our fair share.