Lisa O’Carroll in Calais, Amelia Gentleman and Alan Travis in London |
UK and France accused of breaching human rights as children forced to sleep in makeshift conditions for second night
The British and French governments were accused of breaching children’s human rights as up to 50 teenagers were abandoned by authorities in Calais and forced into an industrial estate near the cleared-out refugee camp to sleep in makeshift conditions.
The teenagers were lured out of the site of the camp in the afternoon with the promise of transport to a reception centre where they could be assessed for asylum or reunification with families in the UK.
However, after an hour no bus had arrived. Police units emerged in force with riot shields, teargas and taser guns and began to kettle the group, pressing them into a side street in an industrial estate. Some of the refugees were in tears as it appeared that they would be sleeping on the streets again.
The prospect of dozens of refugee children being stranded outside for a second night triggered a high-level protest from the British government and a demand that the children be provided with an immediate safe place to go.
The home secretary, Amber Rudd, spoke to her French counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve, on Thursday afternoon, telling him that the children who remained in Calais had to be properly protected.
Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Sheehan, who was in Calais to witness the operation, said: “Children have rights to food, family, shelter and protection under the Convention on the Rights of the Child” – a UN treaty declaring that all children are “entitled to special care and assistance”. “Britain and France are signatories to this. They are flouting the law,” she said.
As darkness fell and the promised safe accommodation for the remaining unaccompanied minors failed to materialise, and following phone calls from Sheehan, French police allowed a group of over 70 teenagers and adults back into the smouldering camp, to take shelter in an abandoned, unheated school building.
They were guarded by independent volunteers. One, Alice Sturrock from Edinburgh, said: “I did not think at 22 I would be on fire patrol in a refugee camp. There is a fire burning over that side and there are CRS [French police] with rubber bullets on the other. How is this a safe haven for children?” she said.
“They are fed up, tired and sad. It is crazy that no provision has been made for them. They have been given no information all day,” Inca Sorrell, another volunteer who has worked with child refugees in Calais for the past year, said.
Sheehan had earlier said she could not believe what she was seeing, given that the French ambassador in London and and Home Office minister Baroness Williams had given assurances some weeks ago that the demolition of the site would not begin before all the children were safeguarded.
“This is so humiliating and undignified,” Sheehan said. “These children have literally been pushed from pillar to post. They have sat there obediently under the bridge for several hours and then they were kettled. Now the instruction is that these people must disperse. It is as if the authorities are trying to wish the problem away. But the longer the keep their heads in the sand and don’t offer a solution, the bigger the problem will be.”
An atmosphere of despair among charity workers was mirrored by the behaviour of the children, all aged approximately 14 to 17, some of whom huddled against the wall in blankets as the temperature plummeted.
One Afghan teenager, wrapped in a yellow and green sleeping bag, said: “Fuck France, Fuck Britain. You are racists.”
He was in tears as a French volunteer tried to console him by asking him not to be angry with aid workers. He retorted: “You didn’t have to sleep on the side of the road last night – you have documentation, you have money. Fuck France.”
Annie Gavrilescu, a volunteer with the charity Help Refugees, said there was no sign of any official assistance for the children. “The sous-préfet [highest-ranking local civil servant] has washed his hands of them. There is nowhere for them to go. Those kids have been there with volunteers and officials, all day, waiting for buses. They have been given nothing. They are just tired and hungry.”
Save the Children spokeswoman Dorothy Sang, whose organisation had helped persuade the children to leave the camp on a promise of fresh shelter and the start of a new life, said: “Yet again these children have been put in a dangerous position. Once again, the authorities have walked away and left the charities to look after them.”
No French or British officials were on the scene with the children, although there was safeguarding support from charities including Save the Children, Care4Calais, Refugee Youth Services, Médicins sans Frontières and Doctors of the World.
Michael Garcia Bochenek, who was on the scene for Human Rights Watch, said: “Children are entitled to care and protection, to food, shelter, clothing. In this case, the French and British government have known for days that there were large numbers of unaccompanied children in the camp, and they have stepped in with too little, too late.”
A Home Office spokesperson said that during her phone conversation with Cazeneuve, Rudd had “reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to working with the French to make sure all minors eligible to come to the UK continue to be transferred as quickly as possible” and stressed that “any child either not eligible or not in the secure area of the camp should be cared for and safeguarded by the French authorities”.
Earlier in the day, French police detained a number of young people amid continuing chaos, as new fires erupted in sections of the Calais camp. Charities were told that police would arrest anyone remaining on the site on Thursday afternoon if they had not registered. Video footage emerged showing officers taking away four young people from the site as they queued for food. It was not clear why they had been removed or where they had been taken to.
Minors who had not had a chance to be registered were wandering around in the camp in a state of panic and confusion. Charities say there has been a stark absence of information for the remaining young people about their options; they estimate that there could be up to 150 unregistered children.
Earlier on Thursday, the head of the local prefecture said all unaccompanied children had been given shelter last night after the state-run container camp turned away teenagers because it was full. Fabienne Buccio said 1,500 children had been housed in the container camp, while another 68 were given shelter in a hangar that had been used for the now-closed processing centre.
But inside the camp some 50 children slept on a sandy ridge with bedding provided by Refugee Youth Service. Another 40 were sent to a makeshift school, while others were sent to the temporary church and the temporary mosque, bringing the total of official and unofficial unaccompanied children outside the container camp closer to 200.
The Home Office confirmed that a bus-load of Calais children arrived in Croydon on Thursday, with more expected in the coming days. French officials said a total of 234 minors had been resettled in the UK since 17 October.
Yvette Cooper, the chair of the Commons home affairs committee, condemned scenes of “utter chaos for children and teenagers” that were “putting them in serious danger”. She said she had been in touch again with Home Office ministers to urge them to put serious pressure on the French authorities to provide an immediate safe place for children to go.
The Labour peer Alf Dubs, whose amendment to the Immigration Act has forced the government to accept a number of vulnerable refugee children, described the situation in Calais as “disastrous”. “We argued that the children in Calais should be in a place of safety, but they are not. I don’t know who to blame,” he said.
The teenager from Darfur
Five of his 16 years were spent in a refugee camp in Darfur, but Hussein’s last five months have been spent in the Calais camp, where he hoped to obtain legal sanctuary somewhere.
When it came in the shape of the clearance operation, Hussein (not his real name) jumped at the chance to move on. The youngster is used to to a hard life but not inured to it, and told the Guardian that he still has hopes of getting back to school and becoming an engineer.
Despite his best efforts, and queuing before dawn on three successive days, Hussein said he never made it to the head of the line to be processed, and on Wednesday night became one of the estimated 200 unaccompanied children left to sleep rough. Now he faces a second night in the grass with temperatures dropping and despondency setting in.
However, the teenager says his life before was worse. He said that he walked through the desert for 10 days before he and his friend, also in Calais, got a lift to Libya and then on to Italy.
“It was very difficult in Zamzam,” he said, referring to one of the biggest refugee camps in Darfur. “It is very dangerous there.” He said he was racially abused when he was there, pointing to the colour of his dark skin.
Despite the poor conditions, the Calais camp had been a better place to be: “The Jungle is better than Zamzam. There is no war. There is no danger. You have freedom. They kill anybody in Zamzam – women, children. They don’t care.”
He hasn’t spoken to his mother since 2014, and doesn’t know if she is alive or dead.
But like many, Hussein is in despair as he finds himself facing a night of sleeping in makeshift conditions after being duped into a police kettling operation instead of being placed on a bus to a special reception centre for minors, as was promised to charities on Thursday morning.
“I slept on the ground last night. Me and my friends have been queuing for three days. I don’t want to go back [to Darfur]. If I go back, I die.”
He came across Europe and thought he might reach the UK
Sameer (not his real name) had been living in Germany for the past 15 months, but took a chance and came to Calais on Wednesday after hearing that he might get a chance to come to the UK as part of the camp clearance programme.
The 17-year-old said he fled the Taliban in Afghanistan and crossed by foot and using people-smugglers to Turkey, Greece and on to Germany as part of the sea of refugees who migrated to Europe last summer. He added that he made the decision to go to France because he had “no future” where he was.
Speaking fluent English, Sameer said he wants to come to Britain because he can understand the language and can make a life for himself and a contribution to the country.
“The Germans wanted to send me back to Bulgaria, where I was fingerprinted under the Dublin regulation. But I don’t want to go back to Bulgaria. The police there beat me up and kept me in jail for 15 or 16 days. They kicked us and starved us and treated us like animals.
“I had a few friends in the Jungle and received news that people were going to get a chance to apply for asylum, so I thought I might be reassessed here and given a fresh chance away from Bulgaria.”
He had only been in the Jungle one night – the night that part of it was razed to the ground. “My expectations of Calais were so high. But the Jungle is so terrible,” said the teenager, who did not want his name or photograph published. “I never guessed there would be such a place. How can people live like that?” But he added: “Nothing can be worse than the experience I have had, the problems everyone has had. Nobody, if they had a choice, would live in the Jungle.”
He said he came from a “broad-minded family”, with a father who “supported our education”. But problems started when two of his brothers started working for the US embassy and USAid.
“The Taliban asked why they were working for these non-Muslim people. ‘You must bring them to us and we will kidnap them and in exchange force them to release the Taliban in jail.’ They say, why do you not join our party? But I don’t want to join that disgusting party – my father taught us to be broad-minded.”
“But in Europe, even, nobody wants to give me a chance. Even in Germany, where I have been for 15 months. It took them eight months to process me and then they said I had to go back to Bulgaria,” he said.