Negligence is not Neutral

The ongoing plight of child refugees in Calais

by Piper French

Illustration by Maria Cano-Flavia

published March 17, 2017


Fifteen year-old Khalid* has been trying to get to the United Kingdom for almost a year now. He left his family in Afghanistan nearly 11 months ago and arrived at ‘the Jungle,’ the now-notorious, unofficial refugee camp in Calais, France, a few months later. In the Jungle, he slept in a single-person tent that flooded whenever it rained, risked his life trying to stow away on trucks bound for England, and tried to keep in touch with his family, calling his grandmother and baby sister whenever he had enough credit on his phone. 

Since November, Khalid has been living in St-Brieuc, France in a center for unaccompanied child refugees that was created after the Jungle was evicted and destroyed on orders from French authorities. He has been waiting for news from the UK Home Office, the department responsible for immigration and counterterrorism in the UK, about his asylum case. Khalid was eligible to be reunited with his uncle in the UK under the Dubs Act, an amendment to a 2016 immigration act that ordered the Home Office to accept child refugees from Calais after consulting with local authorities. Sponsoring the amendment in May 2016, Baron Alf Dubs pledged that the UK would accept 3000 child refugees. For Dubs, a Labour politician and former Member of Parliament (MP), the issue is a deeply personal one: he once was a child refugee, rescued by a British stockbroker from Nazi-occupied Prague along with 668 other children. 

Last week, after a protracted process of commitment and retraction, the Home Office announced that it would cease to accept children to the UK under the Dubs amendment. Only 200 of those eligible have successfully arrived in the UK—the last 150 children will reportedly arrive in the UK before the end of March. Meanwhile, there are a reported 90,000 child refugees scattered across the European continent who remain homeless, without shelter, support, or resources. 




Before it was destroyed and its residents were evicted in October 2016, the Jungle served as a gathering spot for nearly 10,000 people, mainly from Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Syria, all attempting to make their way from continental Europe to the UK. I first met Khalid a week into my time working in a community kitchen in the Jungle under the auspices of the organization Help Refugees. The group was created by a group of British volunteers in response to the British and French governments’ twin failure to provide for refugees in Calais. Khalid’s tent was only steps away from the kitchen’s much larger tent, and he came in nearly every day to help us chop vegetables, practice his already good English (English was his favorite class in Afghanistan), tease us, and ask for our advice on matters of the heart. Occasionally, he would collect euros from each of us, disappear for a while, and then rematerialize with flatbread and a dozen eggs, which he cooked with onions and tomatoes to make Afghan eggs for the workers. 

The community kitchen functioned as a social space for many young men, including a number of unaccompanied minors—“bambinos,” in Jungle slang. The camp was a difficult place for everyone who was stuck there, but the issues facing children were especially acute. Unaccompanied minors were especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and the coercion of smugglers; self-harm was rampant. Young boys lived eight to a tent and spent all night next to the highway, attempting to sneak onto lorries bound for the UK, which they referred to simply as “trying.” They would come into the kitchen the next afternoon, yawning and shaking their heads, saying: “no chance, no chance.” They treated it like a game, but it was an incredibly dangerous one. About a week after we arrived in Calais, a 14-year-old boy died after falling from a truck he had snuck onto; many others were hurt or killed on the highway. 

As the Jungle grew in size and international media flocked to the area and broadcast the camp's conditions to the world, the site became an increasingly large political problem for the French government. For those on the left, both domestically and internationally, the camp was the perfect visual symbol of Europe’s failure to protect vulnerable people fleeing war and desperation. For those on the right, the Jungle represented the threat of unchecked migration. The camp’s forced closure seemed inevitable: not a matter of if, but when. President Hollande visited Calais in late September and promised it would be gone before the end of the year. 

When French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazaneuve finally announced the intention to evict and bulldoze the camp starting October 17, the public responded with outcry. NGOs estimated that over 1000 unaccompanied minors were still living in the camp. Faced with pushback, the Interior Ministry promised that it would not evict the camp until it formed a concrete plan to deal with the unaccompanied child refugees, some of whom were as young as ten years old, according to Médicins sans Frontières (MSF). As the proposed date drew closer, no such plan had materialized, and evictions were pushed back a week.

Finally, on October 23, the government announced it would go forth with evictions the next day. The promised “plan for the children”—hastily slapped together and almost stunningly ill-conceived—involved local French officials shepherding anyone who could be identified as a minor into the guarded shipping containers that had previously housed the Jungle’s more vulnerable residents. They would be kept there throughout evictions, until the authorities could determine a more permanent solution. 

In essence, the French strategy confined children to the physical center of the camp, forcing them to bear witness to the systematic destruction of a place that had been their home for months, even if it served as a poor substitute for one. Furthermore, the local French officials made decisions about the allotment of wristbands—which determined who was allowed into the containers—in a haphazard and arbitrary fashion. In the end, adult men slept inside containers while some young children were excluded because they looked older. A number of volunteers observed an employee of the French government handing them out based on nothing more than her assumptions of a person's age.

I wasn’t allowed into the camp during evictions, but I returned on Thursday evening after the evictions had concluded and the French government declared the camp officially closed. Fabienne Buccio, a local official working in the camp,  announced: “There are no migrants in the camp. Our mission has been fulfilled.” Walking down the road into the camp, I passed several boys pushing an empty shopping cart under a dull moon. A few hundred yards further there were children who hadn’t been able to get wristbands, wrapped in blankets, sleeping in the dirt on the side of the road. The minute we began to unload food from the back of our van, a huge line materialized; we served food continuously for over an hour to hungry and thirsty boys. 

The children were kept in the shipping containers for ten days, with little adult supervision, insufficient food and water, and no idea about was going to happen to them. On November 1, 2016, in the midst of this total uncertainty, the French government abruptly announced that all of the children in camp would be taken by bus—some to the UK and others to centers for unaccompanied child refugees (CAOMIEs) around France—the following morning. The children would be “processed” by French government officials. Most would be sent to the UK. 




People were excited, hopeful that progress was underway at last. Khalid hoped to rejoin his family in the UK within a few weeks. But as soon as the international attention on the Jungle dissolved, the Home Office began reneging on the promises it had made. Only one or two of those busses actually made it to the UK—and the overwhelming majority of the children who weren’t sent on the first round of busses are still in France, even if they are eligible under both the Dubs and Family Reunification act. Khalid and many others underwent several rounds of interviews with the Home Office, but astonishingly few children were actually resettled. In December, the Home Office Minister Robert Goodwill categorically excluded all child refugees over 12 who were not from Sudan or Syria—countries whose citizens have experienced a 75 percent rate of asylum success in the UK—from consideration under Dubs, and implemented other age restrictions as well, excluding 16- and 17-year-old refugees of any nationality from eligibility. Lord Dubs predicted that the decision would have a huge impact on children waiting in CAOMIEs around France, driving them back to Calais to try to cross over to the UK illegally.

Finally, on February 8, 2017, the UK government announced a cap on the number of child refugees it would accept under Dubs: 350, or about a tenth of the number of children originally intended to be resettled. Home Office Secretary Amber Rudd claimed that the Dubs was acting as a “pull factor” for child refugees, saying that it has “incentivized” their journey across Europe. In discussions of contemporary migration, “pull factors”—attributes of a destination that might draw people across borders—are contrasted with “push factors,” or reasons for leaving a place of origin. Rudd attempted to justify the Dubs decision by saying that the amendment “encourage(d) people traffickers.”  Help Refugees insisted that the opposite is actually true, writing: “People smuggling can only exist in the absence of safe and legal routes.”

Rudd also cited a lack of housing and resources in the UK, but local councils dispute this. They claim the Home Office has ignored their offers to house child refugees and even threatened “retribution” if they publicly criticized its negligence and inefficiency. Stephen Cowan, the council leader for two West London districts, told the Observer: “The Home Office have gone out of their way to thwart every single attempt to act not just on the spirit of the Dubs amendment but on its specific terms.”

In the midst of the UK government’s retreat on the Dubs amendment, Khalid’s application to be reunited with his uncle was inexplicably rejected, despite his eligibility for asylum under both Dubs and the Family Reunification act. Because he was given no reasons for the decision, he is not able to submit an appeal. 




Harriet Blackmore, a British volunteer who worked in the community kitchen in Calais, told me, “Dubs was a lifeline to young refugees. It meant protection from traffickers, police brutality, right-wing attacks, sexual abuse and exploitation, it offered safe passage to young people who are risking death crossing to the UK. Young refugees are trapped in technically ‘safe’ nations, but they are by no means adequately protected.” Responding to the Dubs withdrawal—and Khalid’s case specifically—Blackmore founded the advocacy group Voices for Child Refugees (VCR) with Sonia Curtis and Francesca Romberg, two other Jungle volunteers. They released a statement, co-signed by a number of NGOs and advocacy groups, condemning the decision as “reprehensible,” and also started a petition urging Parliament to reopen the debate. The petition quickly accrued over 60,000 signatures. 

On February 22, VCR organized a ‘sleep-in’ outside the Prime Minister’s residence on Downing Street, in solidarity with child refugees who are being forced to sleep outside in freezing temperatures because of the Dubs decision. There, along with a copy of the petition, VCR delivered a letter to UK Prime Minister Theresa May, written by Khalid. “I am writing this letter with lots of hope,” he begins, “and I also hope that someone will hear my voice.” He details his experience leaving Afghanistan and coming to the Jungle, and describes how his life is on hold in St-Brieuc: “I only eat and sleep and I am so sad now because I don’t have any family members with me.” In the face of rhetoric from Rudd, May, and other British politicians that emphasizes the complexity of the refugee crisis as a justification for the UK’s failure to resettle child refugees, Khalid’s requests to the British government, ultimately, are crushingly simple: “I really want and also need a do something with my life. And I want to be with my family.” 

Faced with the spectacle of the sleep-in and a petition with 60,000 signatures, MPs voted overwhelmingly to reopen the debate. However, when it came time for a full parliamentary vote, the referendum failed: On March 7, members of British Parliament voted 287–267 to scrap the Dubs Amendment entirely. 




Meanwhile, Lord Dub’s prediction that the Dubs decision would drive children to attempt the Channel crossing through illegal means has come true. People are returning in droves to Calais, especially children. Help Refugees Donations Coordinator Renke Meuwese estimates that approximately 400 of the 500 or so refugees currently in the area are minors. They are returning to even less infrastructure, support, and safety than before; many are sleeping in fields or on the side of the road. Meuwese said that many of the children have left their accommodation centers in desperation after the Dubs decision, but it was difficult to gather any precise census data because they are “on the run a lot,” constantly forced to move location by the police and prevented even from spending the whole night in one place. 

Established NGOs such as MSF that were working in the Jungle have ceased their operations in the area, and those that remain—including Help Refugees—have been hampered in their efforts to provide basic food and clothing to the refugees. On March 2, Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart actually banned the distribution of food to refugees, effectively criminalizing the efforts of aid workers in the area. The strategies that the French local government and police have employed with regards to the refugee crisis in Calais as attempts to deter people from gathering and staying in the area are becoming increasingly brutal: Meuwese reported that the police are now using a new type of tear gas that sticks to clothes and continues to burn past the initial release. 

The French government’s increasingly cruel treatment of refugees has done little to deter them—they will continue to try to get to the UK clandestinely because many of them see no other option, especially after the Dubs decision. “They are risking their lives,” Meuwese said: “At the end of January, an Eritrean boy died on the Motorway—the exact same strip of motorway” that was the scene of so many other injuries and deaths throughout the Jungle’s existence. 

Yvette Cooper, an MP for the Labour party, confirmed Meuwese’s on-the-ground observations in a statement: “The home secretary talked about clearing Calais; [the child refugees] are heading back to Calais, and back to Dunkirk: back to the mud, back to the danger, back into the arms of the people traffickers and the smugglers, the exploitation, the abuse, the prostitution rings—back into the modern slavery that this parliament and this government have pledged to end.”        




The UK Home Office’s inaction and bureaucratic inefficiency in resettling child refugees under Dubs has actively created the current humanitarian crisis in Calais. The latest decision by Parliament to scrap the Dubs amendment is yet another example of extreme negligence towards a group that is vulnerable in nearly every way in which a person can be vulnerable: young, alone, suffering from PTSD and depression based on their experiences in their home countries and during their journey, without financial resources, speaking little English or French, easily exploited and abused. No amount of inhumanity on the part of the Calais mayor or the local police will deter children from their attempt to get to the UK now that the most promising legal route has been closed off to them—it will only result in more injury, illness, trauma, and death.

Harriet Blackmore told me, “In the case of young refugees, we see a government easily deprive people of color a childhood, or the protection and care that comes with it... people are advocating to neglect the rights of these young people, often on incorrect information and incorrect arguments.” She emphasizes that VCR and other advocacy groups aren’t giving up, though: “We will continue to advocate and stand up for the rights of these vulnerable people. We ask the government to act on compassion over quota, and will keep fighting until they do.”

In the meantime, Khalid and the others are still waiting. 


PIPER FRENCH B’17 thinks that 350 is nowhere near enough.

IZZA DRURY B'17 contributed reporting.


 *Names have been changed.