The Fate of the Children Who Survived the Calais Refugee Camp

The door into Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit is on the corner of two busy roads near a hospital in north Manchester. Nestling between a barbers with a budgie in the window and a pharmacy, it is busy today. Lots of people go through our door. Inside the waiting room is full. Drinks and biscuits need topping up regularly as people sit and wait. There is something unusual about lots of the people waiting. They are children.

Although they have different accents, clothes, haircuts and skin tones the children have something in common. They have come to the UK to claim asylum and they have walked through the door to meet their legal representative – someone who will work with them to try and make sense of the letters, the appointments, the officials and the uncertainty.

The lack of legal routes to claim asylum in the UK has left them traumatised not just by the experiences that caused them to flee their counties of origin, but by Europe’s collective inability to provide them safe passage.

They are far from a homogenous group, despite the tabloid headlines. But this group of children have all been in the transit camp in Calais — the caricatured ‘jungle’— living with up to 10,000 other people in a shanty town on the shores of the English Channel. They are all now dealing with the arbitrary bureaucracy of the Home Office, trying to make their asylum claims. Many have experienced sensitive, child-centred, compassionate interviews from Home Office caseworkers in Liverpool. Many have also been subject to a sudden, illogical Home Office decision earlier this year that meant instead of making their asylum claim in Greater Manchester they had to travel to Croydon.

All of the children are dealing with the aftermath of precarious journeys. The lack of legal routes to claim asylum in the UK has left them traumatised not just by the experiences that caused them to flee their counties of origin, but by Europe’s collective inability to provide them safe passage.

We studied the experiences of 40 children we represent who had all spent time in the Calais camp before coming to the North West of England. Many spent several months surviving in Calais on their own. Some experienced the French security operation in October 2016 to clear the camp — proving in their minds that they could not safely claim asylum in France. Some have been street homeless in Paris. Five were accidentally separated from family members in the chaos of travelling across Europe, including one who became lost during police action to clear a train. One of our caseworkers described two brothers she is representing as “emotionally worn down” by their experiences in Calais which are “etched on their faces.”

Five of the children were accidently separated from family members in the chaos of travelling across Europe, including one who became lost during police action to clear a train.

Now in the North West, the children’s experiences of life in the UK are proving quite different from one another:

Hassan is claiming asylum in the UK because his sister lives in Greater Manchester with her British husband and their small child. An EU Regulation called ‘Dublin III‘ meant he could ask the UK authorities to decide his asylum claim here rather than have it decided in France. He lives with his sister and her family, sleeping in the living room of their one bedroom flat.

Helen was transferred to the UK from Calais as a ‘Dubs child,’ so-called because of the work of Lord Alf Dubs to persuade the UK government to take in unaccompanied children stuck in France, Italy or Greece. Helen was transferred to the UK as the Calais camp was being cleared, and is living with a foster carer in Greater Manchester. She is one of around only 200 Dubs children in the UK, despite initial hopes that up to 3,000 children would be offered a way to avoid the people smugglers and traffickers.

Like over a third of the children in our research who came from Calais on a lorry, Jamal’s age was disbelieved by the Home Office.

Jamal came to the UK from France hiding on a lorry through the Eurotunnel. Like over a third of the children in our research who came from Calais on a lorry, his age was disbelieved by the Home Office. In an atmosphere where MPs demand children’s teeth are x-rayed to prove they are not adults, it is perhaps unsurprising that children are told they are lying about their ages. We see children housed with adults and subject to regular reporting with immigration enforcement (as happened to Jamal) or even locked up in adult detention centres. It took a community care solicitor to get the Home Office to accept an assessment by social workers that Jamal is a child.

Helen and Jamal are both in the UK without family. They are ‘looked after’ by Greater Manchester local authorities with an allocated social worker to support them and access to legal aid to fund advice and representation for their asylum claim.

Hassan and his sister have a different set of challenges. Because Hassan has a family member in the UK, unlike Helen and Jamal he is not automatically entitled to legal aid. In fact, because Hassan’s sister has been saving for years to go to college, her savings mean Hassan does not qualify. This was the case with nearly a fifth of the Dublin III families we looked at in our research. Without legal aid the children have to rely on newly reunited family paying thousands of pounds for private legal help, representing themselves or withdrawing their asylum claim.

Financial strain was a primary concern for 44% of the Dublin III families in our research and clearly escalates the risk of the family breaking down.

Hassan also doesn’t have an allocated social worker — social services decided that as he is living with family he is not in need. In fact his sister is struggling with her changing family dynamics, looking after her small son and navigating Hassan’s financial, immigration, education and medical needs. The lack of financial support she receives to cover the cost of caring for Hassan has been a shock and she is struggling to understand how the welfare benefits system applies to a child in Hassan’s situation. Financial strain was a primary concern for 44% of the Dublin III families in our research and clearly escalates the risk of the family breaking down. This has already happened in one of the families we work with and the child is now living in foster care.

Some of the children in our research have walked back through our door in north Manchester to receive good news. Nearly 60% have been granted asylum, more still are awaiting a decision. Others have walked back in to prepare to appeal their asylum refusal — stuck with discretionary leave only until they are 17.5 years old. More uncertainty ahead.

Our work with children from Calais has left us in no doubt of the need for children to be protected from harm and exploitation by safe and legal routes to claim asylum in the UK. We also believe that all children claiming asylum in the UK need to be properly supported and have access to an experienced immigration lawyer to make their asylum claim. Without these things, children will continue to arrive in the UK with their experiences “etched on their faces” and without the assistance they so badly need to help them recover.

This article is based on research in a Briefing paper on the experiences of children from the Calais camp in the North West of England by Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit. See here for ideas on how to speak out for refugees during the election campaign.