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Immigration Solicitors

‘REJECT-NO FAM’: our fight for the abandoned children of Calais (20 February 2017)

Date: 20/02/2017
Duncan Lewis, Immigration Solicitors, ‘REJECT-NO FAM’: our fight for the abandoned children of Calais

The Calais ‘Jungle’ in early October 2016 was tense and dangerous. As Dan Tucker from Social Workers Without Borders (SWWB) put it, ‘the most creative of poets could not encapsulate the frustration and prolonged misery of that place’. The French authorities had announced their intention to destroy the camp, but none of the residents knew when this was due to happen, or where they would go.

Five months earlier, on 12 May 2016, an amendment to s.67 of the Immigration Act 2016 was passed, forcing the government to ‘make arrangements to relocate to the United Kingdom and support a specified number of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe’. It was named the ‘Dubs Amendment’, after its main proponent Lord Dubs, who was rescued at the age of six from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 in the kindertransport. The legislation seemed to be a glimmer of hope against the xenophobic rhetoric of the EU Referendum. Members of Parliament patted each other on the back and moved on.

But nothing changed for the children just across the channel in the Jungle, sharing leaky tents with strangers, eating hand-outs, and risking their lives every night to board lorries to the UK, coming away if they are lucky bruised by police batons, the less fortunate dying in freezer lorries or crushed by cargo.

In October lawyers from Duncan Lewis Solicitors (DL) and Social Workers Without Borders (SWWB), with crucial support from professor and journalist Sue Clayton, went to the Jungle to give advice and support to unaccompanied refugee children in their applications to come to the UK under the Dubs Amendment, pressuring the government into fulfilling their statutory obligations.

In September 2016 the government had published an eligibility fact sheet for a ‘refugee child’ under the Dubs Amendment. An eligible child must be under 18, must have arrived in Europe after 20 March 2016 (before the EU-Turkey deal); and it must be at least likely that the child would qualify for refugee status. It was also stipulated that the child’s transfer to the UK must be in their best interests.

We met the children wherever we could find some privacy: in an empty café, in the courtyard of the Eritrean church,in a damp abandoned shack and once in a magical school amongst the rubble, like an orchid in a desert. We sat with the social workers, who asked the children, some as young as eight, about their life in the Jungle, whilst we asked them about their asylum claim and their journey to northern France. For hour after hour we listened to their accounts of how and why they had fled their countries and ended up in that squalid camp. These children had suffered unspeakable exploitation and loss.

It was a huge privilege to work with SWWB. The organisation was formed in March 2016 by a handful of social workers who had started different projects across the UK and in the Jungle in order to support refugees. SWWB can already boast 1800 UK members and 250 social work volunteers dedicated to social justice and improving the lives of the children in need. Having been in the camp for eight months previously, SWWB were able to give us crucial help in contacting the most vulnerable children and securing places in which to meet them. It goes without saying that the expertise of SWWB in matters of physical and mental wellbeing was critically needed.

Many of the children were speechless from trauma while others did not want to risk identifying those who had exploited them. We discovered widespread and untreated PTSD, self-harming and feelings of despair. The children were bruised mentally and physically and saw the UK as the only place where they could heal. They told us that they could not bear to stay in France after what they experienced at the hands of the French police and authorities, and that they yearned to come to the UK so that they could go to school, have friends and just lead a normal life. ‘I am tired’ they told us, one after the other.

In early October rumours started spreading that the Jungle would be closed with no notice, so the desperation to reach UK was reaching a fever-pitch. The children felt that this was their last opportunity and so were ‘trying’ (boarding lorries) more frequently. First, rumours spread that the camp would be demolished on 17 October, but then that date came and went, with nothing but a few eviction notices pinned to shops and restaurants. On 22 October the French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that the demolition of the camp could start on Monday, 24 October.

We were still in Calais the weekend they started the process of depopulating the camp. On 24 October Jungle residents were told by French officials on the tannoy to line up by a hanger just outside the camp. The long lines snaked quietly back towards the camp. In the hangar, camp residents were asked basic questions about their lives and asylum claims, before being sent in buses to reception centres around France. Gauri Rajdev, with SWWB, was in the Jungle on the first day of queuing and described the atmosphere as ‘calm’. Despite the quiet, our clients were terrified. Like all lawyers, we had been blocked access to the Jungle, and, with thousands of journalists in the area broadcasting the chaos, the telephone signal was appalling, so it was very hard to get through to the children. When we did get through, they told us that they did not know where they should go, or where they were going to be taken. One of our lawyers, Ahmed Aydeed, was waved through by the police guarding the camp, and so was able to bring some of our clients and a family with small children to the front of the queues. A lucky few children who had family in the UK were brought straight over, incurring the wrath of conservative MPs David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The others remained in the area, confused and scared.

That night fires raged through the camp. Alice Kerr witnessed the unfolding of this tragic farce. Alice had been in the jungle for 9 months and had founded the ‘The Healing and Therapy Community Center’, providing holistic care and support to 400 Jungle residents. Alice describes how some children were given blue wrist-bands and eventually admitted to containers, furnished with beds, which had been emptied for that purpose. There was no water in the containers, nor was their sufficient food or any cooking facilities. As a result of the long queues and lack of capacity not all the children had made it into the containers, but their tents were on fire, so hundreds of children, including some of our clients, were forced to sleep in the Eritrean church, while others slept under the stars in the seeping damp cold of coastal Normandy. Volunteers spent night after night guarding the children and providing blankets and tea. Many of these children slept outside for the duration of the demolition of the Jungle.

Abandoned by the authorities, the children could only turn to volunteers for protection. The CRS (the special mobile French police), ostensibly in the camp to provide security, only exacerbated the bedlam. Volunteers would erect shelters for the homeless children, only for the CRS to tear them down. The violent tendencies of the CRS are well documented on the bodies of our clients. Alice saw a 12 year old boy being beaten by the CRS, and then evicted from the containers, simply because he was carrying a stick.

The euphemistically named ‘closure’ of the Jungle was characterised throughout by misinformation and frustration. Those who were already vulnerable were exposed all the more to exploitation. Alice recounts how a friend of hers had a miscarriage in the family accommodation area, but with the ambulance refusing to come in to the camp, the lady had to wait until the morning before being taken to hospital. Fathers, forbidden from sharing accommodation with women and children, were separated from their families in the tumult. Alice confirmed that the lady who had a miscarriage is still separated from her husband. Many children went missing; either fleeing into the surrounding areas, or being trafficked into sex work or other forms of exploitation. “Mission accomplished,” proclaimed Calais’ regional prefect, Fabienne Buccio, on 26 October.

We returned to the UK with the social workers and worked round the clock to send the details of the children to the government, to pressure them into fulfilling the UK’s obligations under the Dubs Amendment. If Parliament had anyone in mind when passing the Dubs Amendment, surely it was children such as these?

The government responded by strangling the Dubs Amendment with the ‘Calais eligibility criteria’: According to these criteria, ‘Refugee children’ should mean a child who is under 12, or at high risk of sexual exploitation, or a Sudanese or Syrian refugee 15 years old or under, or, 18 years old and the sibling of one of a child meeting the above. It must also be the case that: the transfer to the UK must be determined to be in the best interests of the child, they must have been in the Jungle on or before 24 October 2016 and they must have arrived in Europe before 20 March 2016.

Once more, the government have moved the goal-posts. The harsh criteria automatically disqualify hundreds of children from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, children fleeing conscription, persecution and war, while others are disqualified for not being children enough. In a deft stroke of policy-making the government have moonwalked out of their obligations under the Dubs Amendment. In mid-December UK government officials toured the reception centres dotted around France, and gave their terse verdict verbally to the children in crowded halls, or on lists pinned to the walls, like examination results. One after another our clients rang us to tell us that their applications had been rejected. They didn’t know why.

Many children, rejected and hopeless, fled the reception centres, returning to make-shift camps in northern France in order to start ‘trying’ again. These new camps are by all accounts worse than the Jungle ever was. A recent report by the Calais-based NGO Care4Calais found that there are at least 50 unaccompanied minors living in these mini-Jungles, which are at risk of being torn down by the police at any time. Sue Clayton, who discovered one such place, described it as a ‘trafficker’s paradise’. But these ‘paradises’ are closer to the channel, and the death rates from attempted crossings have risen sharply in recent months. A child is dying every week from trying, Alice Kerr told me, but these deaths rarely reach the media. According to Citizens UK, three children who were eligible to come to the UK have died in recent months. The Youth Centre, a Jungle NGO, is expanding rapidly to meet the growing needs of children who have returned to the area around Calais, where children are living, outside, in the bushes. Temperatures in Calais are currently dropping to - 4 °C.

Others remain in the centres, in utter despair. After the rejection, all the children in a reception centre in the Pyrenees left except our four Afghan clients, while in a reception centre in Normandy, all the children left, but returned, despondent. One of the children we represent has attempted to kill himself multiple times. At Taizé, children and volunteers went on hunger strike to protest against the wholescale rejections. Samir, devastated by the rejection, was one of these hunger-strikers. A few days later Samir suffered a heart-attack and died. Samir’s funeral was attended by unaccompanied children from all over France.

At DL and SWWB we are doing our best to keep in touch with our clients on the phone and by visiting their reception centres. In our visits we have found many of the reception centres to be bleak, inhospitable places. At some of the centres for instance the food is not halal and the children have no access to credit or reception, making it hard for us to stay in touch. The local authorities have made it difficult for us to gain a full picture of our clients’ welfare even when we visit them. When Jamie Bell from Duncan Lewis met one client in one centre, the préfecture (the local government administrator) insisted on being present in their meeting. As Jamie left, the child ran up to him and whispered urgently that it ‘wasn’t good’ there, but that he hadn’t been able to say it in front of the préfecture.

The traumatised children are also subjected to violence in their reception centres. One of our clients was physically assaulted by a member of staff, who placed a hand on the front of his neck, pushing him up against a wall. The terrified child was rescued by another member of staff. The assailant is still at the centre. Our client told us that his centre was ‘worse than jungle and it makes me sad.' He told us that there are around 90 people at this centre, and approximately 3-4 staff working at any one time. There is minimal bedding, heating or soap, it is cold and the food is inadequate.

The children are often not made to feel welcome by the reception centre staff, or by the local people. Louise Bennet, from SWWB went to visit a client in southern France and recounts walking down the street with the child, who was struggling to keep his head held high while the local people shook their heads and made disparaging remarks. This boy had built up a support network in the Jungle of friends and volunteers who were helping him to learn English and to come to terms with his past. He has lost interest in everything since he arrived in the centre. He has lost weight and tells us that he only eats and sleeps because he has to. Louise ‘observed a child further impacted by another rejection, a child unable to access appropriate food and living space, a child unable to sleep or eat due to anxiety and continual flashbacks to past trauma, unable to access suitable medical support to address his physical and psychological needs, unable to access education and unable to build a future for himself. These are the children frozen in time, the children our leaders have abandoned.’

Duncan Lewis and SWWB are now challenging the rejection of the applications of their 37 clients. On 23 December 2016 we lodged an application for permission for Judicial Review at the High Court, seeking urgent interim relief for one of our most vulnerable clients. We are arguing that the ‘Calais Eligibility Criteria’ and the procedures to identify which vulnerable refugee children who are to be relocated to the UK under the Dubs Amendment are unlawful. We also argue that the government should be held accountable for failing to inform us, the legal representatives, of their decision to reject our clients’ applications, and for not even providing the children with written reasons for the rejection of their applications, an application on which they have based their future.

On 5 January, we received the government decision notes for one of our clients: they are no more than a box-ticking exercise on a couple of sparse pages. The notes expose a shocking lack of concern for the individual client, and dismiss his case in one cold line: ‘REJECT: NO FAM’. Despite our repeated requests, the government has still not provided decision notes for any of the 36 other children represented by Duncan Lewis. Having seen the sparse decision notes, Duncan Lewis issued an application notice on 18 January 2017, requesting an urgent review of the decision to reject the application under the Dubs Amendment of one of our most vulnerable clients, who has attempted suicide multiple times, as well as requesting disclosure of the government’s written decisions with reasons for the rejection of applications of the other 36 other children we represent.

When the Calais Jungle was demolished in October 2016, the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were told not to worry, they would be given a roof over their head, the support they need, and a chance to make their case to come to the UK. By casuistry and sophistry the government has shirked its obligations under the Dubs Amendment. These children were forced to flee their homes and families, were then uprooted from the Calais Jungle, and now their reception centres are closing; with most to be shut by the end of February.

Last week the government turned its back on these children. Robert Goodwill, the immigration minister, announced that the government would only relocate a further 150 children to the UK under the Dubs Amendment, taking the final number to 350. This makes a mockery of the 3,000 intended by Lord Dubs, and originally voted through by the Lords in March 2016. It is impossible to know exactly how many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children there are in Europe, since many of them are homeless, or have been trafficked, but by all accounts there are tens of thousands of such children. In 2015 for instance, 90,000 unaccompanied minors were registered as asylum-seekers in Europe. 350 is a paltry number, a mean number, a stain on our national conscience.

In the same statement, Goodwill emphasised the government’s intention to deal with the ‘root causes’ of the ‘refugee crisis’. That is well and good, but thousands of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are already here in Europe, knocking at our door, but there is no obvious concern to identify durable solutions for these vulnerable children. For the UK government, they are an inconvenient truth.

How you can help?

To continue to do their vital work, SWWB need your support. Although all their social work professionals give their time for free, they urgently need to raise money to continue to conduct their assessments and support young people in their decision making. Donations will be used for costs including travel expenses and contact arrangements with young people in locations across France and the continuation of their vital work to provide professional support to unaccompanied minors and the wider refugee and migrant community. Additional monies raised can be used to provide specialist psychological assessments for those in need.

To find out more and make a donation please click here.

Patrick Page, the author, is a Caseworker in the Duncan Lewis Public Law Department, he is accredited as a Level 1 Probationer Immigration caseworker, focusing his work on Immigration and Asylum.

Duncan Lewis operates the largest immigration team in the UK with a broad practice representing business and individual vulnerable clients at all levels in all aspects of personal immigration, asylum/human rights and nationality matters and is the dominant legal firm in the UK for the provision of publicly funded immigration legal services for asylum, immigration detention, bail, deportation appeals and EC law issues. The firm’s Immigration practice was recommended by Legal 500 UK 2016 as a Top Tier Immigration Practice in London and Wales and as a Leading Immigration Practice in the Midlands area respectively. With more than 200 specialised staff providing assistance in more than 70 different languages, all of Duncan Lewis’ Immigration lawyers are specialists in their respective fields under the Law Society's Immigration & Asylum Accreditation Scheme. Duncan Lewis Immigration lawyers provide specialist immigration services from offices throughout London and across the UK.

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