Editor’s Note: Michael Bochenek is senior children’s rights counsel at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are solely those of the author.
Michael Bochenek: Children slipped through cracks as Calais migrant camp dismantled
Arbitrary age assessments led some kids to being ejected based on their appearance
Having spent most of the last two weeks in Calais, I can say that while the operation to clear the French migrant camp known as “The Jungle” may ultimately benefit adults, it has failed unaccompanied children.
On Wednesday, police evacuated all remaining residents to the edge of the camp. Several hours later, the local prefecture announced it would be accepting no further registration for relocation of adults or unaccompanied children.
The decision left hundreds of children and adults in limbo.
Between 1,300 and 1,600 unaccompanied children – most from Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea – had been taking shelter in the camp, including hundreds who were eligible for transfer to the UK based on family ties. Many had been in the camp for months.
Children left waiting
Unaccompanied children were supposed to have a designated line to allow them to register and receive temporary accommodation in part of the camp while the French government sought longer-term solutions. But each of the three days of registration ended with large numbers of children still waiting to be seen.
On Wednesday, the authorities stopped registering children at about noon, telling at least 150 unregistered ones to return to the camp. Most had started lining up before dawn after being turned away at the end of the day Tuesday.
Every day, their sense of safety diminished. More than 4,000 adults accepted relocation in the first two days, disrupting already fragile social support structures in the camp. As one volunteer told me: “Many of these adults were, in effect, raising other people’s children, and now they’re gone – leaving kids without the little protection they had.”
That’s why nearly 100 children stayed in front of the warehouse serving as a reception point for registration until 9 p.m. Tuesday, pleading to register or, at least, to spend the night outside the gates to be first in line in the morning.
Authorities rejected another obvious solution – the warehouse had 300 beds, and aid workers asked for permission to shelter the children there overnight. “‘They replied, ‘You know, it’s quite difficult looking after kids,’ ” one volunteer told me.
Eventually, about 30 children slept in an informal school on the camp’s edge. Fifty or 60 more stayed at a mosque in the camp until fires forced them to move. They spent the remainder of the night underneath a bridge as volunteers watched over them in shifts.
No information, no organization and distrust
The registration of unaccompanied children was plagued by three other significant problems:
First, accurate information didn’t reach all children. After two full days of registration, I was still speaking to children who didn’t know where to go so they would be sure they were recorded and assigned a safe place to spend the night.
Second, kids faced practical barriers in registering. The designated line for children disappeared shortly after registration began Monday. Children told me they had no idea what to do when they saw hundreds of adults in line ahead of them.
When aid workers asked authorities to allow children to wait in a specially designated area, police responded by “kettling” them – an imposing barrier of riot police in body armor pushed children tightly together and ordered them to sit down.
As I watched, some children stood back up when police pressed up against them. Others followed suit, unsure if they were being asked to enter the warehouse. “Wait!” one officer bellowed in French. A few English-speaking officers eventually managed to clarify that the group wasn’t being asked to move.
Third, arbitrary age assessments meant that police ejected some children based on their appearance – and in some cases for failure to follow barked commands in French, which most didn’t understand. “I’ve been working with migrants for 10 years, and I know what I’m doing,” one staff member told an aid worker who objected that children were being turned away.
Age assessment is tricky, with a wide margin of error. Malnutrition, stress and exposure to the elements take their toll. The UN refugee agency and other authorities call for the benefit of the doubt in close cases.
‘The Jungle’ is gone, but at what price?
When we met with French Interior Ministry officials midway through the week, they assured us they would apply the benefit of the doubt principle. They also recognized that children were still slipping through the cracks and said they planned intensive outreach efforts the rest of the week to identify and register all remaining unaccompanied children.
In the end, other considerations took priority over the children. Those included concerns that taking more time would have pulled more migrants to Calais and in all likelihood the desire to press the British government to take children as quickly as possible.
There’s something to that. The British government has known for months that hundreds of children in the camps were probably eligible for transfer but had made little effort to admit them until last week. Another legal route for transfer to Britain, an amendment to the immigration law adopted this year to accept unaccompanied children on a humanitarian basis, wasn’t used until this month. In the last two weeks, the UK has accepted some 200 unaccompanied children from Calais.
But on Wednesday night, many unaccompanied children were still unregistered in Calais, some of them sleeping outdoors. They arguably were even more vulnerable than before the operation began.
The logjam in Calais may have been broken – but at a tremendously high price.