Author: May Bulman
Child refugees who were refused sanctuary in Britain when the Calais Jungle camp was demolished are being exploited in the UK after crossing the Channel alone, campaigners have warned.
Hundreds of unaccompanied minors who were living in the shantytown were denied legal passage by the Home Office in October 2016, with no right to appeal the decision.
The court of appeal recently ruled in two separate cases that this process was unlawful, stating children were given “patently inadequate” reasons for the rejection of their applications.
The Independent can now reveal that a number of these children have since made it to the UK via unauthorised routes, pushing them into the hands of smugglers and subsequent debt bondage once they arrived in Britain.
The latest figures from the Child Trafficking Advice Centre (CTAC), which identifies and tries to locate children who have crossed the Channel alone, show that since August 2016, 293 youngsters have arrived via unauthorised routes, of which just 103 have been located – suggesting many are living underground.
While their identities are not known, social workers and lawyers said children who had lived in the Jungle would be among them, as scores of youngsters “disappeared” when they were refused entry following the closure of the camp, with many heading for the UK.
The Independent reported at the time that unaccompanied children who had been rejected by the UK government were “neglected” in French accommodation centres, deprived of basic provisions such as suitable food, security provisions and emotional support.
Social Workers Without Borders, which jointly carried out a series of child assessments in the Jungle prior to its demolition, said that of the 42 children they assessed as being “in need” in the Calais camp – none of whom were granted safe passage – nine were now confirmed to have made it to the UK alone, while 14 were “untraceable”.
The Independent heard that one Sudanese teenager who was refused by the Home Office came to the UK after getting into the back of a lorry, and went missing within a few months of his arrival.
Sue Clayton, an academic who tracked a number of the children from the camp, said the boy had been placed with a foster mother in Ilford, and that she visited him there in December 2016, but that three months later, she received a call from the police to say he had gone missing.
“I went to see him at his foster mums and he was fine, but then I was called by Ilford police saying he had gone missing and they found my number in his phone records,” said Ms Clayton.
“I have texted him, but no replies. Something clearly went wrong for him in the UK – maybe he had to work for a trafficker, or to pay for family back home. He told me his mum has very sick and they needed money.”
In another case, a 17-year-old Afghan boy arrived in the UK in May 2017 after crossing illegally. For his first few days in the country, he slept rough in south London, and later had to undergo life-saving treatment for a lung condition he contracted while in the Jungle. More than a year later, he was granted asylum.
The teenager’s solicitor, Jamie Bell, of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, said there were signs that he had been exploited on his route, and that coming to the UK had “saved his life”.
“He went through an incredible amount. He was refused transfer under the Dubs Amendment and left to survive by himself. He travelled on his own and the Home Office recognised him as a refugee anyway,” said Mr Bell.
“The benefit of Dubs was supposed to be transferring vulnerable refugees to the UK, who were languishing in the Jungle and desperately needed assistance. This clearly wasn’t done and he had to help himself. If he hadn’t made it to the UK, he would have died.”
In a third case, social workers said a 16-year-old boy was effectively “held hostage” by smugglers once he arrived in the UK because his father, who was already in Britain, had been unable to pay the fees for his illegal crossing.
Police intervened and the child was freed. The Crown Court later found the two men who held the boy guilty of blackmail.
Swati Pande, a team manager at CTAC, said it was common for children who crossed the Channel to go missing or never be traced in the UK, and that this was often an indicator that they were in debt bondage.
“A lot of them are very frustrated and want to get in touch with people and start working. They will often say there is an ‘uncle’ who wants to help them. If a child has just made it here, why is this little takeaway or car wash willing to offer them a job?” she said.
“Nothing is free. These kids have made such long, unsafe journeys. Someone’s paid; they still owe money.
“During their journeys, we know there can be high levels of abuse. Because what is their currency? When children don’t have any money, then sadly the bodies become the currency, drugs become the currency. It’s very concerning.”
Liz Clegg, founder of the Meena centre in Birmingham, which supports children who lived in the Jungle and are now in the UK, said: “We’ve witnessed debt bondage. Children abscond for three weeks and then come back.
“We’re aware that loans are taken out; we’re aware people may get over from Calais and they owed maybe £1,000-£2,000. Sometimes they’re given a year to sort their paperwork, and then they’re told they’ve got to start paying it back.
“It’s very tricky because none of them want to report this. We ask them what they’re doing and they don’t say, but they’re obviously working. And they’re obviously nervous.”
Ms Clegg added: “We have disclosures about child sexual exploitation. But no one is willing to speak, because you cannot guarantee the safety of anyone’s family in Sudan or Afghanistan, can you?”
A Home Office spokesperson told The Independent: “The Government remains steadfast in our commitment under the Dubs amendment to relocate 480 children to the UK from Europe as well as reuniting unaccompanied children with close family members under the Dublin Regulation. More than 220 children have already been transferred to the UK.
“Last year the UK provided protection to almost 6,000 children and also issued 5,218 family reunion visas, of which more than half were for children.
“The Sandhurst Treaty, signed between the UK and France in January 2018, includes a number of measures to strengthen our cooperation on unaccompanied asylum seeking children such as shorter timescales for acceptances and transfers under Dublin, and a £3.6m development fund to identify projects to support eligible children through the Dublin process.”