Child refugees in the Grande-Synthe camp. Child refugees in the Grande-Synthe camp. Photo credit: ©UNHCR/Federico Scoppa
Neither safe nor sound: unaccompanied children on the coastline of the English Channel and the North Sea
by Alexandre Le Clève, Evangeline Masson-Diez and Olivier Peyroux September 2016

Since January 2015, some 1.2 million people have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe. One striking feature of this mass movement of people has been the growing number of children among those reaching Europe’s shores. In June 2015, one in ten of the refugees and migrants was a child. By the end of December it was one in three. Today, children make up 40% of the refugees and migrants stranded in Greece. The majority come from countries in war and conflict: Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and Syria. Others travel from zones of economic and social breakdown. Throughout their journeys, refugee and migrant children suffer terribly – stranded at borders, forced to sleep in the open, exposed to rain and heat, left without access to basic services and easy prey for smugglers and traffickers.

Unaccompanied and separated children are at particular risk. Once they reach France they have limited access to hygiene facilities and food and no access to education. Threats to their safety are incessant: they don’t benefit from protection mechanisms, and the current procedures of family reunification are far from effective. The situation in other European countries is similar. In an effort to understand the situation of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children in Northern France, Unicef France commissioned the organisation TRAJECTOIRES to undertake a study to bring out the human stories of some of these children. The study was carried out between January and April 2016 across seven sites along the French coast (Calais, Grande-Synthe, Angres, Norrent Fontes, Steenvoorde, Tatinghem and Cherbourg). Through these children’s testimonies, we learned about their journeys.

A children’s crisis in Europe

Data on the number of unaccompanied children in the region are unreliable, but based on attempted censuses by various organisations we estimate that around 2,000 have passed through the seven sites in our study since June 2015. Based on our sample, the average duration of their stay in the ‘jungle’ was five months; some had been on the coast for nine months and one had been there for over a year. On most of the sites included in the study, an ‘entry fee’ is levied by the traffickers before the children are allowed to stay there. Unaccompanied children who are unable to pay find themselves forced to perform laborious tasks for the adults: searching for water, queuing for the showers on behalf of adults, doing the cleaning around shelters and reselling food collected during distributions at the informal night-time market in the Calais ‘jungle’.

All the children we interviewed complained of cold and fatigue. The most vulnerable were living in shelters exposed to the elements and had difficulty in accessing meals and showers. None has access to regular schooling, despite the fact that this is mandatory. Many told us that they cannot stand the ongoing inactivity that they must endure whilst waiting to attempt to cross into the UK each night, which can lead to nervousness and symptoms of depression. Some unaccompanied children spoke of mental breakdown and aggressive and violent episodes (directed towards themselves or other young people). Fights between migrants are becoming more and more commonplace, particularly in Calais, and especially since the southern part of the ‘jungle’ was evacuated. Children are among those at greatest risk from these types of violence. The main fears expressed were violence by the police, civilian militias and traffickers. Sexual assault against both girls and boys is a constant threat. Young people exchange sexual services for the promise of passage to the UK or to pay for their journey. Rape and sexual violence is a significant concern: our study found children being regularly sexually abused, often by traffickers and their friends under the influence of alcohol. Several cases of Vietnamese children being exploited on cannabis farms in the UK, in Strasbourg and in the greater Paris area have also been recorded.

Risks along the journey

Most of the children interviewed used traffickers.+ Children spoken to during the course of the study did not always differentiate between a smuggler (where the purpose of moving or harbouring a child is solely monetary) and a trafficker (where the purpose is exploitation); as such the term ‘passeur’ was used in the French version, which has subsequently been translated to ‘trafficker’ in English given the nature of the testimonies provided by children. In order to reach France they are charged anything between €2,700 and €10,000. The routes taken differ according to the person’s financial means. For the more affluent unaccompanied children, the journey is organised and paid for before they leave their country of origin. A guide paid by the traffickers (referred to as ‘uncle’) takes over in each new country they cross and escorts the children to the border. Unaccompanied children from poorer families must get by using their own means and negotiate with local traffickers in each country. This difference between ‘guaranteed’ passage and what is achieved on a country-by-country basis explains the widely varying durations of children’s journeys, from 15 days to seven months.

Regardless of the chosen method, the route remains highly dangerous. Several children told us that they had been held by a number of different criminal groups and a ransom demand had been sent to their family. Some had to work under near slave-like conditions for months to pay for their journey. Others were detained by the local authorities. Relations with the ‘uncles’ were rarely benevolent. We heard accounts of children who walked too slowly being abandoned. In many cases, the sea crossing between Turkey and Greece or Libya/ Egypt and Italy has been traumatising. Sexual abuse also appears to be commonplace during the journey.

As different points of passage (such as parking areas for lorries or trains) have been secured by the authorities, it has become practically impossible to cross over to the UK without help from traffickers. The cost of crossing the English Channel has never been higher: between €5,000 and €7,000 per person. This forces unaccompanied children to take significant risks in order to pass through without paying (by hiding themselves in refrigerated lorries or inside containers, for example).

The protection system

The protection of unaccompanied children is a state obligation, as laid out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In France, departmental councils are the leading agency with respect to child protection. Each department creates its own intervention plan, but this approach is too fragmented to benefit young people from a wide range of backgrounds, who are vulnerable and mobile and who move from one department to another or stay regularly in Paris. The Pas-de-Calais Departmental Council has implemented a system, managed by the organisation France Terre d’Asile (FTDA), which attempts to deal with the issue of unaccompanied children to some extent. Over 80% of the unaccompanied children integrated into this system have been contacted by the organisation. FTDA teams visit the Calais ‘jungle’ almost every day, as well as occasionally visiting the sites at Norrent Fontes and Tatinghem. Charitable organisations are also active, and have regular contact with unaccompanied children. There is no specific system in place in the Manche and Nord departments and no form of intervention on the sites there has been implemented. Across all the sites in our study, getting young people to speak on a confidential basis is extremely difficult; the constant presence of adults from their community and the lack of privacy in the camps make it almost impossible to form a bond with the children, hampering efforts to help them.

Alternative accommodation and reception systems, such as those at the Jules Ferry Centre and the temporary reception centre managed by La Vie Active, do not have the required authorisation or possess the necessary framework to receive and house unaccompanied children. Those dedicated staterun sites that do exist are full, and there is a desperate lack of accommodation. To be awarded a place in an accommodation centre, unaccompanied children are forced to declare themselves adults or must come forward accompanied by an older ‘cousin’ or ‘uncle’, which puts them at greater risk of being manipulated by malicious adults.

Unaccompanied children living in the ‘jungles’ of Calais, Grande-Synthe and the other sites are often viewed as young people in transit, with an ‘unwavering determination to cross the English Channel’, making it impossible to propose a project that will offer them protection in France. Only the family reunification process, as described by the EU Regulation of 26 June 2013 known as ‘Dublin III’, which establishes the deciding criteria and mechanisms by which the responsible member state is to assess an application for international protection, can be suggested to them. This process, which provides a restrictive interpretation of the term ‘family’, is lengthy, complex and poorly controlled, and has been rarely used. Between the beginning of 2016 April, 52 referrals were submitted, 24 decisions were made (22 approvals, 20 of which related to children) and 20 transfers were carried out.

Although some unaccompanied children are under the influence of exploitation networks, all find themselves in a dangerous situation due to their isolation and living conditions. Changes to the child protection system are urgently needed to enable unaccompanied children to access effective means of protection which respect the rights of the child, no matter what their migration plans may be. Faced with greater and greater risks of violence and exploitation on account of their longer stays and more difficult journeys, it is essential that new solutions are found. A secure and sustainable framework must be in place for the children who will arrive over the coming months so that they are able to avoid situations which increase their vulnerability.

Neither Safe Nor Sound: Unaccompanied Children on the Coastline of the English Channel and the North Sea was published in June 2016. It is a joint publication of Unicef France and Unicef UK. The study was written by Alexandre Le Clève, Evangeline Masson-Diez and Olivier Peyroux of TRAJECTOIRES.