A large number of the unaccompanied children who were refused sanctuary by Britain’s Home Office after the Calais migrant camp shut down have 'disappeared' after making their way to the UK illegally. Campaigners fear that most have fallen victim to traffickers and so-called debt bondage.
According to the Independent newspaper, hundreds of the minors who were rejected safe passage by the UK Home Office when the "Jungle" migrant camp in Calais was demolished in 2016, have made it across the Channel anyway, by entering the UK illegally.
Citing lawyers, activists and social workers, the newspaper now says that many of them have "disappeared," and that they have most likely fallen into the hands of traffickers who exploit them and extort them for money to pay for their passage.
According to the Dubs agreement, signed in March 2016, Britain agreed to take in 480 unaccompanied refugee children living at the Calais migrant camp. When the camp was dismantled in October the same year, however, hundreds of these children saw their demands rejected by the Home Office.
Social Workers Without Borders, which carried out a series of assessments of children living in the Jungle prior to the camp’s demolition, said that none of the 42 children who’d been identified as "in need" had been granted safe passage to the UK. Nine of those children have since been confirmed to have made it to the UK on their own, while 14 have become "untraceable."
Figures from the Child Trafficking Office (CTAC) show that, since mid-2016, 293 migrant minors have arrived in the UK illegally. Only 103 of them have been located, however.
Sue Clayton, who has been tracking a number of the children from the Jungle camp, told the Independent about a Sudanese teenager who disappeared just a few months after his arrival in the UK. The boy had been placed in a foster home in Ilford where Clayton visited him in December 2016.
“I went to see him at his foster mums and he was fine,” she said. Three months after her visit, however, Clayton got a call from police, telling her that he had gone missing.
“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,” she said.
‘When children don’t have money, their bodies become the currency’
The newspaper also spoke to Jamie Bell, the solicitor of a 17-year-old Afghan boy who suffered from a life-threatening lung condition contracted while in the Jungle camp and who had made it to the UK illegally. Upon his arrival in the British capital, he was forced to sleep rough in southern London, after which he had to undergo urgent treatment for his lung condition. He was granted asylum more than a year later.
Bell told the paper that there were indications the boy had been exploited during his migration route, and that making it 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 traveled on his own and the Home Office recognized him as a refugee anyway," Bell said.
"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," he said.
In yet another case, a 16-year-old migrant was held hostage by smugglers after arriving in the UK because his father, who was already living in the country, couldn’t pay the smugglers for the boy’s illegal passage. The boy was freed after police intervened, and the two men who’d held him hostage were convicted of extortion.
CTAC team manager Swati Pande said that many of the children who go missing are subject to debt bondage.
“Nothing is free. These kids have made such long, unsafe journeys. Someone’s paid; they still owe money,” she said. “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.”
British MP, Sarah Jones, told the paper that the British government had "turned its back on refugee children from the Jungle, and continues to do so."
“This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, when our country saved 10,000 children from the Nazis. It’s a national shame that our current government’s hostile environment to refugees extends to even the youngest and most vulnerable children. Alone, afraid and on our doorstep,” she said.
A Home Office spokesperson said that this criticism was unjustified. “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.”
So far, however, only 220 of the 480 children who were supposed to be granted safe passage to the UK under the Dubs Amendment have been transferred to Britain.