Race to transfer Calais' 'Jungle' children to Britain

Officials are rushing to process as many young people as possible to transfer them to Britain from the refugee camp called the "Jungle" in Calais.
Officials are rushing to process as many young people as possible to transfer them to Britain from the refugee camp called the "Jungle" in Calais. PHOTO: AFP

CALAIS, FRANCE (AFP) - With only hours to go before workers begin to demolish France's "Jungle" migrant camp on Monday (Oct 24), officials are racing to process as many young people as possible to be transferred to Britain.

The pace is therefore brisk at the camp outside Calais: young migrants are shown into a container where British Home Office officials have set up shop, have their photo quickly taken, and then undergo a short interview to decide their fate.

"We have conducted 600 interviews in all, and this week 194 minors will have left Calais for Britain," said Pierre Henry, the head of France Terre d'Asile (FTDA), a charity involved in helping process the children on behalf of the French government.

The aim is to deal with as many cases as they can, out of the around 1,300 minors identified in the camp, including 500 with links to Britain - and then to convince London to accept as many as possible.

It is unclear how many Britain will take. "An aim of 600 transfers at least was given," said an official familiar with the talks.

The issue is sensitive. A French official source described the negotiations with London as "very tough" and said: "We would like to go further."

Only 70 children were transferred between the start of the year and early October, before plans to tear down the camp swung into high gear.

Britain was accused of dragging its feet but France too was accused of holding up the process, by failing to present enough cases for consideration.

As the demolition date loomed, the pace had to be stepped up: a list of minors was presented to Britain, who dispatched 17 officials from the Home Office to help carry out interviews, alongside around a dozen staff from FTDA and support from the UN refugee agency the UNHCR.

In the packed container, adolescents are invited to give more details - in languages including Arabic and Pashto - about their identity and what family ties they have in Britain.

In many cases, the relatives are uncles or cousins.

"It is rare that they have a mother or father there," said Henry.

"I don't have a family, I've crossed Europe on my own," said Maharawi, a slender 17-year-old Afghan waiting in line on Saturday with his friend Anwar, who has a brother in Britain.

"I gave his telephone number, they are going to call him. After that I hope to leave," he said.

It is up to the British to decide whether they are indeed minors, what their family ties are and if they should be transferred under an EU law known as the Dublin Regulation for asylum seekers.

"If we can take all the minors who have the right under the Dublin procedure, we will do so," said a diplomatic source.

But what happens to children with no family ties? This is where the matter become complicated.

For them one option is to apply under a British legislative amendment that allows a limited number of vulnerable child refugees into the country, even if they do not have family in Britain.

The so-called Dubs amendment passed in May was tabled by Alfred Dubs, an 83-year-old member of Britain's House of Lords who argued that the country should be more compassionate, citing his own story of fleeing the Nazis as a child in 1939.

But deciding who is most vulnerable is tricky.

"It's more complicated because you have to determine if the child can meet the criteria for a refugee," said a diplomatic source.

On Saturday, 53 girls were among the first "Dubs kids" to enter Britain under the amendment, FTDA's Henry said.

The French are hoping more will follow.

"The British have to move on Dubs," a French official said.

Minors who were passed over this week will see their chances of being admitted legally to Britain dwindle once the Jungle is razed - a major operation starting on Monday.

They will be accommodated in containers at the site for two weeks and then moved to shelters around France.

Conscious of the urgency, young men hoping to be among the chosen few kept pressing up against at the fence surrounding the area where the interviews were taking place this weekend.