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UNICEF urges UK to help refugee children stranded in Calais

Between 70-120 unaccompanied children have been reunited with their families in the UK, but many more are stranded in France camp
A young boy pushes his sibling through the mud at a makeshift camp close to Calais (AFP)

The UK government must take urgent action to speed up the resettlement of 800 unaccompanied refugees stranded in the Jungle refugee camp near Calais, the world’s leading organisation for children said on Wednesday.

Despite ongoing political pressure faced by the UK government, figures compiled by UNICEF show that just 70 unaccompanied children from Calais have been reunited with family members in the UK so far this year, even though the Home Office told Middle East Eye that 120 children have been helped.

Those children have been brought to the UK under EU-wide family reunification rules known as the Dublin III Regulations.

But to the dismay of aid agencies and campaigners, no unaccompanied children have yet been brought to the UK under the new so-called "Dubs Amendment," which passed into law earlier this year and promised the most desperate child refugees a place of sanctuary by offering a safe route of passage to the country.

Lord Dubs, a Labour peer who escaped Nazi Germany and came to Britain on the Kindertransport programme for Jewish children, embarrassed the government in March when he forced through an amendment to the Immigration Bill.

The amendment, which was initially opposed by then Prime Minister David Cameron's government, forced ministers to arrange the resettlement of unaccompanied children, including orphans, who have made it to Europe into the UK.

It was designed to help deal with the growing humanitarian crisis at Calais, just 34 kilometres from the UK. However, a UNICEF spokesperson told Middle East Eye that while the Home Office had dedicated some additional resources to resettling children under the Dublin III Regulation, it was “unaware of any arrivals of any unaccompanied children” under the Dubs Amendment.

The ongoing row came as a major new UNICEF report found that the number of child refugees worldwide has soared to 10 million. According to the new report, Uprooted: The Growing Crisis for Refugee and Migrant Children, nearly one in every 200 children worldwide is now a refugee, with Syria and Afghanistan alone accounting for nearly half of all the child refugees under the care of the United Nations.

Campaigners in the UK, including Save the Children and Citizens UK, say the Dubs Amendment is crucial because it provides sanctuary to the most vulnerable children, including orphans and other Syrian refugees, who could not otherwise be easily resettled from Calais.

Speaking in London on Tuesday, Lily Caprani, UNICEF UK deputy executive director, told Middle East Eye that the British government must take urgent action to make sure the “rules actually work in practice” and that both the Dublin Regulation and the Dubs Amendment are correctly implemented and fully funded.

She called on the government to remove arbitrary caps on resettlement schemes, pointing out that just 70 unaccompanied children in Calais had been reunited with their families under the Dublin Regulation this year.

A Home Office spokesperson told MEE via email that the UK is currently engaged "in active discussions with the UNHCR, other partner organisations and the Italian, Greek and French governments to strengthen and speed up mechanisms to identify, assess and transfer unaccompanied refugee children".

"We continue to work closely with the French government to ensure that children in Calais with family links in the UK are identified, receive sufficient support and can access the Dublin family reunification process without delay," the spokesperson added.

In addition, a Home Office press release sent to MEE said that the UK has "already provided refuge for 2,646 Syrian refugees through our Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme and around half of those resettled are children," and that the country is "committed to resettling 20,000 refugees by the end of this Parliament".

"We have also committed to resettling up to 3000 children and their families from the Middle East and North Africa region under the Vulnerable Children at Risk resettlement scheme," the press release added.

According to the charity Citizens UK, which is working with volunteers in France, at least 387 children in Calais have a right to come to Britain.

The list of eligible children, who are stranded in appalling conditions with the weather set to deteriorate in the coming months, includes 178 children who have the right to come to the UK because of family links, plus a further 209 children who, the charity says, qualify under the terms of the Dubs Amendment.

Campaigners have been dismayed by slow progress over Calais in recent months, and Caprani suggested that the slow progress could be down to a “lack of will” in Westminster. The result, she said, was that children have been left at risk of the “worst forms of abuse and harm,” including sexual exploitation, which UNICEF officials say is on the rise in Europe, as well as risky methods of crossing the Channel to the UK. 

“Many of these children wouldn’t resort to such extreme measures [to get to Britain] if the UK Government made them aware that they may have a legal right to come to the UK safely and if they provided the resources to make that process happen before these terrible journeys begin,” she added in a statement.

At least two children who had legal avenues to enter the UK but were not made aware have died attempting the crossing over the past year. 

As the political row over the situation in Calais continued, Tom Brake MP, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, told MEE: “This inaction is becoming unbearable, and every day that passes that the government fails to act is a day when a child is at risk of being trafficked and exploited in a foreign land far from home.”

The row over Calais and the new UNICEF report come ahead of two major summits on the refugee crisis and migration in New York later this month.

The UNICEF report, which brings together dozens of data sets on child refugees and migrants for the first time, also documents rising numbers of internally displaced children still living in conflict zones. It found that Syria, Iraq and Yemen account for nearly one third of the world’s 17 million internally displaced children.

In total, the report found that nearly 50 million children worldwide are refugees, internally displaced or fleeing violence or natural disasters, a 50 percent increase since 2005.

The report also shows:

  • Children make up 31 percent of all refugees and migrants who have arrived to Europe by sea in 2016

  • Roughly 2.4 million child refugees come from Syria

  • Europe hosts approximately one in nine of the world’s refugees

  • More than 2 million Palestinian children are refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria or are internally displaced within Palestine

According to the report, Turkey hosts the largest number of recent refugees, and is “very likely” to be the largest host of child refugees in the world. Relative to population size, Lebanon hosts the largest proportion of refugees by a wide margin,

Roughly one in five people currently living in Lebanon is a refugee. By comparison, there is roughly one refugee for every 530 people in the United Kingdom, and one for every 1,200 in the United States.

Brake said: “This report yet again highlights the immense suffering of child refugees across the world. It is a stain on our country that we have not done more to help the world’s most vulnerable, often those who have lost or been separated from their parents.”

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