Guest post by Amanda Shah, Policy Officer at Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit. GMIAU is a registered charity based in the North West of England providing free, confidential, independent legal advice and representation on immigration and asylum. Every year GMIAU represents more than 1,000 people in the UK claiming asylum. Since 2016 GMIAU has provided legal representation for a significant number of children who passed through the camp in Calais on their way to the UK.

In October 2016 the arrival of a small number of children from the camp in Calais - sometimes referred to as ‘the jungle’ – caused a media storm in the UK. The media, for the most part, were not interested in the children’s vulnerability, or in the benefits of offering them refuge, but on the possible risk posed by adults pass themselves off as children to take advantage of the country’s welfare benefits system. One MP even suggested the children should have their teeth x-rayed to verify their ages - a move the Home Office rejected as ‘inaccurate, inappropriate and unethical’. As media interest subsided, the children at the heart of the furore began navigating life in a new country. Six months on, what have been the experiences of life in the UK for those children who passed through the Calais camp?

At GMIAU we have looked at the experiences of 40 children who were referred to us for legal representation in the year to February 2017. All of the children passed through Calais on their way to the UK and are living in a variety of settings in the North West, including with family members (17), in supported lodgings (13) and in foster care (7). The children range in age from 12 to 17 with the most common age being 16.

Twenty-two of the children had left Calais and entered the UK by their own means (usually by hiding on a lorry traveling through the Eurotunnel). Two had been transferred to the UK under the so-called Dubs Amendment children (under Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016). Sixteen had been transferred through the EU Regulation, Dublin III, to be reunited with family members (mostly older siblings, uncles or aunts already in the UK as refugees, British citizens or the spouses of British citizens).

The children’s nationalities reflect their birth places in well-known areas of conflict and political unrest in the Middle East (Syria and Iran), East Africa (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan) and Asia (Afghanistan). They also mirror the population of the Calais camp and the limited legal routes available to children to enter the UK.

What challenges have the children faced in the North West?

We have been privileged to share in the joy of families being reunited with their children and the relief of having them safe. We have also witnessed the support that skilled foster carers and social workers can provide to unaccompanied children.

The children’s circumstances are all highly contextualised and depend on their particular ages, experiences, support networks and personalities. However some of the challenges they have faced relate to common experiences:

Fleeing to safety and the risks experienced travelling to the UK: As well as coping with the loss of home and family, the traumatic events that caused them to leave, the practicalities of life in a new place, and (for some) a new language, the children have to deal with their experiences while travelling to the UK. Five had been accidently separated from family members in the chaos of travelling across Europe and ended up making part of the journey on their own (including one who became lost during police action to clear a train). Some still don’t know the location of lost family members. Many had spent several months surviving in Calais on their own. Some had experienced the camp being cleared, being moved to French reception centres and the anxiety of waiting to hear if they would be transferred to the UK. Some had been street homeless in Paris. For six of the children, their GMIAU caseworker identified mental health issues as a primary concern. One caseworker described two brothers she was representing as ‘emotionally worn down’ by their experiences in Calais which were etched on their faces.

  • Claiming asylum in the UK: All the children have had to make a claim for asylum to establish how long they will be able to stay in the UK. Most of their legal cases are ongoing.  Seven of those who entered the UK by their own means also had their age disputed and faced a legal challenge to have their correct age accepted. Many of the Dublin III families expected their reunited children would arrive in the UK from France with refugee status. The need to claim asylum has come as a shock. Our caseworkers have seen some excellent examples of individual Home Office officials processing the children’s asylum claims flexibly, fairly and compassionately. There have also been examples of bureaucratic decisions that put the children’s needs second. For example, for several months the Home Office insisted the children had to register their asylum claims in Croydon, south of London, rather than in the North West.
  • Understanding and accessing services in the UK: The type of services children from Calais have been able to access in the UK has depended on how they came into the country and who they came with. The unaccompanied children are all ‘looked after’ by local authorities, in accordance with duties to children under the Children Act 1989. They all now have access to legal aid, although for those screened on arrival it is unclear whether they had legal advice prior to their transfer to the North West. The experience for children reunited with family members has been more complex.

Social work support - While all children joining relatives should be assessed under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 if it appears they are in need, in GMIAU’s experience, not all the Dublin III families have a named social worker and they often need more proactive support than they are receiving. For example in one family, a sister (who herself has a small child) is supporting her younger siblings who arrived from Calais, and feels overwhelmed by the logistics of finding legal advice, understanding the asylum system, registering with a GP, accessing college places, sourcing English language support, and navigating any entitlements to financial support. The families are all working through complicated emotional and practical issues arising from their changing family dynamics. Without an appropriate level of support the risk of family breakdown clearly escalates – this has already occurred in one of the families.

Financial support – The Dublin III families have all been in need of specialist advice in order to access appropriate financial support, as their circumstances straddle welfare benefits, community care and asylum support. Families have commonly been confused about their eligibility to claim welfare benefits to support the child who has joined them. Many presumed eligibility was dependent on the immigration status of the child rather than the adult who is applying, as is the case with child benefits and tax credits. GMIAU caseworkers identified financial strain as a primary concern for 44% (7/16) of the Dublin III families.

Legal aid – Nearly a quarter (3/16) of the families were ineligible for legal aid. The Legal Aid Agency sets a threshold on families’ financial means, above which the reunited child will not have access to legal aid. Children in families who fall on the wrong side of the legal aid threshold - such as one family who had been saving for years to send the sister to college - face serious risks to their immigration status. Without legal aid, they either have to rely on newly reunited family paying for private legal help, or will go through the asylum process unrepresented, or may even end their asylum claim. This could have disastrous consequences for their safety, their ability to remain in the UK and their future access to the job market, higher education and welfare benefits.

What needs to happen now?

As a result of our work with children from Calais, GMIAU believes three things need to happen to help safeguard children seeking safety:

  • The UK must protect children from trafficking and exploitation by establishing safe and accessible legal routes to the UK for children claiming asylum
  • Every child claiming asylum in the UK should have access to an experienced immigration lawyer throughout their asylum claim
  • Children seeking asylum in the UK should have financial support and social work assistance regardless of how they entered the UK.

These changes are all possible.  What will it take to be make them a reality?

Note: This post is based on a briefing paper by GMIAU, which is part of Border Criminologies' SSRN NGO reports series. You can find the report here.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Shah, A. (2017) Life in the UK: The Experiences of Children from the Calais Camp in the North West of England. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/04/life-uk (Accessed [date]).