Guest post by Niamh Quille, a volunteer for Dunkirk Legal Support Team, and a future MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice student at Wadham College, Oxford. She previously worked as a human rights paralegal specialising in judicial review claims at Leigh Day and received the Princess Royal Scholarship to study the Graduate Diploma in Law from the Inner Temple. She also holds a BA (Hons) in Political Science from the University of Birmingham. Niamh is on Twitter @niamhquille.

The Dunkirk Legal Support Team (DLST) began providing support to those living in La Liniére refugee camp outside Dunkirk in April 2016, working on the ground and directly with those in need, to connect them with essential services. Since November 2016, the focus of much of DLST’s work has been on unaccompanied minors who have potential claims for reunification with family members in the UK.

Working in the field poses a significant challenge. Without Wi-Fi, an office or shared information systems, identifying and interviewing minors was a difficult task. Many minors had spent months moving between camps in the north of France. Some were clear that their sole aim was to make it to the UK; others seemed less sure what their available options were. Often, lack of information and the experience of administrative procedures, such as detention, lead displaced people to take on erratic journeys and make uninformed decisions.

Many had already been let down by the system in Europe. Some minors had been detained in countries that they had travelled through before arriving in France, being separated from their parents and siblings as a consequence.

A volunteer based in Calais informed us that Omar, a 14-year-old Afghan boy, had come to the camp in Dunkirk. A previous resident of the Calais Jungle, Omar had been placed in a reception centre in a different region where a social worker supported him to make a claim for family reunification to join his uncle in the UK. He felt that conditions in the centre were poor, so when the Home Office rejected his claim, he made his journey back to the coast to ‘try’ (the word used for attempting to cross the channel unlawfully) on the lorries instead. His experience is similar to many accounts from refugees in the region.

As a new arrival in the camp, he optimistically told us that he and his friends would be able to ‘buy’ a shelter inside the camp for €250. However, the camp’s management were not building new shelters, nor were there new shelters for sale, a policy designed to prevent the camp from expanding after the ‘Calais Jungle’ was demolished. A total lack of control by the authorities left Omar and his friends vulnerable to exploitation by smugglers within camp walls. For him, this was preferable to staying in reception centres.  

On 10th April 2017, a fire devastated the camp. Reports of fighting had emerged earlier that day and the fire came as no surprise; tensions had been high for a number of days. Violence between camp residents and the police was increasing in the months leading up to the fire, ostensibly because of deteriorating conditions and overcrowding.  

Previously, the administration introduced a policy that sought to control the camp’s population. As Dunkirk is an open camp, wristbands were introduced to restrict new arrivals and ensure that only those already resident in the camp could gain access. However, not all residents received a wristband and the resulting denial of entry led to protests. A lucrative black market trading wristbands emerged. One unaccompanied minor told the team that he had gone to ‘try’ when a smuggler stole his wristband from him; to buy it back would cost him €200.

Very late on the night of the fire, emergency accommodation was set up in local school gymnasiums, but many decided to make their own journey elsewhere, perhaps fearful of further violence and unable to trust in the government to keep them safe. The morning after the fire, the team drove to meet an unaccompanied minor who had sent us his location and a photograph of where he was staying.

At the side of a motorway towards Bourbourg, we found him, along with over a hundred Afghani men who had slept in the field. Our beneficiary was with about another 12 teenage boys. They had no food or water, and many were sheltering under sleeping bags.

Gradually, local agencies moved into action. By 6pm, buses arrived to transfer people to school gymnasiums across the Dunkirk area. Because of the situation of emergency, conditions in these gymnasiums were poor. There was no shower, and men and children slept on the floor or on gym mats.

Over the next few days, the mayor made visits to each temporary shelter to make the announcement that the camp was closed, and the government would not allow it to be rebuilt. People would be forcibly transferred to reception centres and given one month to apply for asylum; sleeping rough would no longer be tolerated by the police.

The Mayor speaks to Afghani men at Basroch gymnasium two days after the fire.

In partnership with Safe Passage and other organisations, DLST assembled a list of minors who were residing in one particular gymnasium and ensured their safe transportation to appropriate accommodation for their age.

At around 11pm, one of the minors who had made it onto the first bus sent a text: ‘Hello, I leave old place’. It had only taken a few hours for his sense of insecurity and frustration to boil over. In France, accommodation facilities for minors are open and they are not forced to register in any official capacity. The following day at the gymnasium, when given a second chance to go to appropriate accommodation for minors, he chose not to join. But the gymnasium was closing so he would have to get on one of the buses. Yet, the only remaining buses were taking adults to reception centres across France. He later called us from a service station. He didn’t know what to do – the bus was taking him to Toulouse.  

In a census taken shortly before the fire, 120 unaccompanied minors were identified as living in the refugee camp. Now, dispersed amongst accommodation centres (where age assessments are due to take place) or sleeping rough, unaccompanied minors’ trajectories remain unpredictable and dangerous.

Over the past few days, we’ve been contacted by minors in accommodation reporting neglect and violence. Many of those who are still in touch with us also lived in the ‘Calais Jungle’ before its demolition, and continue to live in uncertainty. Few months on from the fire, France has a new President. It remains to be seen what lessons have been learnt from northern France.

Note: Dunkirk Legal Support Team is continuing to work in the region to support refugees who are still in the area. As a volunteer run organisation, they rely on charitable donations. Click here to donate to DLST. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Quille, N. (2017) Unprotected, Unguided, Uncertain: Experiences of Minors in Dunkirk. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/06/unprotected (Accessed [date])