Do 1,500 child refugees from France's 'Jungle' have a future in Britain?

After the Calais refugee camp was razed this week, French president Hollande asked Britain to help relocate 1,500 children who called the so-called 'Jungle' home. The government has so far refused, but the move may be more popular with Britons.

Thibault Camus/AP
Migrants make their way for an official bus to take them away after being forced out from the makeshift migrant camp known as "the jungle", near Calais, northern France, on Friday. Thousands of migrants dispersed this week from the now-torched camp they had called home in Calais are struggling to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings in towns and villages throughout France, while others are hoping to journey to Britain.

France has called upon Britain to care for 1,500 migrant children who have been living in the Calais "Jungle." Though many Britons might be receptive, the government has so far refused to allow them to enter.

Following the destruction of "The Jungle," a camp where thousands of migrants had made their homes, France has been working to distribute former residents of the camp to towns and villages across the country. French President François Hollande said 5,000 people have been moved from Calais, and that the 1,500 unaccompanied minors remaining would be moved to other reception centers. British officials, he stated, should go to those centers and begin the process to relocate migrants to Britain. The request was rejected by British government officials, who say that France should take responsibility for the minors. 

Taking in the children presents logistical and political challenges. But Germany and France both provide examples of overcoming these difficulties. And while London – focused on guiding the country through its exit from Europe – might see France’s demand as threatening British sovereignty, the British public might be more welcoming to the children than the government presently expects.

There are currently two legal pathways for refugee children to enter Britain. One is the Dublin II regulation, which allows minors to enter the country to reunite with family members already settled there. The other is the Dubs amendment. Named for Lord Dubs, a one-time Kindertransport refugee, it creates a channel for the neediest children to come to the UK. These children are orphans, girls under 18 (who may be at risk of sexual assault) and all children under 13.

These laws have caused controversy lately, with Conservative lawmaker David Davies suggesting that a group of 14 boys who arrived in the UK two weeks ago to join their families were actually adults. That’s problematic if Britain hopes to limit the number of migrants it accepts, because even adults can claim asylum once they arrive in the country. Many migrants don’t have paperwork, making it difficult to be sure how old they are, and clinical tests are inaccurate.

However, charities working with refugees in Calais have indicated that 200 or more of these children qualify to be brought to Britain under the Dubs amendment. Citizens UK passed on details about the 30 most vulnerable children, including an eight-year-old, to the UK Home Office. 

Why the delay, then? The issue is largely logistical, some charity workers indicated to The Daily Telegraph. They say children without family in Britain are difficult to process — the French authorities are required to determine that a child does not have family elsewhere in Europe, and that moving to Britain would be in the child’s best interests.

France seems to have made its feelings clear. Pascal Brice, head of France’s refugee agency Ofpra, told Reuters, “The least [Britain] can do is take care of the isolated minors who are now at the CAP [temporary lodgings] and who have an interest in going to Britain.”

As to finding a place for the children to stay once they arrive in the UK, France and Germany both have new policies that Britain has shown a willingness to emulate. Migrants are quickly processed, with German authorities now making an initial judgment on Syrian refugees’ right to asylum within 48 hours. After that, they are sent to welcome centers across the country for resettlement in towns and villages.

Britain currently makes determinations about who qualifies for transport to the UK in France. That means migrants are left on the streets as they wait to learn their fate — and ensuring that the children do not have family elsewhere may be a complicated and time-consuming process. But the Dublin II regulation would allow children to rejoin their families if they were later discovered to be elsewhere in the EU, and it would likely be safer for the migrants if they were able to settle in Britain immediately.

“Something that’s happening is that the children are leaving the camp and going to even more dangerous camps,”  Baroness Shaista Sheehan told the Washington Post.

Three local authorities in London agreed to take the 30 high-risk children selected by Citizens UK for urgent resettlement in Britain. And ordinary Britons also say they would open their homes. In an ORB International poll conducted in December, one in five Britons said they would welcome a refugee into their home for a short period of time.

This is particularly likely to be true in the case of children. One in three Britons has contributed to relief efforts in Syria, a Charities Aid Foundation survey found last year. Of those, a third said they were moved to help after seeing images of a three-year-old Syrian boy who was washed up on a Turkish beach. 

Welcoming children would probably be seen as less threatening to British culture — since children tend to integrate better — and to national security. Particularly in the Brexit debate, immigrants and refugees were portrayed as “the great evil that was coming in to swamp the country,” Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, told Middle East Eye.

Those refugees staying in France are finding that they can be happy there, even if they originally wanted to go to Britain, The Christian Science Monitor reported on Friday. This may help alleviate fears that opening Britain’s doors to these children, as France has asked, would mean being faced with an uncontrollable stream of refugees.

In a phone conversation between British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Hollande, May reportedly refused to make any new commitments to accept refugees. She did, however, say that Britain would focus on meeting its existing obligations. The country accepted more than 1,000 refugees before Christmas 2015, and has taken in 140 children so far this year.

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