Child Migration to the UK: Hopes and Realities

In this extract from ‘Fortress Britain?’ Pia Jolliffe and Samuel Burke draw attention to child migrants’ vulnerability and ask for the impact of the Amendment 115 to Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016. 

‘I was 12 when my mother paid people smugglers $8,000 to take my brother and me from Afghanistan to Europe. After my father and grandfather were killed by US armed forces the Taliban put pressure on us to become suicide bombers. Drastic as it was, sending us away was the only option my mother could see to keep us alive. I then began a 12-month odyssey across Europe. I was separated from my brother almost immediately and incarcerated three times. I jumped from a speeding train in Bulgaria, nearly breaking both my legs, and almost drowned in a tiny overcrowded boat off the coast of Greece. When I arrived in the UK, I was still only 13, but almost unrecognisable from the child I had been. That’s what hunger, cruelty and brutality does to you.’

In his book The Lightless Sky Gulwali Passaray describes the painful process of age-assessment upon his arrival in the UK. Although he was only 13 years old, Kent Social Services concluded that he was 16 and a half years of age because of his mature appearance and clever answers to their interview questions. As a result of the incorrect birth date he had been given, he was only given discretionary leave to remain in the UK for one year. At the age of 17 he was expected to leave the country or to be deported. Because the Home Office insisted on him being 16 years old, he had to share accommodation with adults instead of with children. Unable to accept this injustice, Gulwali made every effort to prove his real age and eventually – with the help of the educational institution Starting Point – managed to have his age re-assessed and his real birthday recognized.

In conversation with Pia Jolliffe, Gulwali reiterates that the age-assessment has huge consequences for child migrants’ lives. Those who are considered above 18 years are deprived of all sorts of opportunities like education and foster families. They are either kept in detention, deported or decide to go underground.

Gulwali Passaray´s story is shared by thousands of children and young people who arrive as unaccompanied minors in Europe. Indeed, in 2016, there were 63,300 unaccompanied minors among asylum seekers registered in the European Union. The majority of these minors were boys (89%) and over two-thirds were 16 or 17 years old. The highest number of asylum applications by unaccompanied minors was registered in Germany (36,000, or 57% of the EU total) followed by Italy (6,000, or 10%), Austria (3,900, or 6%) and the United Kingdom (3, 200, or 5%). Over half of these unaccompanied minors said they were originally from Afghanistan (38%) or Syria (19%). Like Gulwali Passarlay, these young people are highly vulnerable because of the hardships most of them suffered in their countries of origin, on their ways to Europe and within the EU. What is particularly striking is the gender gap. Although many girls start going on journeys to Europe, they often disappear on their way. A social worker in a home for unaccompanied refugees in Austria mentioned in an interview with Pia Jolliffe that the boys in her care confirmed that there are many girls who disappear on their way to Europe: ‘A bus stops, they enter the bus and then they are away. This gives me goose pimples.’

Once the young people have arrived in Europe, they are not spared the humiliation that frequently comes with police interrogations. Often, the child´s age is put into question supposedly because those under 16 receive a different treatment in foster arrangements than those older than 16. Gulawali Passaray described his experience as follows:

After being arrested and sent to an immigration centre I had my age assessment. They asked me questions about my family background, my journey – even silly questions about the province I came from in Afghanistan. After three or four hours they announced I was not 13 but 16-and-a-half. They said I couldn’t have travelled so far when I was still so young, and that I was too smart to be 13. I know I looked older than I was – I still do, but I grew up in a harsh, mountain environment and had been through a long, hard journey. They tried to give me a new date of birth. I was so angry. I felt they were worse than the smugglers – they had been heartless, but they hadn’t tried to change my identity. I was so angry I ripped up the paper the assessors gave me, in front of them. (…) I didn’t know why they were saying all this. Now I know it is because the Home Office have to put you in school and in foster care and give you the legal rights of a child if you are under 16.

Clearly, migrant boys and especially migrant girls under the age of 18 are vulnerable and face hazards that are related both to their gender and their age.

Dubs amendment

Lord Dubs was born in 1933 in Prague. His father was Czech and Jewish and his mother came from Austria. In an interview with Pia Jolliffe, Lord Dubs stresses that although his father was not political at all, he sensed the danger of the Nazi regime and came in 1939 to England. His mother did not get permission to leave, yet she managed to put their son Alf on the Kindertransport to London. The Kindertransport was organized by Sir Nicholas Winton who also arranged for foster parents to welcome the 669 children who travelled on Alf Dubs’ train.

At that time Alf Dubs was six years old and one of the youngest children on board of the train. He remembers that it took 24 hours to reach the Dutch border: ‘we just sat there and waited and when we got to the Dutch border, the older ones cheered, because we were out of reach of the Nazis. I didn’t know what that meant, I just knew it was significant, but I didn’t know why’. When being asked whether he remembers being afraid by it all, he said: ‘I don’t know. I don’t know whether a six-year-old remembers being afraid or not. My mother put some little sandwiches in a backpack, and I hadn’t eaten anything in the journey (…) so perhaps I was a bit upset by it all’.
Lord Dubs remembered how fortunate he was to have his father waiting for him at London Liverpool Street station, when most of the other children had no relatives in England and where instead welcomed by foster families. Eventually, his mother also succeeded in getting out of Prague and arrived on 31st August 1939 in London. This was also the day the war started and – Dubs emphasizes – would she have been a day later, she would not have managed it.

In the 1930s, Britain was the only nation in the world to assist Jewish children in this way. At the time of our interview there were, according to Lord Dubs, 80,000–90,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe. Many of these children were in danger of being taken into prostitution, being subject to violence, being trafficked and so on. According to Lord Dubs (interview), young migrants were often ignorant about their rights. When he talked to Eritrean and Afghan refugees in Calais, they said that there was no official information about their rights on French territory. According to Italian authorities, across Europe 10,000 young people had disappeared altogether. Under the existing Dublin III scheme, migrant children with family in Europe were allowed to join their relative. However, Dublin III did not provide for children without family in Europe. Lord Dubs was particularly struck by the situation of children and young people in the Calais camp, in France, but also by the situation of young people in countries like Italy and Greece. So, Amendment 115 to Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 (the ‘Dubs Amendment’) was introduced for the protection of boys and girls who had no family members in Europe.

Lord Dubs’ amendment was originally intended to create a legal route for 3,000 child asylum seekers to enter the UK and have their claims considered. The final draft of the amendment removed the number 3,000 replacing it with the words ‘a specified number’. However, the figure of 3,000 continued to be widely cited as the goal, with the final figure to be announced following discussions with local authorities. In May 2016, the government agreed to the amendment.
Subsequent to the passing of the 2016 Act including the Dubs amendment, the Calais jungle was demolished but child migrants nevertheless continued to arrive in northern France.

The Dubs amendment came into force on 31 May 2016. Six months later, on 27 October 2016, the Camp in Calais was demolished. After the closure of the camp around 700 child migrants were thought to apply for asylum in Britain. Forty per cent of these children said they had relatives in the United Kingdom. Those without relatives in Europe hoped to be granted asylum through the Dubs amendment.

However, on 8 February 2017, the Minister of State for Immigration announced in a written statement that the ‘Dubs’ amendment would take around 150 more children from Europe (350 in total), far fewer than had been expected when the amendment to the bill was proposed. The minister also announced the completion of the Home Office Calais Procedure and the closure of the fast-track family reunification process. This leaves lone children in Europe to seek asylum in the European country in which they are present before waiting for their application to be processed, which can take as long as a year or more. Given that such children lack access to legal knowledge or services needed to make such a request, the route to reunification is effectively closed.

Commenting on the announcement, a spokesman for Downing Street cited the limitation of resources, saying that the scheme was ‘dependent on the resources that councils can provide and the feedback that we have received is that we can deal with 350 children. There is a limit on the capacity local authorities have to provide that level of care.’
The government’s announcement prompted a substantial backlash. On 11 February, Lord Dubs delivered a petition in front of Prime Minister Theresa May’s home at 10 Downing Street. The petition was signed by around 50,000 people. Then Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron denounced it as a ‘betrayal of British values’. Lord Dubs described the decision as ‘shameful’ and further questioned the manner of the announcement, commenting, ‘[i]t’s been sandwiched between [Prime Minister’s Questions] and all these votes on Brexit – what a way of hiding an announcement’. Whereas the Red Cross stated: ‘People traffickers thrive in the absence of safe and legal routes to protection… we need to make sure that children are not left to fend for themselves in places such as the jungle camp again.’

What has happened since then?

Moreover, members of the House of Commons criticized this small number and the NGO Help Refugees challenged the consultation on which the 350 number was based. The NGO’s legal team was concerned about the surprising absence of any offers from the entire English South-West. Eventually, the Home Office conceded that it had ‘missed’ 130 places offered by local authorities in the English South-West. Therefore, the number of children to be relocated under the Dubs amendment was raised to 480 on 26h April 2017. At that time, British newspapers started again reporting about migrants returning to flattened area of the previous camp. According to The Guardian ‘several hundred’ people arrived and half of them were teenagers between 15 and 17 years of age. The local police tried to set up shelters for these unaccompanied minor but still found children at night on the streets.
In spite of children and young peoples’ ongoing presence at Calais the Government´s position has not changed.

In June 2017 the British NGO Help Refugees criticised the Home Office for their alleged failure to properly assess local councils’ capacity to take in unaccompanied minors under Amendment 115 to Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 and took their case to the High Court. By the end of August 2017, Lord Dubs saw himself advocating against the Government´s decision to close the scheme.

Looking forward

The Dubs scheme offered children and young people a safe way to arrive in the United Kingdom. Rather than exposing these young people to threats and hazards related to informal forms of border crossing, the Dubs amendment offered a transparent route and a welcome in the United Kingdom.

Other countries have taken a different tack. Italy is the first European country to give comprehensive protection to lone child migrants under the so-called ‘Zampa law’, passed in March 2017. The law sets minimum standards of care, limiting the time children can be kept in migrant reception centres. Local authorities have a ten-day window to confirm the identities. Furthermore, local authorities are prohibited from refusing unaccompanied and separated children at the border or if it could cause harm. That Italy have made such a move whilst overwhelmed with migrants is commendable. Save the Children estimates more than 25,800 unaccompanied minors arrived in Italy by sea in 2016, more than twice as many as 2015. In March 2017, it was reported that more than 3,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in the UK in 2016.

In addition, Lord Alton has advocated using our Foreign Embassies as places where child migrants might register their interest in family reunification. Such a measure would represent a more active effort on the part of the government rather than a rather passive approach, which given its remote location appears at best complacent, at worst irresponsible. Setting aside consideration of additional legal measures such as the Zampa law, the UK government could be far more creative in providing routes to the settlement for those who might qualify under existing arrangements under measures such as utilising our embassies as Lord Alton suggests.

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