After his election victory, Boris Johnson redrafted the EU withdrawal bill and 328 Conservative MPs voted down the amendment from Labour peer Alf Dubs on January 8. The amendment aims to secure rights for unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with families in Britain under the Dublin regulations after Britain leaves the EU. Several days later, Home Office ministers urged Dubs, who fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and came to Britain on the kindertransport in 1939, to stop pushing for the amendment.
Back in 2016, Alf Dubs had introduced the amendment to the then Immigration Act which promised to offer 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children safe passage to Britain. The Home Office then rejected applications from thousands of children in the Calais area without offering any explanation, leaving many minors entrapped and without hope. Over the following years, only 200 children were allowed into Britain under the Dubs scheme.
Back in 2016, Alf Dubs had introduced the amendment to the then Immigration Act which promised to offer 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children safe passage to Britain.
Today, there is considerable support from society for family reunion rights for unaccompanied child refugees. However, some advocates of these rights are also defenders of a tough stance on keeping out those who don’t qualify for refugee status – like many of those in the Calais area in 2016 – who also wanted to reunite with family members in Britain. Even Dubs himself once argued that “European governments must get tough on economic migrants or risk disadvantaging genuine refugees”.
The reality is that, perpetuating the false distinction between “undocumented migrant children” and “child refugees” would only lead to further illegalisation of these children, which can only mean further precariousness and exploitation of them.
Globally, there are 35 million migrant children and youths under the age of twenty, the majority of them in developing countries, rather than in Europe. However, the invention of “deserving” and “less deserving” strangers in the European approach to asylum and immigration has led to destitution of many unaccompanied children from outside of the continent.
My first encounter with these children was in 2016 when I visited Lampedusa, where there were 600 migrants in the over-crowded camp, around 400 being underage. Adults lived alongside minors, 40 people to a dormitory room. The children didn’t know where Lampedusa was and how far away they were from home, let alone knowing how to answer the authorities’ questions like “Are you here for work?”, “Are you coming to join your relatives?”, “Are you seeking international protection?” For the children, the answers are multiple. But the border-protecting adults would ask them to tick one box, without even telling them that the answer would determine the course of the rest of their lives.
The border-protecting adults would ask them to tick one box, without even telling them that the answer would determine the course of the rest of their lives.
95,000 unaccompanied children claimed asylum in Europe in 2015, many of whom suffered exploitation and horrific abuse in countries such as Greece, where children were detained alongside adults. In 2016, more than 63,200 unaccompanied minors were registered in the EU (half of them Syrian and Afghan refugees). Among them, more than 25,000 reached Italy via the central Mediterranean sea route, with just over 6,000 children kept in the asylum system in Italy that year. The rest of them had apparently gone “missing”.
In 2017, 31,400 unaccompanied minors were registered in the EU. 18,500 of them were in Italy, where more than 6 in 10 young asylum seekers were unaccompanied minors. Their number went down to 11,300 in 2018 and then 6,300 in 2019 (only 1,500 minors arrived by sea) when Italy’s hard-right government closed the ports. For years, the majority of these children in the profit-making reception system were rotting their lives away, with little opportunity for education and proper healthcare. All these numbers don’t include children who are not registered in the system.
Meeting the children
Over the past two years, I’ve met children in minors’ shelters in Italy who are trapped in the extremely exploitative informal economy with no protection nor rights. They serve as an irregular army of casual labour in agriculture, filling the gaps for the interests of farmers and multinational supermarket chains.
I’ve also met children who wander the streets or are in permanent transit. Since the beginning of 2018, 60% of children had run away from around sixty minors’ shelters and camps in Palermo, Sicily, according to activist Alberto Biondo of Borderline Sicilia. In 2019, half of these shelters had been closed. Many of the children stayed homeless for a short while, and then moved north, either to Germany or further north to Scandinavian countries, or France. Their journey across Europe has been endless moving-on and escaping from misery.
Many children end up sleeping rough in the streets of Paris as they can’t qualify for the bed space in temporary shelters – many have not passed the random age assessment. I met a seventeen-year-old who tried to lose weight in order to pass the assessment which involved measuring the width of his wrist. Also another seventeen-year-old who failed the assessment because he “looked too tall to be underage”.
Some of these destitute minors eventually find shelter in the makeshift camps in Dunkirk and Calais. I met Vietnamese children of 14 and 15 in the former La Linière camp in Grande Synthe, Dunkirk, who had attempted entry to Britain by hiding in lorries more than a dozen times. Children and youths from Sudan, Iran and Iraq did the same, some of whom lost their lives jumping desperately onto lorries, as documented by Calais Migrant Solidarity. Today, many children remain in Calais and Dunkirk; they are still living rough, and prone to abuse, exploitation and police brutality on a daily basis.
Today, many children remain in Calais and Dunkirk; they are still living rough, and prone to abuse, exploitation and police brutality on a daily basis.
Now, even if the amendment is included in the withdrawal bill, the transition period when the Dublin rules will remain applicable will only last until December 2020. After then, alternatives to the current British domestic laws won’t be there any more and family reunion will be extremely difficult.
It is appalling hypocrisy for the authorities to speak of protecting children whilst denying them rights to family reunion due to their immigration and residence status. The advocacy for the rights of one section of displaced children above another is morally wrong and time after time has proved itself unable to protect rights for anyone. We have to reject this hierarchy of rights for children who happen to be in different asylum and immigration categories and aim to secure rights for all of them.
Main image: Iraqi refugee children at Newroz camp | Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee via DFID – UK Department for International Aid