UK must take in 400 Calais camp children – urges UNICEF

‘Valentine’s Day’ demonstration in support of the refugees in Calais outside the French Embassy in London
‘Valentine’s Day’ demonstration in support of the refugees in Calais outside the French Embassy in London

UNICEF UK is appealing to the British government to speed up the transfer of unaccompanied child refugees from the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais.

The UN charity says it is concerned the planned closure of the camp will lead to children there disappearing before they are processed. Charities estimate there are about 400 unaccompanied children in the Jungle eligible to come to Britain.

On a visit to Calais last Monday, French President Francois Hollande pledged to clear the Jungle camp by the end of the year. The thousands of adults and children there will be relocated to reception centres.

Unicef fears that children will resist being sent to such centres while their cases are being processed. Lily Caprani, Unicef UK’s deputy executive director, told the BBC: ‘Last time part of the Jungle camp was demolished, hundreds of children went missing. We don’t know what happened to them.’

She added the charity fears they could fall into the hands of traffickers or those who would exploit them. ”So now with this new threat of demolishing the camp, we’re really concerned for the welfare of those children who are at great risk.’

Charities estimate there are about 1,000 unaccompanied minors in the Jungle and about 400 could be resettled in the UK. They say about half of the 400 could be resettled under the EU’s Dublin regulation, which allows lone refugee children to be placed in a country where they have a relative who can be responsible for their care.

An amendment to the Immigration Act, originally put forward by Lord Dubs, also requires the government to arrange for the transfer to the UK of unaccompanied refugee children from Europe.

Lord Dubs, a Labour peer and long-time refugee campaigner, came to Britain as a child on the Kinder transport programme to escape Nazi persecution. Unicef UK said in an earlier statement: ‘Each week, there are 2,110 attempts by refugee children to cross from the Calais settlement – known as “the Jungle” – to the UK. To make these crossings, children stow into the back of trucks where they hide in refrigerator compartments or in amongst hazardous substances.

‘They run across train tracks and roads. That children die as a result is almost inevitable. What’s even more alarming is that our government has recognised that these children have a legal right to be reunited with family members in the UK. The authorities’ piecemeal response to date explains why children become so desperate to take matters into their own hands.

‘After travelling thousands of miles, refugee children have been left waiting for months in the squalid settlement, where their only legal support has come via volunteer organisations. Children in the settlement live in squalor, in tents and makeshift plastic shelters, wading through mud and rubbish. Sanitation is poor and the children have spoken out about the regular sexual abuse inflicted on them by traffickers.

‘The camp is an informal setting where the few education and health services on offer come from voluntary organisations or from the refugees themselves. Children have asked to be hospitalised in a psychiatric ward following mental breakdowns. Whilst stuck in the camp, access to these lifesaving services isn’t possible.

‘The French authorities have announced that the camp will be demolished before Christmas. Children have no idea what will then happen to them. Last time bulldozers flattened the camp, 129 children went missing. The French authorities have not announced whether appropriate accommodation will be offered to these children while their legal cases are processed. For most children, their only encounter with the French authorities has been the squads of riot police who patrol the settlement.

‘Enough is enough. Children didn’t ask to be torn from their homes and their families by war. Reuniting them with their families – which is their human and legal right – is quite literally the least the UK government must do.’

Meanwhile, confronted with a dramatic increase of refugees from neighbouring countries in conflict, the Greek Federation of Secondary State School Teachers is calling for solidarity to see that all children receive an education.

The Greek Federation of Secondary State School Teachers (OLME) President and General Secretary are urging the Greek government to seek special funding to cover the costs of creating proper reception and accommodation centres for refugees.

These centres are to provide food, health care, translation and legal services in decent living conditions. The OLME also asked the government to ensure access to education for all children who will remain in Greece, adding that the necessary infrastructure and proper conditions should be provided for their smooth transition.

The union’s call comes as a recent UNICEF report, ‘Education Under Fire,’ exposed the harsh reality facing refugees, in particular children. It stated that, due to the wars in the Middle East and North Africa, 13 million children have been left without access to education.

In addition, 9,000 schools in the Middle East are not operating and about 700,000 refugee children do not attend school because the existing school facilities cannot accommodate the increased number of additional schoolchildren. Since the Balkan states closed their borders in March, thousands of refugee children in Greece have had little or no access to education.

Rights organisations have warned of a ‘lost generation’ of refugee children missing out on education. We invite the local teacher unions and the teachers to lead the way once again,’ said the OLME leadership in its 18th September statement. We invite them to show their solidarity to refugees and immigrants in a concrete manner by organising or joining actions that aim to provide all kinds of material and moral support to refugees.

‘At the same time, we invite them to lead discussions within the school community aiming to make young people aware of the issues pertaining to refugees and immigrants. Racist perceptions and discrimination against refugees and immigrants have no place within the education system nor within Greek society.’

In response, local teacher unions, schools, and students have undertaken various initiatives showing their solidarity towards refugees. The OLME Executive Board has allocated funding to local teacher unions directly experiencing a higher influx of refugees; this funding is to be used to secure humanitarian aid.

OLME intends to support mobilisations along with the people’s movement, to support every effort stemming either from schools or the wider social context to consolidate a society of freedom, equality and respect for human rights.

‘Funding is key to the implementation of the above-mentioned educational plan,’ said the OLME leadership. To date, 7 million euros has been used for the construction of host centres, training of teachers and teacher trainers, and the production of school textbooks.

Moreover, 2.8 million euros is to be provided by the International Organisation for Migration to pay for children’s transportation to and from reception classes and school cleaning until December 2016.

In addition, the Greek Ministry of Education has developed an induction programme for refugee children within the Greek formal educational system, addressing educational and pedagogical considerations. Of the 27,000 refugee children stranded in Greece, at least 18,000 are thought to be of school age.

For the past seven months, children in camps have only had access to casual volunteer-run classes. The Ministry estimates that, towards end of September, the first reception classes will begin and other ‘regular’ classes will gradually follow, with thousands of refugee and migrant children being enrolled in Greek schools.

Meanwhile, teachers appointed to refugee reception classes and host centres for the education of refugees are receiving special training. Since the number of Greek teachers qualified to teach the children’s native languages is not sufficient, the Ministry has invited NGOs to contribute human resources.

The OLME is adamant, however, that this initial stage of reception classes should be followed by the integration of all refugee children within the mainstream school community. Global union federation, Education International, will be holding a conference, on the theme: ‘Education of refugee children – Fast track to equal opportunities and integration’ from 21st-22nd November in Stockholm, Sweden.

This event will be a unique opportunity to showcase education unions’ work worldwide to ensure that refugee and migrant children get a proper education. It will also highlight unions’ efforts to ensure that refugee and migrant teachers receive good training, work and living conditions. And it will reaffirm that education is a human right of which nobody should be deprived, regardless of their circumstances.