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Unicef - Systematic failures led vulnerable children to the burnt out camp of Dunkirk

A new study by Unicef UK and Unicef France, Family Reunification and Failing Protection in Dunkirk, reveals that children living in the Grande-Synthe camp faced exploitation and violence on a daily basis – from the start to the end of their journey to reach the UK.

The study, conducted three weeks before the fire devastated the camp last week, paints a picture of life in the camp and the journeys through Europe to try to reach British shores.

13 boys who were living in Dunkirk were interviewed, all of whom are going through the legal process to be reunited with family in the UK. Coming from Kurdish Iraq and Afghanistan, all of these boys had fled conflict and recounted numerous horrific stories about their journeys through Europe.

They reported that they were so scared along the route by the way they were treated by the authorities that they could not turn to them for information and protection. So they turned to – and were abused by – smugglers and traffickers who were offering information and apparent protection.

The children described being assaulted by the police and arbitrarily detained throughout their journeys. None of the children interviewed had been informed of their right to apply to be reunited with their family members legally. The only child who had heard about this had learnt from his father following a BBC report on this issue.

Hariwan, 17, from Iraqi Kurdistan, for example, said: “In Hungary, I was imprisoned for 67 days in a detention centre for foreigners. Every day we were beaten. My head was hit against the walls. Since then, I am not well. I lose memory and get dizzy.”

Once in Dunkirk, these children were still not safe. Controlled by a group of Kurdish traffickers, all of the children described the immense violence in the camp. Constantly fearful of sexual abuse and attacks with weapons, they say that no one, including the police, were there to care for them nor to protect them.

Can, 16, from Afghanistan said, “The Kurdish gangs are very dangerous. They have weapons. Every third evening there are gunshots. The police don’t want to get involved. I know in any case that they are not there to protect us.”

Commenting on the study, Unicef UK Deputy Executive Director, Lily Caprani said: “The stories that these children tell in our latest study are truly shocking. From being beaten in detention centres en route to living in fear of the gangs controlling Dunkirk, these are situations that no child should be in.

“The fire last week in the camp, although undoubtedly terrifying for those children living through it, is a distressing reminder that the UK’s rules for helping children reach their families are broken. If the legal process worked, children may have never have found themselves in such a squalid, dangerous environment. The Government must fix the family reunion rules so that children can reach the safety of their family without ever having to face such a dangerous journey across Europe.

“The current situation gives us an opportunity to now focus on organising effective prompt transfers for those children who have relatives in the UK. Many of the children in the camp were in a legal process for family reunion in the UK, supported by Safe Passage. Their family reunion cases must be facilitated to continue and the bureaucratic delays holding up their cases overcome.

“As this report indicates, many of the children who have a legal right to be living with family in the UK are beginning to question the choice they made of going through the official process to be reunited with their loved ones, as it is taking so long. We must learn from what happened in Calais, when the UK showed it could do what it takes to get children to safety in a crisis. Similar support must be given to children in Dunkirk currently facing an uncertain future, to prevent these children disappearing and falling into the hands of traffickers looking to exploit them.”

Although officially there were no unaccompanied children registered at the Grande-Synthe camp, it is estimated that there were around a hundred unaccompanied minors living at the site. With no access to child protection services, schooling or proper accommodation, these children are living in a state of limbo and with nothing to do all day, there has been a serious knock on effect on their mental health.

This study follows on from Unicef’s 2016 Report, “Neither Safe Nor Sound”, which looked at conditions for children in refugee camps in northern France.

Six months on, it is alarming to see that the situation on the ground has become no less dangerous for children, as highlighted by the fire in the Dunkirk camp. With the recent announcement of the closure of the Dubs scheme for unaccompanied children, and the lack of ‘clarity on what will happen to the UK’s agreements on family reunion from Europe after Brexit, it is even more important to focus on fixing the UK’s Immigration Rules and systems affecting unaccompanied children.

Notes to Editors

This is why Unicef UK is calling on the UK Government to:

  • Work with its European counterparts to quickly, and in the bests interests of children, to ensure family reunion processes work to protect children in Europe
  • Work with its European Counterparts to ensure that authorities in the countries through which the children pass give children information about their rights in a language and format they understand, including their right to apply for family reunion
  • Provide the necessary resources to support prompt and more efficient identification of children in Europe with the right to family reunion, and accompaniment of these children through the legal and bureaucratic processes.
  • Work with its European counterparts to strengthen child protection systems in Europe, including guardianship mechanisms, identification systems and referral pathways for children who may have been trafficked, appropriate reception facilities and accommodation, and psychosocial support, so that children start having more trust in authorities and less trust in smugglers and traffickers.
  • Amend the UK’s Immigration Rules to ensure that children living in conflict-affected regions can reunite safely and legally with their family members in the UK by applying from their places of residence, rather than having to risk their lives on dangerous journeys to Europe to apply from there.

UNICEF’s Six Policy Asks for Uprooted Children Globally are:

  • Protect child refugees and migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, from exploitation and violence.
  • End the detention of children seeking refugee status or migrating by introducing a range of practical alternatives.
  • Keep families together as the best way to protect children and give them legal status.
  • Keep all refugee and migrant children learning and give them access to health and other quality services.
  • Press for action on the underlying causes of large-scale movements of refugees and migrants.
  • Promote measures to combat xenophobia, discrimination and marginalization in countries of transit and destination.

For more information please contact:

Unicef UK Media Team, 0207 375 6030, media@unicef.org.uk

About Unicef:

Unicef is the world’s leading organisation for children, promoting the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere. Unicef UK raises funds to protect children in danger, transform their lives and build a safer world for tomorrow’s children. As a registered charity we raise funds through donations from individuals, organisations and companies and we lobby and campaign to keep children safe. Unicef UK also runs programmes in schools, hospitals and with local authorities in the UK. For more information please visit unicef.org.uk

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