THE UK has a “basic moral imperative” to welcome every one of the estimated 1000 unaccompanied children still stranded in the Calais refugee camp, regardless of whether or not they have family here, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams has said.
This country has an “extraordinarily good record” of accommodating vulnerable and traumatised people, the ability to repeat this welcome, and the promise of a secure living environment, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, on Monday.
Lord Williams later joined the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Revd Jonathan Clark, and volunteers at St Michael and All Angels in Croydon, to welcome the first 14 unaccompanied children brought to the UK from Calais by the Home Office. The minors, who included Afghans and Syrians, were registered at Lunar House, and some were reunited with their families in the church.
The Home Office confirmed that 100 children with family in the UK would be resettled this week, under existing legislation. “These vulnerable children, aged between 14 and 17, were transferred to the UK under the care of Home Office staff, with the support of volunteers from specialist NGOs and charities,” a spokesperson confirmed.
Thirteen more children, including the first female, were brought to Croydon on Wednesday.
Despite this progress, however, Lord Williams said that there remains a “huge urgency” to rescue the hundreds of children with no connection to the UK — but who are eligible under an amendment, tabled by Lord Dubs, to give unaccompanied children safe refuge here — before the camp is demolished by French officials. Its destruction is imminent, since the French government cannot evict the inhabitants once winter has begun next month.
Lord Williams told the programme that as a result of lobbying from the campaign group Citizens UK and other volunteers, 44 councils in England had offered “up to 3000” places for children who were eligible under the Dubs amendment. He said that he could not understand the “foot dragging” of the Government on its implementation.
“The clock is ticking very fast,” he said. “The last time a part of the camp was demolished, more than 100 unaccompanied children went missing in the process. That is completely unacceptable.”
The charity Seeking Sanctuary reported this week that ten per cent of the children who had been identified in August as eligible to come to the UK had gone missing, “very possibly at the hands of traffickers”.
Citizens UK has since taken legal action against the Home Office for failing to provide a detailed plan on how and when the unaccompanied children would be protected before, during, and after the demolition of the camp.
A Home Office spokesperson told the BBC: “Our priority must be to ensure the safety and security of the children in the Calais camp. Work is continuing on both sides of the Channel to ensure this happens as a matter of urgency.”
The news came as more than 50 MPs and charities signed a letter to the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, criticising the “inadequate” plans for the future of residents of the Calais camp, and calling for “safe spaces” to be created for the remaining children, before eviction.
The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Trevor Willmott, said in a statement on Monday that the “intolerable situation” had been a “constant cause for concern and prayer” in the diocese, whose coastline is a few miles from the camp. He prayed for the “swift and urgent protection” of the camp’s inhabitants, particularly unaccompanied children.
“The devastating impact on those that live and volunteer there, the French community, lorry drivers and port workers, holidaymakers and security staff, has been impossible to ignore,” he said. “While attending to the needs of the stranger can seem particularly difficult when so many within our own communities are struggling, it is a dilemma that is not going to go away.”
The chief executive of the Children’s Society, Matthew Reed, said on Friday that the process of reuniting child refugees with their families in the UK had been "far too slow", and that the Government must do more to bring all vulnerable children in Calais to safety.
“Our experience shows us that young refugees and migrants without relatives in the UK are at high risk of going missing or being trafficked, and the social workers and foster carers who will be looking after them need the right kind of specialist training,” he said. “The Government needs to provide all unaccompanied children with an independent legal guardian to help them navigate the complex immigration and legal systems they will have to face."