BISHOPS and charities have raised concerns over the handling of the refugee crisis both in the UK and on the Continent, and also for the welfare of hundreds of unaccompanied children, as operations to evacuate and dismantle the refugee camp in Calais began this week.
Scuffles broke out, and armed police were called in as thousands of inhabitants of the camp, known as the Jungle, waited in line for buses to take them to asylum centres in the south of the country, on Monday. More than 2000 of the 8000 residents there, including 400 children, were reported to have been registered by the French authorities, and transported from the site on 40 buses, on the first day.
A designated queue for unaccompanied minors was reportedly overrun on Tuesday, and hundreds of children were left wandering in the camp before being accommodated in heated shelters.
Several huts were also set on fire overnight and continued to burn into the morning. Firefighters and riot police were called in. The charity Save the Children told the BBC on Wednesday that children were still sleeping in the camp while the flames spread. “We know that lots of them ran,” a spokeswoman said. “It’s a really, really dangerous situation for children right now.”
By Wednesday afternoon, the majority of the residents had been evacuated, or were thought to have left the camp voluntarily, while workers in hard hats were deployed to clear the tents and shelters by hand.
But reports emerged on Friday that up to 50 teenagers had been abandoned by the UK and French authorities in Calais overnight after being promised safe accommodation and a chance to claim asylum. The group were hustled from the camp by riot police into the streets by an industrial estate, where they spent the night.
The Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Sheehan, who was in Calais at the time, intervened on behalf of the teenagers and about 20 adults, who were allowed back into the camp on Thursday. Volunteers stood guard outside an abandoned shelter overnight as the remaining fires in the camp burnt out.
The Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, said that he had “mixed feelings” over the demolition. It was a “squalid” environment, but it was also home to thousands of people, he said. “No one likes seeing homes being bulldozed.”
Dr Innes was speaking from a conference, “Migration: Mapping and Addressing Fear”, at the European Commission, in Brussels, on Monday. It was a chance for churches to talk about the work they had been doing to quell both the fears of migrants and the worries of the communities welcoming them, he said.
On Wednesday, he was due to travel to Calais to meet a small congregation of Anglicans who are planning to work with the diocese
of Canterbury to co-ordinate volunteers in the area. “The Jungle is being demolished. But I expect migrants will still be drawn to Calais, and there will still be work to do,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Citizens UK, Beth Gardiner-Smith, said that the campaign group had been working “flat out” to find and register each of the 387 unaccompanied children from the camp who are eligible to be reunited with family in the UK under existing legislation.
Volunteers from faith groups and churches had also been helping the group to welcome and support those arriving in Croydon to be registered, she said, including those eligible under the Dubs amendment.
The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, told MPs in a statement on Monday that 200 unaccompanied children had been brought to the UK since 10 October, including 60 girls who were deemed to be at risk of sexual exploitation. This was in addition to the 80 children who had been reunited with family in the UK in the past nine months.
But the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, replied: “In the absence of any proactive action by either the British or the French . . . it was left to charities, church groups, and individual volunteers to go across and provide basic support and services in the Calais camp.”
Ms Rudd said that the Government had committed £36 million to fund the clearance of the camp and support its vulnerable children, but on the understanding that the French government would enforce its permanent closure, and prevent residents’ returning.
The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Trevor Willmott, warned on Tuesday that, although the demolition of the camp was “inevitable”, the challenges of the wider refugee crisis “will not disappear with the shelters”. “We must take stock of where we are, of our opinions and prejudices, but also of the challenges faced by our own communities both here in Kent and across Europe.”
In her statement, the Home Secretary also urged more county councils in England to sign up to the Government’s voluntary National Transfer Scheme, to provide temporary and permanent residence for unaccompanied children, as more continued to arrive in the UK.
At least 38 of the 152 councils in England have declined to take part, the online magazine Children & Young People Now reported this week. Leicestershire County Council, which quit the scheme last year, stated in a report this month that it could cost councils an additional £2.03 million a year to support the children, taking into account additional government funding.
Since the costs were not being fully met by Home Office grants, Leicester Council had a responsibility “to prioritise the needs of Leicestershire children and young people”, it stated.
The Home Office has not yet named the councils that are to host the children, but The Daily Telegraph reported on Monday that in the market town of Great Torrington, in north Devon, 20 unaccompanied children from Calais eligible for resettlement in the UK under the terms of the Dubs amendment arrived unannounced.
The parish priest of St Michael and All Angels, Great Torrington, the Revd Peter Bevan, said on Tuesday that he had received offers of clothes, toys, ministry, and welcome from the four churches in the benefice in response to the news.
”The parish community has greeted the opportunity to be available to those who have come to our area, and hopes that this will contribute to the stability and friendship they so desperately need, to help them on their way to a better life.”
Ms Rudd confirmed that more minors were being transferred from the camp under the amendment, but that priority was being given to those most likely to achieve refugee status; those at a high risk of sexual exploitation; and children under 12 years old.
This was fulfilled on Tuesday, when about 35 children from Calais aged under 13 were moved to the UK.
It comes after questions about the ages of the first of more than 100 unaccompanied children to enter the country from Calais last week, and the effectiveness of government assessments and security checks.
The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) has expressed concern over Home Office figures from 2005, which suggested that 65 per cent of child refugees entering the UK gave false information about their ages, and were found to be adults.
The executive director of safeguarding at CCPAS, Justin Humphreys, said on Tuesday: “Whatever methods are being used to assess the ages of the children entering the UK, they are not robust enough for defensible decisions to be made.
”What is alarming is that we are no further forward in balancing the needs of genuine unaccompanied minors with the need to be confident about whom we might be placing with other vulnerable children. . . It poses major challenges and risks for other children in the school environment. These safeguarding risks cannot be ignored.”
But this did not take away from the “absolute need” to provide safe homes for unaccompanied minors, particularly those who were being reunited with their families in the UK, he said.
”Denying such an opportunity would be inhumane, and totally lacking in compassion or understanding for the trauma that these children have faced.”
So far this year, more than 80,000 unaccompanied children have arrived in the European Union.
“They are gravely at risk,” Dr Innes said. “At a time when the UK is rightly spending millions on investigating historic child abuse, it is striking that there is a massive influx of traumatised children to Europe at risk of current abuse, and for whom we are not yet doing enough.”
CHURCHES across the UK have been praised by politicians, faith leaders, and aid agencies for leading the response to the refugee crisis as it unfolds.
The Vicar of St Mary’s Hinckley, in Leicester, the Revd John Whittaker, said this week that the church had set aside a month of reflection to learn, pray, and respond to the events unfolding in the UK and overseas.
”We decided that . . . we needed to respond fully,” he said. Guest speakers were invited to talk about their experiences, including a refugee from Afghanistan, and a psychologist, Andrea Parry, who works with the Red Cross.
St Mary’s has also raised £2000 to support the refugee camp in Dunkirk, a few miles from Calais, and is preparing to welcome Syrian families who are due to be resettled in the town from next year. Mr Whittaker said that churches were “well-placed to encourage conversation and normalise our experience of refugees. Attitudes change in face-to-face encounters: our church community was most touched when we heard stories directly from former refugees.
”A church is the perfect place and space to set up discussion groups, allow for interfaith dialogue, hear stories, or, more creatively, set up an evening of shared cooking and eating with one another.
“Good focused welcome by churches . . . could and should be a central part of our country’s response to accommodating those who have left their homes in fear for their lives.”