Why do refugee children continue to take perilous journeys to reach the UK? 

by Isabel Soloaga

Our government just removed the only legislation providing an alternative.

In January, I revisited the refugee camps in Northern France, where I have volunteered since 2016. There, I met a medic who had treated a 13-year-old boy with fourth-degree burns all over the inside of his mouth: scars from pepper spray that police sprayed into his mouth in a recent camp demolition. Why was that child there, even after years of policies aimed at protecting children? I explain below why the Dubs Amendment—once hailed by conservatives and liberals alike as a life-saving measure—ultimately failed. Taking this as a lesson, I explore how future legislation might truly protect unaccompanied refugee children.

Section 67 of the UKs Immigration Act 2016, widely known as the Dubs Amendment, requires the UK government to act “as soon as possible” to relocate and support unaccompanied refugee children in Europe. In doing so, it makes unaccompanied children an exception to the trend of  externalised, aggressively-enforced borders that make applying for asylum in the UK incredibly dangerous, even for those who qualify. The EU’s Dublin III regulations specify that families have a legal right to remain together, which in the past gave individual refugees with family connections in the UK a pathway to protection. In contrast, the Dubs Scheme was the only measure providing unaccompanied minors who sought asylum in the UK with a safe, legal pathway to enter the country. For the 3,000 refugee children originally promised safe passage and protection under the Dubs amendment, only 220 had arrived as of September 2019. After Boris’ election victory, the government removed it from the Brexit bill.

IsaMG_8402Since 2016, the Dubs amendment demanded that the government support and relocate eligible unaccompanied refugee minors to the UK; however, in that time the situation only deterioratedIn 2020, children’s refugee centers in the UK are bursting at the seams: some have witnessed a 50% increase in demand for their services, according to the Guardian. The minors they serve sailed dinghies or jumped lorries to cross the Channel, taking great risks to reach the UK simply to place asylum claims. 

While the Dubs Amendment addressed the issue of unaccompanied minors previously denied any legal pathways through which to apply for asylum, by focusing its passage on ideas of “deservingness”, it implicitly bowed to the general rule of ignoring international human rights law by authorities in Calais. Given the inhumane and chaotic conditions of refugee camps there, it could not function as it was intended to. The Conservative government’s removal of the amendment from the Brexit bill illustrates how purely symbolic the legislation grew to be: by removing Dubs, they reiterated their tough, no-nonsense stance on immigration.

Calais’ close vicinity to the UK attests to the challenges of enacting even relatively straightforward legislation within a context of inhumane, chaotic conditions. Lord Alf Dubs, who gave the amendment its name, arrived in the UK as a child refugee. He spearheaded the 2016 amendment, calling upon the legacy of Kindertransport as a humanitarian ideal. He recounted his experience of visiting the Jungle camp later that year, after the passage of Dubs: “The conditions are awful – children living in shacks, in tents very makeshift, with just one meal a day… with no support system”. His observations reflected the precarious situation in Calais, highlighting how difficult the implementation of the Dubs amendment was, considering the lack of facilities or professional support.

In order for the majority of asylum-seekers to petition for asylum in the UK, they must first arrive on British soil, creating a dangerous situation for lorry drivers, ferry operators and migrants alike. Calais lacks either a French or British asylum office, making it impossible for migrants to apply for asylum from there. Activist groups including Help Refugees and Care4Calais have urged the government to create “safe, legal routes” to asylum, but after more than two decades of migrants living in Calais, they still wait.

Instead, authorities destroy the informal shelters of those trying to make the crossing. By identifying only unaccompanied minors as entitled for protection through Dubs—while governments, meanwhile, raze the tents of other refugees, who are these children’s only forms of consistent support—governments abuse vulnerable populations further while claiming to be humanitarian models.

Policies such as the Dubs Amendment work from the logic that certain groups do not deserve inhumane treatment from immigration control. However, by leaving the wider structures of intimidation, demolitions and uncertainty untouched, Dubs proved impossible to implement: the conditions were just too chaotic to first identify and then assist the children who qualified.

If children don’t know which authority will help them versus which will cut up their tent and take all of their possessions, chances are that they will flee from both. I witnessed one example of this during my time in Calais. Care4Calais had finished a distribution of coats and we volunteers brought out a football. Everyone was milling about, relaxing and chatting if they were not participating in the match. However, the atmosphere changed immediately when members from the local refugee youth center arrived. Younger boys could be seen walking, sometimes running, away into the trees where they sheltered during the night. Not wanting to wait in the safe but controlled setting of the center, they wished to retain their independence. Like anyone might if they had endured countless state-authorised abuses, they preferred to rely on their own determination and ingenuity rather than trust a foreign government’s (empty) promises.

In order to qualify for Dubs protection, unaccompanied minors had to prove both their age and a “pressing need” through invasive testing, ranging from dental exams to lie detectors. Taking such extreme steps to verify these children’s claims illustrates a society in which vulnerable refugee populations are assumed guilty until proven innocent.

Countless conversations with young refugees in Calais proved to me their determination to achieve their goals, which included moving to the UK, gaining an a better education, making friends and supporting families back home. In order to make policies work for these youth, politicians and administrators must communicate clearly. This did not happen with the Dubs scheme: instead, many children who applied for asylum through the Dubs amendment never received any explanation for why their applications were denied. Successful implementation requires working with, rather than for, those seeking asylum. In doing so, policy would respect these individuals, not as abstract ideas separated from their material conditions, but as human beings with agency and resilience.

Until the government provides systematic, legally permissible entry to all asylum seekers, progressive policies like the Dubs Amendment will fail to deliver on their promises to protect certain “special” groups, including unaccompanied minorsHowever, we can learn from Dubs’ failure: successful policy implementation relies on communicating with and responding to those directly affected. Moreover, policy must always consider the bigger picture. Achieving justice for child refugees in Europe relies on defending the rights of their supporters and comrades, for asylum-seekers as a whole.

Isabel Soloaga is completing an MA in Migration and Global Development at the University of Sussex. She has volunteered for Care4Calais since 2016, and previously worked in immigration law and the nonprofit sector in the United States.


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