The child refugees risking the Channel by boat – one year on

Kent youth asylum seeker charity has seen a 50% rise in demand for its services since December 2018

Bridget Chapman, who swims regularly in the Channel, wasn’t surprised when desperate asylum seekers began travelling to the UK on small dinghy boats last year. On a clear day she can see France’s coastline from where she lives in Folkestone, Kent. “If you’re stuck in Calais and you can see the British coast quite clearly, it must be really tempting to think: I’ll just get a boat,” she said.

It has been a year since the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, declared the increasing number of migrants attempting to cross the Channel a “major incident”, but boat arrivals are still a regular occurrence. On Boxing Day this year, more than 60 migrants were picked up while attempting to cross in small boats.

Since Javid declared the major incident in December 2018, it is estimated that more than 1,800 people, including many children, have crossed the Channel in small boats to the UK, compared with about 300 for the whole of 2018. Chapman, who works for Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN), which supports unaccompanied minors who arrive in the UK at youth centres in Canterbury and Folkestone, has seen a 50% rise in demand in the past year.

Bridget Chapman at a centre that supports young asylum seekers in Folkestone
Bridget Chapman at a centre that supports young asylum seekers in Folkestone. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

The government announced it would be working closely with France to bring the number of boat crossings down, but campaigners say the strategy has failed to deal with the root of the problem. The crackdown on migrants attempting to reach the UK on trains and lorries has resulted in more turning to small boats, while the situation in northern France has compounded people’s need to leave.

Maddy Allen, who works for Help Refugees in northern France, said: “The situation has continued to deteriorate. It really is the worst it has ever been. The crossings are taking place alongside large-scale evictions. It’s beyond inhumane, we are calling them makeshift camps, but in reality it’s no shelter.”

In September, authorities in Dunkirk evicted more than 700 people, including families and young children, from a temporary migrant camp. These evictions have become a feature of life for migrants in northern France since the dismantling of the so-called Jungle, a refugee camp where about 10,000 migrants lived, three years ago. Many migrants have complained of beatings, regular arrests and the confiscation of their tents and sleeping bags.

“It’s unliveable, it’s dangerous, and hostile. What we’re seeing is mass homelessness on a really grim scale,” Allen said.

At the same time, the safe routes for seeking asylum in the UK are being tightened. Charities have heavily criticised the government for dropping family reunion rights for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, warning it will leave them with “no options” except to take dangerous routes.

While the Home Office has not provided figures on the number of migrant boat crossings that have taken place since last Christmas, a factsheet published in October stated: “Since January, over 100 people who entered the UK illegally on small boats have been returned to Europe.”

For those languishing in northern France, the distance between the two countries appears deceptively short. Chapman said: “I swim all year round in the Channel and I know how dangerous it can be. At night, when the air is clear and France is lit up, it looks like it would be a short walk and you would be here. It’s just not that simple in the water: there are strong tides, the water is freezing, and the Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world.”

The journey can take anything from eight to 24 hours, with smugglers cramming 30 people into boats made for six.

Yet children as young as 13 continue to make the dangerous boat journey alone. Two unaccompanied minors who did so were among a group of young refugees in a youth centre ran by KRAN at the bottom of a hill in Folkestone. The young asylum seekers spent their morning playing on guitar, painting and watching TV.

A banner being made at the Folkstone refugee youth centre in Kent
A banner being made at the youth refugee centre in Folkestone. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

“People who arrive on boats, in our experience, have got extremely good asylum claims. They want to make themselves known to authorities at the earliest possible opportunity so they can make their claim,” Chapman said.

Once asylum seekers are picked up by the authorities, they are first taken to a Home Office building in Dover for a health check and then given an initial screening interview so they can lodge an asylum claim. Adults or families are transferred to a hotel, usually in London, to live on a temporary basis. They are then moved to somewhere in the country where there is capacity and accommodation.

Unaccompanied minors have a different journey; they are first moved into a reception centre in Ashford, which Chapman describes as “clean, bright, and warm”. The young asylum seekers get their own room, three meals a day, pocket money, and are assigned social workers. They stay in the reception centre for an average of seven to eight weeks before they are moved to independent living, somewhere in Kent.

There are 352 unaccompanied asylum seekers under the age of 18 in Kent, according to KRAN. There are not enough foster families to place all the unaccompanied minors under the care of an adult. This is where KRAN steps in, teaching the young asylum seekers basic life skills such as cooking and budgeting, along with English language lessons.

A group of suspected migrants are brought to shore by Border Force officers at the Port of Dover in Kent after a number of small boat incidents in the Channel in September.
A group of suspected migrants are brought to shore by Border Force officers at the Port of Dover in Kent after a number of small boat incidents in the Channel in September. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

By January 2020, there will be 920 people who arrived as unaccompanied minors in Kent that have since turned 18. Among them is Faisal Hakimi, a 20-year-old refugee from Afghanistan who works as a mentor at the centre. He said: “I try to help by answering their questions about the Home Office and I sometimes help with translation. Mostly, we’re here because they’re feeling really lonely. They’re really young. They’re 13, 14, 15 and it’s really hard.”

Another mentor, 25-year-old Amani Arab, said she was lucky to have been granted humanitarian protection that allowed her and her family to fly to the UK from a refugee camp in Lebanon. She has slowly been able to rebuild her life in the UK after fleeing Syria in 2013 and wants to become a cook.

“There are many young children here and I want to be able to help them in some way so I often come here to cook meals. It feels amazing how happy I can make them with such a simple act,” she said. Her mother, who often comes to help her, is widely referred to as Mum by the rest of the group.

Integration with the local community is key to the work that KRAN does, as the response to boat arrivals from the media and politicians can be alarming and inaccurate. “We did one integration activity with the local primary school where the school selected some young people from families who had negative attitudes towards refugees. The young students were really scared and anxious about the visit, but within about five minutes of being here, with some biscuits and a football, everybody was friends,” Chapman said.

Hakimi already has a lot of hometown pride. “Many people say Dover is the worst place in England, but I would say they’re wrong. It’s the best place,” he said. “I feel like I was born in Dover. The people, the sea, the white cliffs – everything about Dover is nice.” When he talks about his favourite meal, fish and chips, Chapman interrupts to tell him: “Jewish refugees introduced fish and chips to this country.”


Aamna Mohdin

The GuardianTramp

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