The only real question about the chaotic closure of the Calais camp that has left lone children sleeping out in the open is whether it is the result of incompetence or deliberate policy.
When the home secretary, Amber Rudd, and the French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, met on 10 October to finalise plans to close the camp, they say they agreed on the importance of keeping all children safe during the clearance operation.
But there appears to have been little discussion of how that was going to happen in practice. The French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, disclosed earlier this week that the government rejected a request to take all the lone child refugees to Britain before the camp closure began.
“What we asked the British government is to take all unaccompanied children, and they said they want to process the cases and check if they have families [in Britain]. It’s impossible for the French to know if they really have families in the UK. So we gave the list to the UK government and now they will have to process [them],” she said on Monday.
The result was that the vast majority of child refugees in the camp did not join the 200 who had been brought to Britain in the past week, and were left in the camp to be processed while the demolition went on around them.
The only plan that seems to have been put in place is to use the shipping containers to provide shelter for the children on the site once their adult residents had left the camp.
But while several hundred children were looked after last night in this way, as night fell more than 100 had been turned away from the containers.
Protests that children were being left “in peril” – from charities, voluntary workers on the ground and politicians including Yvette Cooper, the new chair of the Commons’ home affairs committee – triggered urgent Home Office representations to the French authorities, and some children were found shelter in a school.
The Home Office response insisted that it has no jurisdiction to operate on French territory and underlined that it had offered assistance to ensure the safety of children during the clearance process. The statement added that Cazeneuve made a specific commitment to Rudd that his government would continue to take responsibility for all children in Calais during the clearance operation – including those being assessed for possible transfer to the UK.
But this rushed, “too little, too late” response was not made in isolation. For weeks, charities and politicians in Britain have warned of the danger of refugee children going missing and possibly ending up in the hands of traffickers when the camp was closed.
The last-minute nature of the Home Office response is underlined by the fact that the government’s official request to local authorities to find places for the Dubs amendment refugee children was only sent out on 14 October. This quest to find sufficient foster places will not have been helped by the hostile tabloid reception that was given to the first batch of refugee teenagers to be brought to Britain last week.
A year ago, though, Theresa May, in her party conference speech, branded those refugees who had reached Calais as the least deserving and announced a much tougher approach that would only provide temporary protection in Britain to the most deserving refugees. The new policy was confirmed when James Brokenshire, then the minister for security and immigration, told the Commons in February that the Home Office would be “much tougher” on those who could have claimed asylum in another country first.
May has succeeded in insulating Britain from the refugee crisis in Europe – the largest since the second world war – and the country is left arguing over whether a few hundred children should be admitted to the UK. Last night’s pictures of child refugees left to sleep out in the open may have been an unintended consequence, but they are the result of a deliberate policy.