Welcoming child refugees means listening to them
by Elizabeth Arif-Fear, Communications Officer (Intern)
The plight of child refugees in Europe has been an ongoing issue, in particular since the Syrian crisis spiked in the last few years. Last spring, following pressure from civil society and charitable organisations, politicians voted on the Dubs Amendment, announcing it would be accepting 3,000 child refugees from overseas. Just a few weeks ago, according to figures from Safe Passage UK, there were over 1,000 unaccompanied child refugees living in makeshift refugee camps across the Channel in northern France, including the infamous “Jungle” in Calais – aptly named due to the unregulated mass of makeshift tents and complete lack of regulation, assistance from international aid organisations, sanitation facilities or infrastructure.
Here, thousands of refugees fleeing war, poverty and human rights abuses from all over the world including Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria lay in wait to start a new life. In the Jungle in particular, there were around 387 children legally entitled to come to the UK under the Dublin Convention due to the UK residency of their family members. Some tried to start their own journeys to their families – including a 14 year old boy from Afghanistan who this September was killed on a French motorway whilst trying to reach the UK.
Until this point, the only progress being made was for those children referred on the Safe Passage UK programme, a project set up by the organisation Citizens UK to establish safe legal routes to the UK for unaccompanied child refugees and vulnerable adults in Europe. However, after announcing it would be building a wall to block access from across the channel, the UK government responded to the French government’s decision to dismantle the camp in Calais by beginning to process the safe transfer of unaccompanied minors with families in the UK. This could not have come at a more crucial time. These children could simply have disappeared off the radar. According to Europol, there are already over 10,000 “disappeared” refugee children within Europe. The risks these children face are devastating, as they remain vulnerable to such human rights abuses as child labour, sexual exploitation (rape, child marriage, prostitution) and both radicalisation and recruitment by terrorist organisations offering both economic sustenance and a sense of belonging. In light of this, on the 16th October, the first group of children were transferred to the UK. According to Citizens UK, 200 children have now arrived. However, this represents just a small percentage of the children seeking refuge in both France and across Europe. Following the official clearance of the Jungle on 26th October, there were a reported 1,500 unaccompanied child refugees left in the area where the camp once stood, resulting in a subsequent process led by the French authorities to transfer these children out of the area. In such context, it is more essential than ever that adequate preparation and procedures are put in place to both bring and welcome refugee children.
Here in the UK, where these children begin the long process of re-building their lives, we need to guarantee that we do our best to ensure their well-being and social inclusion so they can lead happy, healthy lives in all senses: socially, economically, culturally, emotionally, and physiologically. Ensuring these children’s wellbeing involves more than providing refuge in a safe space, protected from the physical harm of active conflict. It is fundamental that children are safeguarded against all types of harm, including the risk of trafficking and radicalisation.
Above all, to successfully safeguard this vulnerable group of children and help them integrate into British society we must listen to their stories, their views, their opinions and their needs – first of all as children and secondly as refugees.
Child to Child – participation and safeguarding
As one of the leading international NGOs on children’s participation, Child to Child believes in teaching essential skills and providing safe, inclusive spaces to enable children to give their views, voice their needs, and fully participate within society as active, engaged citizens. Since 2011, Child to Child has been running its project Hearing All Voices in London, working with disadvantaged young people in secondary schools and FE colleges and teaching staff to create an environment where students are listened to, taken seriously and supported to take social action. This project has been immensely successful in terms of both staff and student outcomes. The tools and outcomes of this project – testimony to the value and need for child participation – are something we can build on.
UK government policy, including education, health and social care needs to ensure that refugee children have the means to participate, in order to be safeguarded from harm. If we are to ensure that child refugees lead happy, healthy, integrated lives in which both the traumatic experiences of the past are addressed and their cultural, religious and social identities can also flourish, then let us learn from them rather than excluding them from decision-making processes. If we truly want to welcome this group of vulnerable children and guarantee their wellbeing, then let them participate and let us listen.