The UK’s new anti-slavery commissioner has warned that the slow pace of Britain’s efforts to give sanctuary to unaccompanied child refugees in is exposing them to the risk of modern slavery and exploitation only 24 hours after the prime minister launched her international campaign to tackle the menace.
Kevin Hyland, who was appointed by to the “critical role”, wrote this week to Amber Rudd, after visiting Calais this summer. He highlighted May’s personal commitment to tackling modern slavery and said not enough was being done to protect vulnerable young children living in “unsuitable and unsafe” conditions in the camp.
He said that young women, particularly from the Horn of Africa, are being forced into prostitution in the Calais camp’s “nightclubs” to pay people smugglers for the next leg of their journey. Other young women have testified that they have also had to perform sexual services to pay the traffickers.
Hyland also cited evidence that boys from are made by older men in the camp to perform “bacha bazi”, which involves dancing and sexual exploitation, and warned that young people generally are being forced into criminal activity in Calais.
The lack of urgency in the UK response to the crisis meant that even those children with a legal right to be reunited with family in Britain no longer had any confidence in the system, and were choosing instead to risk their lives trying to smuggle themselves on trucks to get to the UK.
The resulting frustration meant “unfortunately migrants had more trust in smugglers than in state-led procedures that exist to ensure their protection” leading to “risk-taking behaviour, which leads to higher exposure to modern slavery and exploitation” and other multiple dangers, he wrote.
The warning from Hyland, who has been described by the prime minister as “”, that children are at risk comes just 24 hours after May appealed to world leaders at the United Nations on Monday night to join her crusade against modern slavery.
A near the port last week after falling from a truck was named on Tuesday as Raheemullah Oryakhel. He was the third refugee child to die in the Calais area this year.
A spokeswoman for Unicef UK said: “If our government had acted more quickly, Raheemullah Oryakhel could be alive and with his family today. He had a legal right to be in the UK and his brother had a bedroom here waiting for him.
“This tragedy must now lead to action. The UK must work with the French authorities to get children into appropriate accommodation, where they can have access to care and legal support so they can reach their families safely.”
Hyland, who was appointed as an independent anti-slavery commissioner after the Modern Act was passed last year, expressed concern that UK officials were not effectively identifying or registering vulnerable children in Calais.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that these children are left in the camp at the disposal of the criminal networks and they continue risking their lives daily to reach the shores of the UK,” he wrote. “Not enough is being done to address the vulnerabilities of migrants, in particular unaccompanied children.”
A census carried out by the charity estimated this week that the camp population has increased to over 10,000 for the first time, a 12% increase on last month, with 1,179 minors, of whom 87% are travelling alone.
“The prime minister has described modern slavery as the great human rights issue of our time,” Hyland wrote. “A more proactive and urgent response is needed to ensure criminal networks are disrupted and vulnerable migrants, in particular unaccompanied children, are better protected.”
He criticised worsening conditions in the camp, which he described as “unsuitable and unsafe, particularly for women and children”, with hundreds of unaccompanied children sleeping in overcrowded tents, which puts them at “very high risk of abuse, violence and exploitation”.
“These children have fled violence, poverty and conflict. To reach Calais they have had to travel on long and perilous journeys only to find that their suffering is not yet over. They are faced with the severe and dangerous realities of living in Calais and try every single night to cross the English Channel, even though the risk of being caught and returned to the camp, or even the risk of serious injury or death, is very high.”
He said it was vital to “proactively identify unaccompanied children and safeguard them from existing risks” to ensure they are “protected from any further abuse and exploitation”.
The French government has made a commitment to close the camp before the end of the year, but Hyland warned that a rapid eviction “will result in many more children being pushed into the hands of traffickers and smugglers as a result of desperation and a sense of urgency to leave the camp”.
If the eviction is to go ahead it it crucial that safe accommodation for unaccompanied children should be provided first, he wrote.
He called on the government to provide more funding, and staff to travel to Calais to “quickly identify eligible children” who had a right to come to the UK legally under family reunification rules or under the so-called Dubs amendment of the Immigration Act, under which the UK government committed to give homes to some vulnerable unaccompanied refugee children.
“Children are not waiting. Every night they go to their smugglers who have promised to get them across the Channel ... However, every night each of these children are at risk of exploitation and sadly even dying as they take huge risks to reach the UK,” he wrote.
He was also critical of a French charity, Terre d’Asile, which received over £500,000 from the UK government to identify victims of trafficking in the area, pointing out that they had failed to recruit enough interpreters, which “resulted in failure to establish a direct rapport and trust with the migrant community”.
“There is very little confidence in asylum-seeking procedures in France,” he said, which was also pushing children to risk their lives to get to the UK.
A Home Office spokesperson said the department would respond to the commissioner’s recommendations in full in due course but stressed the government’s priority was to offer humanitarian support to those most in need and to work closely with the French government to protect those vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.
“We are dedicated to ensuring that children in Calais with family links in the UK are identified, receive sufficient support and can access the Dublin family reunification process without delay. Over 120 cases of unaccompanied children in have been accepted for transfer to the UK under the Dublin regulation since the start of the year and we want to build on this progress,” they added.