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Calais’ child refugees - leaked emails, law suits and local authority mission impossibles

Date:4 NOV 2016
As Britain accepts the first group of children from the fast-disappearing Calais 'Jungle', the lack of government organisation, care and accommodation for these young refugees is nothing short of a scandal. Now, social workers are left to pick up the pieces, but can an already desperate child protection system provide the necessary support?

Photos of the burning refugee camp at Calais and bleeding, unaccompanied children have flooded the covers of newspapers all week, so you’d be forgiven for thinking the government had little time to prepare for what could now be an intake of around 1,000 child refugees. The truth is less charitable. Leaked emails confirm that the government had over 3 months to prepare for their arrival, and instead chose to bury its head in the sand and do nothing. A move (or lack thereof), causing charity Help Refugees to mount a legal action against the government for failure to discharge its duties under the Dubs Amendment which requires the government to relocate an agreed number of unaccompanied refugee children to the UK from other European countries.

The events leading up to this challenge expose a catalogue of blunders.

It’s been confirmed that a plan drawn up and signed off by local councils to ensure proper housing for refugee children was never implemented. As a result, some of the child refugees now in Britain are being kept in a controversial detention centre, because the Home Office refused to put in place a resettlement strategy which would have safely housed unaccompanied minors.

Making matters worse, the lack of preparation has meant that child refugees have also not been able to go through the necessary assessments to ensure they are united with family members living in the UK. Some are still waiting to be admitted - 111 children are currently unable to live in Britain although they are eligible, because ongoing chaos both here and in Calais has meant no one has been able to assess these children. And despite what must have been incredibly traumatic journeys to Calais, some of these children now have to steal themselves for another destabilising experience - finding themselves in foster care whilst they wait to be ‘processed’. These are the lucky ones.

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The callous and less-than-organised way in which the refugee camp in Calais is being dismantled has left unquantifiable numbers of children at risk of trafficking, rape and severe neglect. The fires are also placing children’s lives at risk, as some police officials are actively directing children back into the camp due to a lack of space elsewhere. If and when these children reach our shores, initially it will be up to our social workers to give these children the support they need. 

The government’s laissez-faire approach is having a dangerous knock-on effect inside the child protection system. Without proper housing or support strategies in place, inside an already struggling system, vulnerable child refugees are at risk of becoming targets for paedophiles, gangs and child traffickers. 

That we have only let in a small number of children at this stage, and that these children are not getting the attention and support they need due to a complete lack of organisation is hugely embarrassing and will only serve to deepen any mistrust these children already have towards authority figures. A mistrust which at the very least has been compounded if not grounded in their experiences at Calais, as children have become increasingly cynical about French officials in the camp. How our social workers and foster carers treat these children will be crucial in protecting them from future harm. 

Ofsted’s most recent research on foster care revealed that 5,060 children were reported as having gone missing while living with foster carers in 2014-15, compared with 4,245 the year before. With an already concerning level of children going missing, how will the system ensure that these child refugees don’t become yet another statistic? Just as importantly, how will the case loads be allocated, inside a system which is already struggling to manage current work loads? Ofsted also noted in its annual social care report that poorly performing local authorities typically suffered with large caseloads, but offered a solution in improving the quality of leadership within authorities. Placing highly experienced social work staff as designated team leaders for child refugees could offer a way forward, but should be combined with close monitoring of child refugees, who will have a great deal of experience travelling on their own and may be determined to see if they can find their relatives without help.

It’s not just their extensive knowledge of travelling unaccompanied that has to be taken into account. At a very young age, many of these children will have seen the horror of war first hand. Losing their homes, their relatives and any sense of familiarity in their surroundings, as they run from air raids and bombs, to find shelter, often alone. Some will have been raped, trafficked and tortured. Several of these children will have been abused in the camp at Calais. Ongoing neglect, violence and homelessness will have become part of their daily routine, and poor mental health may have set in. 

PTSD is well known amongst soldiers; however, children can suffer with PTSD too. It’s not clear whether local authorities have thought about putting together a support strategy for child refugees, and whilst many vulnerable children who have not been in war conditions can suffer with PTSD, child refugees’ experiences are distinct from other vulnerable children and specific help for them should be carved out. 

Yet, in the rush to accommodate child refugees, no one seems to have discussed how they should be helped or what specific care and support they need. If councils could just set aside one afternoon to gather the latest available information on child refugees, the symptoms of conditions related to experiences of war and enlist the help of other local agencies and charities to ensure there is a safety net for these children, that would be a start.

What do you think? Why not join the debate on Twitter @JordansFamLaw and @Sobukira.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.