We must not turn our backs on children who seek sanctuary in the UK. Safe and legal routes into Britain must be at the heart of efforts to tackle trafficking.
People who arrive in the UK in refrigerated lorries, or even between wheel caps, rarely make the news. But the recent discovery of 39 dead people in a container lorry in Essex made headlines across the world. While their individual stories remain unknown, we can be certain that they have left behind family and friends, who even now may not realize the fate of their loved ones.
The deaths of these 39 victims show the perilous dangers which face those who travel to the UK via these dangerous routes. We do not know why these 39 people were in the lorry, perhaps hoping to reach a place of safety in this country or elsewhere, or whether they were forced into that journey against their will. With no safe and legal passage to the UK, they must feel there is no other choice but to step into a refrigerated lorry, hoping they arrive at their destination safely.
The only way a person can claim asylum here, with some very limited exceptions, is if they are already on UK territory, and unless an individual has the means to enter the UK on a visa and then make a claim, they are stuck. Smugglers and traffickers prey on people who have no hope, promising them safe passage in return for small fortunes. It is the failure of the UK to offer a safe alternative to those which these smugglers operate.
Organisations such as Safe Passage, work with unaccompanied children who have a legal right to resettle in the UK, but the challenge is to persuade these young people to accept long delays often of many months, or longer, rather than give up hope and risk their lives on lorries, trucks or even dinghies.
The conditions in Calais and the Greek Islands are said to be so appalling that it is easy for children to give up hope of a legal route to enable them to join families in the UK. Smugglers are helped by the behaviour of the British and other governments and can offer what sounds like a quick route to a better life. The only way to deal with these smugglers is for the government to cut the long delays and give these young people a quicker and legal route to safety.
Refugee Rights Europe has produced a report detailing the horrendous circumstances which face around 300 unaccompanied children in Northern France, including exceptionally young children aged seven, nine and twelve. According to the report, charities detail numerous accounts of women and girls being forced to perform sexual acts in exchange for a route to the UK. In 2018 more than 120 unaccompanied children went missing in this country after being trafficked from France.
RRE’s report makes it clear what those working with unaccompanied children know only too well: when a child does not have a safe route to the UK, they do not give up on their dreams of safety. Instead, they are forced into horrendous situations and potentially deadly journeys in their desperation to reach sanctuary.
Even more tragically, if this government treated this situation with the urgency it so badly needs, many of these children would have been able to travel to the UK safely. Those with family in the UK are some of the few people that should be able to access a legal route to claim asylum, under the family reunion provisions of the EU Dublin 111 Regulation. Instead of doing everything possible to transfer these children and keep them safe and out of the hands of smugglers the Home Office takes months, if not years to make a decision on their claim.
There have been no guarantees from this government that family reunion will continue regardless of what happens with Brexit and we are facing the closure of one of the few safe and legal routes to the sanctuary that this country currently offers.
The situation is bleaker still for children that don’t have family ties to the UK. The ‘Dubs’ scheme was established following an amendment in 2016. It was hoped it would offer legal routes to safety for up to 3,000 children, but it was capped by the government at 480 places. This scheme could represent a lifeline to children currently in France, Greece or elsewhere in Europe if only the government could be persuaded to take action as people in the UK recognise that we can’t turn our backs on children seeking sanctuary. Offering safe and legal routes must be at the heart of efforts to tackle the smuggling and trafficking, which exploits the most vulnerable.
Safe Passage International delivered a petition signed by 80,000 people, demanding that the Home Secretary keeps Family Reunion open for children in Europe, whatever happens with Brexit. Safe Passage is also calling on the government to include unaccompanied child refugees from Europe in its new global resettlement scheme, which is due to begin next year.
The Home Office and the wider governments are urged to learn lessons and remember the horrendous deaths of 39 people in a container, and the many thousands of others who perish each year on dangerous journeys to the UK and across the world.
We hope the government will act now to make sure unaccompanied children have a legal and safe route to this country and save them from this same fate.