[Editor’s note: The original French version of this post was published in April 2016. On 25 October 2016, French authorities began dismantling the illegal migrant camp in Calais where an estimated 7,000 refugees had been hoping to cross the Channel to reach the United Kingdom.]
According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (adopted in 1989 by the General Assembly of the United Nations), governments must ensure “that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will” (article 9). A few weeks ago, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, responsible for ensuring the Convention’s fulfilment, asked France to address the series of violations against Article 9 that had been reported by NGOs and other associations. Some of these violations included the forced separation of migrating children from their relatives, particularly children who grew up in poverty, and children who have been orphaned.
Since this announcement, a representative of the French government has addressed possible areas of improvement. The French Ombudsman, Jacques Toubon, appealed to public authorities. He expressed concern over the “troubling situation”, whereby unaccompanied migrant minors were seen at Calais and along the northern coast of France. In fact, as of 31 March, three hundred and ten unaccompanied minors had been identified. These minors share the fate of thousands of other people fleeing wars, extreme poverty, and economic and climatic crises, all trying to reach Great Britain. Despite the support provided by volunteers, the conditions in the Calais camp have been miserable.
Children need the most protection: they are the youngest and are some of the most vulnerable people. The purpose of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is to protect children. The French Ombudsman (whose title translates from French as “defender of rights”) addressed this exact issue: “unaccompanied minors present in Calais are currently, for the vast majority, unprotected. They are in a situation of extreme vulnerability.” He spoke of their “extremely poor living conditions” as well as abuse suffered by children.
Jacques Toubon continued, “The particular situation of unaccompanied children in exile at Calais requires responses to meet these challenges.” Their protection “constitutes an exceptional kind of issue that is the shared responsibility of the central and departmental governments and therefore calls for coordinated support.”
How is this supposed to be accomplished? By respecting the Convention on the Rights of the Child.*
Despite the fact that many of these children have been sent to children’s homes, and the increased possibilities for hosting children together with their parents, many problems remain. The French Ombudsman deplored the fact that these children’s education is far from assured, calling for the French public school system to teach them. He also called for collaboration between France and the United Kingdom to reunite children with relatives across the border.
Among others who have spoken out about these migrant children, Nathalie Serruques, the UNICEF mission head for youth in France, stated: “There is no access to basic rights, to housing, to education or to health care. For how long? Accusations rain down; fingers are being pointed. Enough! This is not inevitable. It’s a question of political will.”
Given this serious context facing France, Doctors of the World and the French branch of Caritas Internationalis, have taken legal action on behalf of the migrant children to ensure that protective measures are put in place for unaccompanied minors and in particular, to enforce the right – a right that is well known to French Social Services – of “family reunification”. The right of “family reunification” authorizes and requires that a child is able to join his / her close relative, when one has been identified, even if the relative is in another European country. This situation is quite frequent: the majority of children in Calais have a father, mother, uncle, or another close relative in Great Britain ready to welcome the children. In fact, this exact situation happened a few days ago. Four Syrian children were able to join a family member in England. Unfortunately, however, this law has been applied only sparingly, and in cases where many efforts could be made.
Last January, as an urgent reminder, Europol (the European Union law enforcement agency) estimated that more than 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children had disappeared in the previous 24 months.
As this crisis unfolds, it is crucial that as much as possible be done to reunite these vulnerable children with the relatives who can best protect their well-being.
* In October 2015, the French Human Rights Commissioner published a report on “Refugees and Fundamental Rights in Calais”.