Written evidence submitted by Help Refugees (CHA0035)
- Help Refugees was founded in 2015, in response to the deteriorating conditions faced by people in Northern France. Since then our work has expanded across Europe, the Middle East and the US-Mexico region to support over 120 grassroots and civil society partner organisations along key migration routes, in 14 different countries. We continue to support over 15 projects who support displaced people in Northern France with essential material aid, food and warmth, child protection, legal and rights-based information, and education.
- Our estimation is that reasons for the rise in boat crossings are for four main reasons:
2.1. The rise in the number of people displaced globally
2.2. The lack of safe and legal routes to the UK
2.4. Securitisation, aggressive policing and a lack of information
- Conditions in informal settlements in northern France contain significant violations of rights including mass evictions.
- Regarding the situation of unaccompanied children in Northern France and the rest of Europe, the best interests of the child must be the guiding principle.
- Conditions in refugee camps on the Greek islands (RICs) illustrate the failing of a containment policy leaving tens of thousands trapped in inhumane circumstances.
- The legal position of migrants crossing the English channel should centre the UK’s commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the principle of non-refoulement and the right to claim asylum.
Reasons behind the increase in irregular or illegal channel crossings, including economic and political drivers
The rise in global displacement
- The number of people displaced globally is on the rise. UNHCR reported in its 2019 Global Report that 79.5 million people are forcibly displaced, representing 1% of the world’s population. A minority of this displaced population make it to Europe and of those a fraction arrive in the UK. In 2019, 676,300 asylum seekers applied for international protection in EU member states and also in 2019, the UK received 35,737 asylum applications in 2019.
- Communities currently based in Northern France come from unstable and insecure contexts, stemming from different forms of violence, conflict and crisis. This, combined with a lack of durable solutions and responsibility sharing, has resulted in a rise in displacement as well as people taking increasingly dangerous routes to seek protection and/or reunite with their family members.
The lack of safe and legal routes to the UK
- At present, there is no way to lodge a claim for asylum in the UK without being physically present on UK soil. Given the nationalities of the people arriving, many will have a strong claim to international protection. For those willing to apply to other safe and legal migration channels, access remains scarce and rarely accessible. In addition, pathways have been reduced.
- The resettlement scheme has been frozen since March 2020 and its framework has recently been altered. In June 2019, the May Government announced it would combine the VPRS, the VCRS and the Gateway schemes into a unified ‘global resettlement scheme’ to commence from 2020. The target for the new global resettlement scheme is 5,000 in its first year of operation. No targets have been set for beyond its first year of operation. This 5,000 target is a miniscule amount - In 2019, the UNHCR identified 1.4 million refugees in need of resettlement.
- Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016, also known as the Dubs scheme, has provided refuge to 480 unaccompanied refugee children who were in France, Greece and Italy has ended. There is no longer a relocation scheme for unaccompanied minors displaced in Europe nor a commitment to have one.
- Furthermore, at the end of the Brexit transition period, there is no mandatory requirement in place to ensure the preservation of family reunification.
- The lack of guarantees in place could provoke anxiety and encourage irregular crossings. For those currently in the procedure, waiting times increased 10-fold between 2016 and 2019 to an average of around four months (111.31 days) for successful applications, while the evidentiary burden placed on applicants is often disproportionately high, also resulting in long, drawn out applications and transfers. In addition, there is a lack of information about people’s legal rights and how to access safe and legal routes. The current Brexit narrative is also adding to misinformation spread in the camp that legal routes are not available and that people have to reach the UK before the transition period ends.
- Children with refugee status in the UK are currently prevented from being joined by parents or siblings. A 2019 report by Save the Children, Amnesty International and the Refugee Council, ‘Without My Family’, found this to be ‘directly at odds with national and international law, contravening the principle of the best interests of the child.’
- During the pandemic, there has been a reduction in passenger transport demand, affecting all forms of travel, such as by air or ferry. Whilst the numbers of people crossing the Channel using boats has increased, there has been a drop in the number of asylum applications lodged by non-boat arrivals. Abi Tierney (UKVI) noted in evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on 3 September 2020 that there were 8,455 applications in Q1 and 4,850 applications in Q2 lodged by non-boat arrivals.
Securitisation, aggressive policing and a lack of information
- As mentioned repeatedly by the both the French National Consultative Commission for Human Rights and the French Defender of Rights, the enactment of the various treaties and bilateral administrative agreements relating to the French-UK border region simultaneously force people on the move to stay in France, whilst removing any access and claim to asylum in the UK - in part due to the externalised UK border controls. The CNCDH sees in the application of these bilateral agreements a disproportionate interference with the fundamental right to "leave any country " set out in Article 2(2) of Protocol No. 4 to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)31.
- Moreover, these agreements are also contributing to increased securitization policies implemented at borders areas that generate constant evictions, increased use of violence and therefore violations of fundamental rights.
- Increasing border security and shifting responsibility on to the French authorities is not a solution. Instead, it makes people undertake more dangerous journeys and drives people into the hands of smugglers and traffickers.
- Irregular crossings should also be seen in the context of living conditions, as evidenced below. This includes inhumane and degrading treatment, daily violent evictions and a lack of information to legal rights. Experiencing physical violence at the hands of state authorities also means people lose confidence in the authorities rather than considering them as their access to protection or a source of information.
- A Refugee Rights Europe survey found that less than 5% of people felt safe in Calais with the overwhelming majority feeling not safe. 40% of respondents had experienced citizen violence and a staggering 91.8% had experienced police violence. This included police violence, verbal abuse, tear gas or pepper spray including against children.
- There is a significant lack of legal information related to European or national (French or British) asylum procedure and regulation, in northern France and across the European context. Unaccompanied children in Northern France through Greece and other European countries have often not had access to appropriate legal information, including their right to family reunification. A survey conducted by Refugee Rights Europe found that 85% of displaced people sampled said they did not have access to information about rights and opportunities to improve their situation. When questioned on the source of the information that the UK was the best country for them to seek safety interviewees cited; friends, family and acquaintances (14%, 13%, 13% respectively) and a very small amount referenced authorities/police in France or other European countries (0.9% and 0.4% respectively).
- A 2017 UNICEF report found that despite frequent contacts with the authorities in European countries on their journeys towards the UK, children are repeatedly not informed about their legal rights to protection, including their right to be reunited with their family. Furthermore, the disproportionate presence of police on the ground together with violent tactics, which are of direct correlation to the juxtaposed border controls, often means children fear the police rather than seeing them as an entry door to protection. Fear of detection by authorities and related fingerprinting, physical violence, detention, pushbacks and deportation push children towards underground journeys constantly avoiding authorities and at the mercy of smugglers and traffickers.
Conditions for displaced people in Northern France
- There is no official data released by the authorities regarding the population of displaced people in Northern France. Evictions and constant population displacement prevent organisations having a thorough understanding of the number of people present.
- At present, there are an estimated 2,300 displaced people in Northern France; 1500-1800 in Calais and the surrounding area, and around 500 in Grande-Synthe. Major nationalities that are represented make up six of the ten highest refugee source nations including; Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Syria. Since 2016, the number of unaccompanied children have accounted for around 10% of the total population.
- In April 2019, then UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing stated that treatment of refugees in the area constitutes a violation of the right to housing, health, food and physical integrity, and that systemic eviction cycles constituted “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of one of the most vulnerable populations in France.” Since this statement, evictions and associated rights violations have increased in frequency.
- In July 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that French officials had ‘failed in their duties’ in regards to three asylum seekers being forced to sleep rough for over six months without accommodation alternatives or financial support.
- Following large-scale evictions on the 10th and the 30th of July 2020, populations are now more spread out in the region. Makeshift camps of donated tents and insufficient, improvised shelter are the only protection from the elements with urgent, homeless accommodation, even for particularly vulnerable individuals, wholly insufficient.
- Physically forcing displaced people from small, irregular camps, and destroying or confiscating tents, beddings and other shelter materials using the forces of order has continued to constitute an intensive and major part of the UK and French authorities’ response to displaced people in the region. Human Rights Observers have called this “an organised harassment policy contrary to fundamental rights, at high financial and human cost”. The frequency and intensity of these operations has only increased year on year since 2017.
- During 2019, Human Rights Observers saw 961 evictions in Calais (112% increase from 2018) and 178 in Grande-Synthe (344% increase from 2018). To date in 2020 (January 1st-September 4th) there have been 725 evictions in Calais and 51 in Grande-Synthe (Human Rights Observers, 2020). Daily evictions did not cease or reduce in frequency during the onset and spread of the coronavirus pandemic - 388 separate operations taking place between April and July 2020
- The policy approach of avoiding ‘fixation points’, actively pursued since June 2017, continues to be enacted without sufficient and dignified provision of alternative accommodation that is adapted to the needs of the displaced population. Doctors of the World, France have stated that these forced evictions make little allowance for, and actively exacerbate particular vulnerabilities including; UAMs, women and families, LGBTQ+ individuals and those with notable physical and mental health conditions.
- Severe restriction of access to water for hygiene/sanitation which has not altered in relation to the ongoing pandemic. There is currently one public tap for 500 people in Grande-Synthe and one 24 hour water point in Calais for 1500-1800 people. Access is further limited by the distance that they are from living sites - with irregular camps that were located near the water point, specifically targeted in eviction operations in both Calais and Grande-Synthe. Volunteers distributing water via jerry cans remains a primary source of water for many.
- Evictions have continued in Northern France during the pandemic and have been justified using the Covid-19 regulations. However, the constant state of movement/displacement caused by evictions, and the unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions they result in, also make it harder to manage the health response thereon increasing risks of infection.
- Covid-19 increased feelings of desperation amongst displaced people living in overcrowded makeshift camps in Northern France. Legal requirements relating to social distancing issued by the Ministère des Solidarités et de la Santé (and by Public Health England) have not been afforded to all displaced persons. Restricted access to water and sanitation has increased risks of contagion and the possibility of outbreak. Daily evictions did not cease or reduce in frequency during the onset and spread of the coronavirus pandemic. There were 708 separate operations taking place between January and July 2020.
- Finally, the UK’s continued use of administrative detention regime in Northern France, through its four Short Term Holding Facilities (STHF), is contrary to international and public health expert advice including from the UN Subcomittee on the Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatement or Punishment
Unaccompanied Children in Northern France
- In France, our partners’ organisations witness a large number of unaccompanied children (UAC) being at risk. Indeed, the securitization policies mentioned above contribute to children finding themselves amidst adults, constantly on the move as a result of almost daily evictions and therefore being left without effective access to protection, to competent jurisdictions and to information regarding their rights. Many of them have suffered from violence in their own countries, on the road, and upon their arrival in France, potentially accumulating traumatic experiences.
- Despite numerous alerts having been formulated to and by competent authorities in that respect, the securitization policies are getting reinforced and the lack of effective access to protection mechanisms continues and this keeps resulting in many children remaining in displacement, exposed to a number of risks that could be mitigated and even prevented. Their risk taking is increasing. In that sense, the due “best interest of the child as a guiding principle” is not respected by both French and UK authorities which, instead, contribute to create the inhumane and degrading conditions they are surviving in instead of jointly working to improve the conditions for them to effectively access protection. Children at the French-UK border are experiencing physical and psychological violence, detention, violation of their rights as children from duty bearers and these experiences make them lose confidence in authorities, rather than seeing them as a source of protection.
- During the month of August, associations on the grounds have encountered more than 300 unaccompanied children unprotected only in the areas of Calais and Dunkerque. The limited presence of organisations on the ground combined with Covid-19 restrictions, together with the continued mobility of children and evictions, explain the lack of exhaustive data and underrepresentation of the actual UAC presence in those two towns alone. These children experience the daily real risks of violence, police brutality, exploitation and trafficking.
- Regarding children on the move in the border areas of France, they are often left without effective access to protection or information regarding their rights. Despite a number of warnings, the lack of effective access to protection mechanisms continues and this keeps resulting in many children remaining in displacement, exposed to a number of risks that could be mitigated and even prevented.
- On the 28th February 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the failure of French authorities to provide care and protection for an unaccompanied child in a Calais refugee camp, along with precarious living conditions, were in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite this, the protection and care of unaccompanied minors at the France-UK border remains compromised. So long as the existing securitisation policies in place continue, evictions and substandard living conditions will continue placing children at risk of harm.
- According to information from our partners, in Calais, over a period of eight weeks, during the recent Covid-19 confinement period, while having a very restrictive presence (8 hours/week), organisations entered into contact with 150 UAC living in a street situation. Among them, 67 were newly arrived (despite restriction of circulation at national level), four of whom were girls. The majority of UAC encountered were boys between 14 and 17 years of age; the youngest identified being 11 years old and living in an informal settlement for five months. In Grande-Synthe, in this same period, organisations estimate that a minimum of 90 UAC were living in similar conditions.
- The multiplication of evictions which take place in both Calais and Dunkerque area are a source of acute fragilization and/or disappearance of a number of children. This, combined with the lack of existence of a strong cross-border mechanism to identify and respond to disappearance and exploitation and trafficking and safe and legal routes to reach the UK, leave unaccompanied children at the mercy of smugglers and trafficking networks. Few months prior to Brexit, the absence of perspectives to a replacing mechanism to family reunification, and the adoption of a replacing mechanism to reach the UK safely and legally, is solely profiting the criminal networks. Associations already observe on the ground the increase of misinformation. Children who could benefit from safe and legal routes often renounce accessing the child protection system and instead take life threatening risks to cross the channel even though those safe and legal routes are still operational.
Conditions in Migrant camps in Greece
- There are currently 23,488 people located at the Reception and Identification Centres (RICs) on the Greek islands (Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos) where there is capacity for only 6,095 - almost 300 percent beyond their original hosting capacity. The containment policy traps tens of thousands of people on the Greek islands for months, sometimes even years, until their asylum case is processed. The “lack of adequate and secure accommodation and facilities” has led to a high incidence of violence and sexual violence according to the UN Committee Against Torture (September 2019). Camps in the mainland have also been criticised for having substandard conditions.
The legal position of migrants crossing the English Channel and the obligations of UK and French authorities and other parties to ensure their safety under UK and International (Maritime) Law
- Anyone who enters the UK to claim asylum, whether by regular or irregular methods must be able to make this claim in line with the Refugee Convention 1951. Using naval forces or Coast Guard to push people back from British territorial waters before they have the opportunity to claim asylum, and have their application processed constitutes refoulement, a violation of international human rights law. The role of the British Navy should be limited to the preservation of human life through search and rescue operations.
- Implementation of political solidarity and respect for fundamental rights for all persons on the move, as established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights such as; the right to asylum, the right to respect for private and family life, as well as the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment.
- Ensure the existing legal mechanisms are more easily accessible and promote safe and legal pathways. Expanding pathways is in line with recommendations made by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. This includes expanding legal pathways to apply for asylum from outside Europe. Consideration should be given to providing refuge to vulnerable people who are in need of protection due to famine, natural or climate-related disasters, and who as of now do not directly meet the criteria stipulated in the 1951 Geneva Convention.
- A specific safe and legal route for unaccompanied children should be created to replace the previous Dubs scheme, enabling children to leave the camps in Northern France legally. This is in line with recommendations made by UNHCR and NGOs.
- Family reunification mechanisms need to be strengthened and expanded. Ensure the mandatory requirement post-Brexit for the government to preserve family reunification. Introduce provisions to enable child refugees in the UK to be reunited with their relatives.
- Create a mechanism to prevent and respond to the trafficking and disappearance of children on the move with a clear firewall between protection and migration management boards. This should include identification systems and referral pathways where there is a concern a child has been trafficked or experienced violence or abuse. The referral system should be used to share information on vulnerable cases known to have crossed the border in order to ensure that concerns about trafficking are raised immediately once on UK soil.
- A commitment to ensure no coercive military intervention in British waters, and that any interventions be rooted in maritime law regarding a mandate solely directed for the purpose of preservation of life i.e. search and rescue missions.
 In France, this independent constitutional authority ensures respect for rights and freedoms as per - article 71-1 of the French Constitution.The Defender of Rights is an independent institution responsible for defending individual rights and freedoms in 5 areas defined by law: defending the rights of public service users, defending children’s rights, observance of ethics by security personnel (police, gendarmes, private security services, etc.),anti-discrimination and the promotion of equality, guidance and protection for whistleblowers.
 See opinion “monitoring of the migration situation in Calais and surroundings”, July 7th, 2016; p12-18
 Refugee Rights Europe, Twelve Months On, 2018 ,https://refugee-rights.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/RRE_TwelveMonthsOn.pdf
UNICEF, Family Reunification and Failing Protection: The Situation Facing Unaccompanied Children in the Dunkirk Camp, 2017 https://downloads.unicef.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Family-Reunification-and-Failing-Protection_study-in-Dunkirk.pdf
Defenser Des Droits rapportage, Exiles and Fundamental Rights: Three Years After the Calais Report, 2018, https://www.defenseurdesdroits.fr/sites/default/files/atoms/files/synth-rapportcalais-eng-ipcan-num-07.12.18.pdf
Informations Coronavirus as of 11th September 2020 - it is important to note that even with restrictions now relaxed relative to earlier lockdown measures March-July 2020, evictions still create circumstances contrary to this advice. https://www.gouvernement.fr/info-coronavirus?fbclid=IwAR2xVMkk7r0KIjyhPz-hOO2ZwipYXWzpegNsiNZoCq3tnp9gOR6A02QiqzU
 Human Rights Observers 2019 annual report 2019, https://helprefugees.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/HRO-eng-rep2019.pdf
 For instance: CNCDH, Déclaration - Alerte sur le traitement des personnes migrantes, 17 October 2017.
 European Court of Human Rights - Khan v. France (no. 12267/16), 28 February 2019.
 Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Responding to irregular migration: A diplomatic route, 4 November 2019
 UNHCR, Destination Anywhere, 3 November 2019
 See for example, JCWI, Safe and Legal Routes of Entry to the UK, August 2020; MSF, Tell the UK Government to provide sanctuary for vulnerable refugee children, n.d.; Safe Passage, 80 years on it’s Our Turn, n.d.