Child refugees in France 'neglected' in accommodation centres after UK Home Office rejections

Exclusive: Assessments by social workers allege children, one of whom is known to have attempted suicide, are not being fed properly and have no access to psychological support

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The Independent Online

Unaccompanied refugee children as young as 12 who have been rejected by the UK government are being “neglected” in French accommodation centres after being evicted from the Calais Jungle, it has been claimed.

Child assessments seen by The Independent allege several of the 64 makeshift accommodation centres where unaccompanied minors were sent following the closure of the camp, which the British Government said would supply specialist care, are not providing basic needs such as suitable food, security provisions and emotional support.

The documents, drawn up by UK-based organisation Social Workers Without Borders, which is tracking and assessing 37 child refugees in France, claim some of the centres fail to provide adequate support for the deteriorating mental wellbeing of most of the youngsters, including a 14-year-old boy who has attempted suicide multiple times.

When contacted by The Independent, French organisations running two of the centres allegedly failing to meet needs confirmed they were not providing the children with necessities such as emotional support and suitable food. But they said it was a “complicated” situation due to the lack of time they had to prepare for their arrival. An international organisation in charge of a third centre denied the allegations. 

It comes more than a month after it emerged the Home Office stopped transfers of child refugees from France to the UK, and shortly afterwards issued new guidelines stating children were only eligible if they were Sudanese or Syrian, under the age of 13 or deemed at high risk of sexual exploitation.

A reported 750 of the estimated 1,900 unaccompanied minors formerly living in the Jungle with hopes of coming to the UK have been accepted by the Home Office and transferred to Britain, most of them through family ties. The remaining hundreds have allegedly been told with little or no explanation that their applications have been rejected.

One of the assessments seen by The Independent claims that a centre in the south-western town of Luchon, which is currently housing 30 unaccompanied minors, is “unable to provide safe care”. It states that children are “often out during the night”, with only one member of staff in the accommodation overnight to supervise them, and that the children have “no spare clothes” and no access to emotional support.

Elaine Ortiz, founder of the Hummingbird Project, a charity that has been working with children from the Jungle, has visited the centre in Luchon several times to assess the needs of a child living there whose mental health has deteriorated in recent months.

She told The Independent: “He had no suitable clothing. He didn’t have a jacket, he had no change of clothes. So even when he washes, he has to just put his duvet cover around him until his clothes are dry. He shares a room with four other boys. 

“The food isn’t suitable. The centre has done their best for him, but they’re just not staffed adequately. There’s no support for their psychological needs, bearing in mind that a lot of the children have post-traumatic stress.”

When contacted by The Independent Ms Tourett, the head of the ANRAS organisation that runs the centre, confirmed there was only one member of staff on duty during the night, and that the children had been known to walk around at night time. She added that their mental health needs were not being met, and that the staff felt “helpless” at their reported inability to provide it.

Ms Tourret said: “We do have just one member of staff on duty at night. The children have walked around outside during the night, but that was mainly at the beginning of their time here. Now it’s very cold, so they don’t go out.

“Little by little, we’ve provided them with spare clothing. Their primary needs have been satisfied. They have appropriate food. They might not eat, but that’s not because the food isn’t appropriate. They have bedrooms.

“One need we haven’t been able to meet is the presence of a psychologist. The children we accommodate have severe mental suffering, and there‘s a lack of psychological support.

“It’s not a question of finances. It’s because there's a lack of psychologists in the area and it’s very difficult to mobilise a professional to come here at short notice. We feel helpless faced with this lack of support.”

Ms Tourret added that it had been “complicated” because ANRAS was given just a week’s notice before the children arrived, meaning there “wasn’t time to prepare”. She added that of the 52 unaccompanied children who arrived at the centre following the Jungle eviction, just seven have been accepted by the Home Office and 12 have already fled from the centre, saying they were going “back to Calais”. 

According to a second assessment seen by The Independent, a centre in Le Havre, which accommodates 48 children and is run by the Salvation Army, provides “no bedding, no soap” and “not enough food”. It suggests the children’s health needs are not being met, with one doctor visiting the site only occasionally, and that there is no emotional support or access to formal education.

The assessment report also raises concerns about the children’s safety in the centre in Le Havre – from which 44 children, some as young as 12, reportedly attempted to run away in November – after one child was allegedly assaulted by a member of staff. 

The Salvation Army has vigorously denied the allegations, stating that while accommodating the children was a “huge responsibility”, it had been able to provide the children with adequate meals and the centre is sufficiently staffed. The organisation also denied that there was an assault by a staff member against a child.

Sue Clayton, a professor at Goldsmith’s University, who visited the centre in Le Havre as part of research for a film into what is happening to Calais refugee children, described the conditions in the shelter as an “absolute scandal”, and provided The Independent with undercover footage showing a child in the centre describing poor conditions.

“It was worse than the worst kids’ home I’ve seen in the UK by a million miles. They said they couldn’t even play out because they hadn’t had any protein for five weeks,” Ms Clayton said.

Undercover footage shot by filmmaker Sue Clayton shows refugee minor describing poor conditions in the Le Havre centre

“If that is specialist, my God. I was able to just walk in. There’s no one there overnight, there were random volunteers from the Salvation Army.

“The only food they’re given is a quarter of baguette for breakfast, a quarter for lunch and the other half for the evening meal with some ketchup. They’re calling that care for underage kids. Some of them are as young as 11. It’s an absolute scandal.”

Lucy Kirkland, social worker with Social Workers Without Borders who wrote the assessment, claimed to The Independent there was a lack of supervision. She said: “I just walked in. There were no staff on the desk. 

“It’s not clean. It’s grotty. It’s got this smell. They haven’t got any soap so the boys are only able to wash in water. They’re not getting their clothes cleaned.

“In the bedroom I saw there was a mattress wrapped in plastic with no sheet on it, and the child had made a pillow out of some rolled up clothes and sheets. When I saw a member of staff with them there was no emotional warmth or compassion.”

The Salvation Army’s head of communications and fundraising in France, David Germain, rejected all of the allegations. He told The Independent: “We have a partnership with a company that brings food every day, and the children are happy. We only had liquid soap at the beginning and they were unfamiliar with it, which is why they complained about that. 

“We have also provided psychological support from social workers and other institutions in Le Havre. Each minor had a complete medical check on his arrival, and two to three medical appointments a day are reserved for our residents at Le Havre’s hospital.

“We have 10 staff on duty at any one time in the centre. Two house hostesses and night watchmen are in charge of cleaning the common portions. Each unaccompanied minor is in charge of the cleaning of his own room. They may be helped by social workers if needed. None of the members of staff have been violent towards a child. Children are never left alone with one member of staff.

“This is a huge responsibility. There are always people who think the young people should get more attention, better conditions and so on. But it doesn’t mean the existing conditions are not good.”

In a third centre, located in Annemasse, a French town near the Swiss border, minors are sleeping in what appears to be an underground warehouse. A 15-year-old boy living in the centre along with 24 other child refugees told The Independent they were “living like donkeys” and provided footage of their sleeping space, which showed a large room with a metal ceiling and makeshift dividing walls.

Footage provided to The Independent by an unaccompanied minor in the centre in Annemasse shows sleeping space that resembles a warehouse

The teenager, who was recently informed he and most of his friends had been rejected by the Home Office, said: “They promised us they would take us to the UK but said we had to be patient. At this centre they treat us like donkeys.

“We are living in a factory and we are eating expired bread. We have waited in these factories without eating properly and now they are saying we can’t go. It means we must go back to Calais.”

When contacted by The Independent, Aries, the French organisation that runs the centre in Annemasse, confirmed the children were sleeping in “little cells that aren’t completely closed off” and that the organisation had so far provided them with no psychological support, but that they were “under pressure” due to the little notice given before the children arrived.

The head of the organisation, Mr Chauffat, said: “They have a floor of a building  in which we put dividing walls up. They can sleep in their own little cell, which isn’t completely closed off. But they have space. They have new bedding. It’s not perfect. It would be better to have a bedroom each.

“We don’t have any psychologists for them yet. We have organised for one to come next week. We have had to organise a lot of other things before this. When you get such little notice, there are a lot of things to do. 

“The food is perhaps the most delicate issue we have at the moment. They don’t want to eat meat that isn’t halal. We’ve had difficulties with that.

“We were told the children were coming just three or four days before they arrived. There are many things we have had to work on and adapt, but we’ve done the best we can.”

The reports contradict claims by the UK Government that children seeking asylum in the UK were being housed “safely” in “specialist centres” while the Home Office carries out the assessment process. A confidential letter to an MP from Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill in November, leaked to The Independent, states: “Any children not transferred to the UK will remain safely accommodated in the care of the French authorities.”

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A confidential letter from Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill to an MP in November, leaked to The Independent, stated that children seeking asylum in the UK were being housed “safely” in “specialist centres”

Ms Ortiz said: “What we’re seeing is neglect on a huge scale. If you look at the definition of neglect used by the NSPCC, it’s everything within that.

“It’s a failure to meet the child’s basic needs. It’s a form of abuse if the child is left hungry, dirty, without adequate clothing, shelter, provision, medical care and health care, if they’re put in danger because they’re not protected and not given care. This fits every criteria for neglect.

“France is meant to be a first-world country with sophisticated child protection and safeguarding legislation. We’ve not seen any of that put in place for the young people who we’re working with, which makes you think, why don’t we treat refugee children the same as every other child? They feel like they’ve been abandoned.”

Michael Bochenek, senior counsel for children’s rights at Human Rights Watch, visited several of the accommodation centres at the end of December and said there was a lack of resources and support in many of the establishments.

“Many of the centres had staffing issues. Some were more efficiently staffed than others. There was a problem with translation availability across the board, and a real lack of recognition that translation was a necessary component of attending to these kids,” Mr Bochenek told The Independent.

“Most kids who arrive unaccompanied would in principle be sent through the regular child protection system in France set up to deal with kids, but because a short-term solution was needed, this has not happened. It is lacking a lot of the basics that we would expect to see.”

Mr Bochenek said the blame fell on both the French and British governments for failing to move quickly on resettling the unaccompanied minors in the Jungle. He said the Home Office was “failing” to fulfil the Alf Dubs amendment, which passed through the House of Commons last April to offer thousands of unaccompanied minors across Europe safe refuge in the UK. It is so far reported to have seen fewer than 250 lone children brought to Britain from France.

“The French haven’t moved as quickly as they should with giving kids the information and support they need. Britain may not have the same direct responsibility, but it knew that kids with UK-based relatives were in Calais and are in these facilities.

“It articulated a humanitarian commitment to taking on unaccompanied kids even in the absence of family connections in the UK, but has failed to live up to these commitments.

“The numbers are pathetically low in comparison to the expectations of thousands that were raised. As a consequence these kids are dispirited, many are expressing suicidal ideation and some have already left the centres to take things into their own hands. 

“The real risk is that kids without information and guidance on what their options might be in France, and now despondent about any legal route of getting to the UK, are just going to find their own solutions, and we’ll end up with something like the Jungle again.”

In response to the reports, Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, accused the British and French governments of playing a “game of chicken” with responsibility for the refugee children, most of whom still hope to come to the UK, in many cases because they have family ties there.

Ms Creasy told The Independent: “We’ve let these children down. We made them a promise to treat them fairly and to assess them properly and to do our bit, and we’re not doing our bit. They are losing hope when they have done things accordingly and it’s horrifying.

“My worry is this is a game of chicken now about who’s going to take these children, and no one is fighting for them. France needs to do their bit too. I hold both countries responsible. But as a British MP, I feel very strongly that we can’t just forget these children.”

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