Surge in child refugees trying to reach UK creates 'terrifying new market' for people traffickers

Smuggling networks in northern France manipulating children into taking illegal routes involving large debts and exploitation, charities warn

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The Independent Online

A surge in child refugees returning to Calais and Dunkirk in a bid to reach the UK is generating a new “consumer base” for smugglers and people traffickers in the region, The Independent has learnt.

Charities have warned that the closure of legal routes to Britain and an absence of child safeguarding services in the region have provided smuggling networks with a “terrifying new market” that involves coercing children into taking illegal routes involving large debts or exploitation.

The number of underage refugees arriving in Dover from Calais through unauthorised routes has steadily increased since the closure of the Dubs scheme, which brought unaccompanied child refugees to the UK, was announced at the beginning of February. According to figures seen by The Independent, seven children were found in lorries at the port of Dover and taken into the care of Kent local authority in the last week of February, compared to just two in the first, three in the second and four in the third.

Authorities in northern France have meanwhile informed The Independent that the numbers of illegal stowaways detected in vehicles at the Eurotunnel port have been on the rise since November, with an estimated 2,100 individuals found at the port and arrested in January, including “a large number” of minors.

Hundreds of unaccompanied child refugees who were formerly residents in the Calais Jungle have returned to northern France from accommodation centres in recent weeks after being informed they had been rejected by the Home Office, and are now living in small camps run by people smugglers or rough sleeping in Calais. There are an estimated 300 minors sleeping on the streets of Calais and around 120 minors in the Grande Synthe camp in Dunkirk, as well as an unknown number living in hidden encampments.

The British Government announced in early February that it was to close the Dubs scheme – intended to grant 3,000 vulnerable unaccompanied minors a safe passage to Britain – after accepting just 350, as well as ending an accelerated scheme to assess direct family ties through the Dublin regulation.

Following anger from human rights campaigners, the Home Office has since said it would reconsider cases of children “normally resident in the Calais camp” for family reunification, but this process is said to be “very slow” and does not apply to vulnerable minors without family in the UK, prompting a growing number to turn to illegal routes.

Charities are warning that the situation has created a “new consumer base” for traffickers, who are capitalising on the desperation of children by claiming territory of car parks and lay-bys and charging thousands of pounds for them to try board lorries, holding them to large debts when they fail to pay. The average charge is said to be €3,000 (£2,550) for a “try” and €10,000 (£8,500) for “guaranteed passage”.

One 19-year-old Afghan living in the Dunkirk camp who recently travelled from a centre elsewhere in France along with his brother, 16, and his friend, 17, told The Independent they were now spending every night trying to board UK-bound lorries, and were having to avoid “dangerous” men looking to exploit their pursuit.

“In Dunkirk there are dangerous men who work at the parking in Calais. If he sees you he asks why you are here, and says you can’t come here for trying,” said the teenager.

“They have knives and guns. They ask us to pay money. Every person must give €3,000 to try there. It’s very bad. I don’t give money. It’s no longer possible to do it without money in Calais and Dunkirk so we try by ourselves in different cities, but usually police in other cities tell us we have to go back to Dunkirk. I don’t know what we will do.

“Three weeks ago there was a shooting in the camp. Police came but didn’t arrest the men. There are a lot of problems here.”

Elaine Ortiz, founder of Hummingbird, a children’s organisation supporting former child residents of the Jungle, said there was an organised network of gangs and smuggling groups who profited from the desperation of children by charging them money to attempt boarding lorries and giving them so-called “debts” if they cannot pay.

“Some of them are smugglers, some of them are traffickers and others are gang members. They patrol different areas, so each part of Calais generally is owned by a gang member,” said Ms Ortiz.

“They don’t necessarily help move people from A to B. They just literally say this area is theirs, and that if anyone wants to ‘try’ in that area, such as a lorry park, or near a train station, that you have to pay that person money.

“We’ve known of kids trying to sneak past violent gang members who guard lorry parks and key ‘trying’ areas, because they don’t have the money to pay. If caught they are beaten or given a ‘debt’, which they must pay off.”

Ms Ortiz told of one case in which a 14-year-old refugee, despite being housed at an accommodation centre in the South of France, was being “harassed” by a smuggling gang over a debt they ordered him to pay on behalf of his friend, who had succeeded in reaching the UK by boarding a lorry in a lay-by they had claimed.

“These people are still harassing him by phone, which is adding ongoing stress to his already fragile emotional state,” Ms Ortiz added.

The increased activity of people smugglers in northern France is reflected by the growing numbers of people being found in lorries during border checks at the Eurotunnel. Sebastian Rivera, general secretary of FNTR (the French National Federation of Road Transport), said numbers had been rising since November, and included a large proportion of minors.

“There’s been an increase in the number of migrants being found in lorries. There were around 500 each week, and it’s been growing since. We’re told that there are a large number of minors among them,” Mr Rivera told The Independent.

“There was a steep decline around the time of the demolition of the Jungle, with the numbers dropping in September and October. Now it’s rising again and this is a concern for lorry drivers.

“The most concentrated gathering of migrants is at the Grande-Synthe camp in Dunkirk. It’s well-known that the traffickers run this camp and exploit people who go through human misery for a way to go to the UK. The state and the police are trying hard to dismantle these networks of traffickers, but it’s still a big concern.”

It comes days after a report by Europol revealed people smuggling in Europe had expanded so dramatically that it is now comparable to the illegal drugs market, with criminal networks offering services facilitating illegal movement within the EU emerging as one of the most profitable and widespread activities for organised crime on the continent.

Charities on the ground have warned that while this illegal activity in Calais is not new, the return of children to the area and the lack of safe spaces or services to protect them – with child safeguarding systems that were established around the Calais Jungle now gone – has made minors an easy target for people smugglers and gangs in the region.

Unaccompanied boys in Dunkirk camp are currently living and sleeping in communal areas alongside older men, some of whom are said to be people smugglers who are coercing them into pursuing illegal routes to the UK rather than cooperating with volunteers trying to establish a legal passage or claim asylum in France.

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(Sue Clayton)

British charity Safe Passage, which is working with unaccompanied minors in the Grande-Synthe camp in Dunkirk to help establish safe routes to the UK or claim asylum in France, told The Independent their work was becoming increasingly challenging and dangerous due to the seeming desire by some adult men in the camp to manipulate the children.

Laura Griffiths, the charity’s field manager in Calais, said: “If a child is seen to be speaking to a volunteer it raises a lot of suspicion about what we’re talking to them about. It’s getting worse. We’ve got to be so careful now.

“No one in the camp knows who Safe Passage is because we go under the radar. We have to be covert. We’ve started using volunteers who serve food and who distribute aid to casually ask kids if they’ve got family in the UK, because we don’t want to put these children at more risk than they’re already at.

“When Calais existed there were traffickers operating there as well, but it was more spread out. The difference is that now there are more children coming to Dunkirk after fleeing from the accommodation centres, and people are there waiting to exploit them.

“Establishing legal routes such as family reunification is obviously not a quick process. We need the British Government to provide accommodation for these children so we can register them to access this legal route without having to tell them to go wait in the camp for three months where they’re at risk from these traffickers.”

Margot Bernard, child protection officer at Calais-based charity l’Auberge des Migrants, said children in the camp were “surrounded” by adults they don’t know and are potential traffickers who try to manipulate their decisions. 

Ms Bernard said: “The Dunkirk camp is over-populated. It has been increasing in numbers since the beginning of the year, and as a result we have a lot more people sleeping in communal parts of the camp where people didn’t used to sleep before. This means a lot of children are now surrounded by adults who they do not know and who are potentially traffickers.

“At the moment, whenever I speak to a child there are several adults who just show up and who take part in the conversation. Sometimes I see attitudes that are really frightening, like adults who don't want the children to speak, and that is a big concern.”

Annie Gavrilescu, of the charity Help Refugees, said the influx of children returning to northern France desperate to reach the UK meant smugglers were changing their ways of operating, with more trafficking taking place due to unaccompanied minors’ inability to pay the large sums of money.

“This situation is creating a terrifying new market and consumer base for smugglers and traffickers. There have been smugglers here for a long time, but now it disproportionately affects children over adults, and it is more likely to involve trafficking and exploitation,” said Ms Gavrilescu

“Minors are the vast proportion of the refugee population in Calais now, and because kids generally don’t have any means of income, the way these people profit from them is very different. As children, they’re so much more vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.”

UK-based charities working with trafficked child victims who have reached Britain have warned the increase in minors turning to illegal routes will lead to the criminalisation of children once they reach the UK. 

Debbie Beadle, head of youth development at ECPAT, a leading children’s rights organisation in the UK campaigning against child trafficking, told The Independent entering the country via unauthorised means makes children likely to lead an “underground” existence due to fear of the authorities, and become involved in illegal activity as a way of paying off debts to smugglers.

“Children who have entered the UK through illegal routes often become criminalised. When they enter the country this way they are susceptible to being exploited and taken advantage of,” said Ms Beadle.

“They have no idea about the system here and how social services work. They have no understanding that police are people you can trust. Once they know they’re coming in illegally they stay underground because then they are scared about coming to the authorities, and then it’s so easy for them to be picked up and become involved in illegal activity.

“Even when they’re identified by local authorities and are being supported, somehow there’s this weird thing going on with lots of children going missing. They often keep the link with the traffickers, who get them to memories numbers or give them phones and they’ll often give them someone to contact in the UK.

“Often they’re dropping out of school. For a lot of them they’ve got a debt on their head, so they’re thinking I’ve got to pay off this debt, which is often done through unpaid work or worse forms of exploitation.”

According to Unicef, the renewed insurgence of people smuggling in northern France and the mounting concerns about children being a primary target is due to failure by the UK and other European nations to develop an adequate system of safeguarding these youngsters earlier in their journeys.

Lily Caprani, Unicef UK’s deputy director, told The Independent“What Dubs uniquely offered was a way to help unaccompanied refugee children stranded alone in Europe to reach safety, without this, these children, including those currently in Northern France, do face very real dangers,” Ms Caprani told The Independent.

“For those children, entering Europe has not ended the risk to them – the traffickers continue to prey on these very vulnerable children including in Northern France when they try and cross to the UK.

“It’s not for the UK to solve this crisis alone but we have to make things work for children who have a legal right to be here. The problems returning to Northern France are a symptom of the UK and other European countries not ensuring a sustainable working system earlier in the dangerous journey.

“We need legal routes to take children far away from the traffickers who still wait to exploit them. We need family reunion to happen much faster throughout Europe in order bring children together with family members in the UK and to build children’s trust in the authorities to protect their rights.

“These children are fleeing hellish circumstances and are simply focused on finding a safe place to stay and rebuild their lives often by reaching family members. Too often, however, this plunges them straight into more danger in the hands of traffickers. We need legal routes that takes away that opportunity and brings them to safety.”

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