Human Rights

Europe's child refugee family reunion system is failing

Asylum-seeking minors with relatives in other EU countries are entitled to be reunited with them, but it rarely happens.

French police surround teenagers in a field in Calais. Asylum seekers and volunteers have complained that police violence in the area is escalating [Elaine Allaby/Al Jazeera]

Calais, France - As darkness starts to fall over the fields in Calais, 16-year-old Efrem is finishing his dinner and chatting with friends. Later on, he will attempt to jump onto a truck and smuggle himself into the UK.

Last October, French authorities instructed the police to clear and demolish France's largest refugee camp, known as the Calais Jungle, transferring minors to reception centres across the country. But in the months that followed, many have made their way back.

"The first ones started returning around December 21st, 22nd," says Michael McHugh, who works for the Refugee Youth Service in Calais. "And that's when we knew we had a problem."

There are now an estimated 200 unaccompanied minors aged between 12 and 17 in Calais, living in the woods around the site of the demolished camp. They are fed a hot meal once a day by local charities in a nearby field.

Although the nights are cold and a few weeks ago it hailed, they sleep without tents to avoid detection by the French police - against whom there are mounting reports of excessive violence. A little under half say they have relatives in the UK. Of the three teenagers who died in the last 18 months trying to cross the border or waiting for transfer, all had immediate family members in Britain.

READ MORE: One day in Calais - The refugees hiding in the forest

A failing system for children

Asylum-seeking minors with family members in other European Union countries are in principle entitled to safe passage under the Dublin III Regulations, which underpin the EU's asylum system. But with little more than a handful of children transferred to the UK from Greece and Italy last year, charities say the system is failing.

Efrem, an Eritrean fleeing indefinite military conscription under his country's dictatorship, says he has a 25-year-old brother in London. When officials took him to a centre with the promise that they would be reunited through official routes, he accepted. But after four months in the centre, he says, "No papers, no passport - nothing."

So he returned to Calais, where he has been chancing his luck with the trucks every day for the past three months. He takes a last swig of water and then zips up his jacket. "I try now," he mutters and heads towards the overpass on the far side of the field.

The Refugee Youth Service's Michael McHugh in the charity's new mobile office van, which provides homeless youths in Calais with information about their legal rights and options [Elaine Allaby/Al Jazeera]

The EU registered 63,300 new unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in 2016, according to Eurostat. This is about a one-third decline on 2015 numbers, but is still about five times higher than the annual averages for 2008-2013.

The majority enter the bloc via Italy and Greece and a number then make their way up towards Northern Europe, with most heading for Sweden, Germany and the UK.

You could reasonably expect the total number of arrivals with family members in other EU states to be in the low thousands, says Andrea Anzaldi, the Italy field manager for Safe Passage, a UK-based organisation set up in 2015 to respond to this issue.

But to his knowledge, only three or four children have been safely transferred from Italy in the past few years (Italy's Dublin Unit hasn't responded to his requests for official data).

The first obstacle is a lack of information. Unaccompanied children arriving in the EU typically do not speak the local language and have very little knowledge of English, and translators are rarely provided. Their main sources of information are friends who have already travelled clandestinely through Europe, and advise them to evade immigration authorities so they do not get stuck in the south. Charities are trying to address this issue by informing the children about their legal options: Safe Passage is creating information videos in their own languages, and the Refugee Youth Service has crowdfunded a mobile office van in Calais, complete with Wi-Fi and extension cables and staffed by a French lawyer and social worker.

IN PICTURES: Flames, fear and football as Calais 'Jungle' cleared

Knowing your rights

But even if the children are informed about their options, the people whose job it is to administer them often aren't.

"You have to think of a small village in the centre of Sicily, with 20 children," says Anzaldi. "Social workers are not clear about the Dublin Regulations. They say; 'OK, someone at the Ministry of the Interior sent me this child. So what we do is, you have to eat, OK, eat. Tomorrow, you maybe go to school.' They haven't really focused on these issues."

The same applies with social workers in France, says Noemie Yepes, Safe Passage's France field manager. More often than not, she says, "They don't know anything about the family reunification system, but it's not officially recognised that they need training in it." 

A defaced campaign poster for defeated presidential candidate Marine Le Pen outside Jean Jaures High School in Calais. The far-right nationalist won the vote here, but locals remain divided on her policies [Elaine Allaby/Al Jazeera]

These are the problems currently facing Hassan, who lives in West Yorkshire. He's been trying for more than three months to reunite in the UK with his 12-year-old nephew Ali, who travelled alone from Afghanistan and is now in state protection in northern France.

Hassan says the boy's French social workers initially said they would try to help reunite them, but later said it was impossible. "Every time I talk to him he's crying, crying," says Hassan. "He's just a baby, he's 12 years old. It's very hard for him to stay without his family. I am his family, aren't I?"

Yepes says Ali's social workers don't understand EU law and are dragging their heels carrying out their legal duties. After three months in state care, Ali still hasn't been registered with the French authorities as an asylum seeker, a pre-requisite for initiating the EU family reunification process.

Under current French and Italian law, registration of minors can only be performed by a state-appointed legal guardian - a procedure which should take a matter of days but can drag on for months, during which time children often abscond and sometimes fall into the hands of traffickers (although a newly passed Italian law is expected to significantly speed up the process in Italy).

Safe Passage is currently preparing to litigate against the responsible department in Ali's case to force them to take action. "It's crazy to think that you have children who are homeless, and it's easier for us to get access to them, so they will be processed quicker, than one in child protection," Yepes says.

Getting clear instruction

Things are often no smoother at the UK end. A lack of published guidance on the Dublin Regulations in the UK means that caseworkers have no clear instructions on how to implement them, says Judith Dennis, a policy manager at the British Refugee Council.

Safe Passage is currently in the process of bringing legal action against the UK Home Office for alleged inconsistencies in its handling of the Calais camp clearance, in which 550 children were transferred to Britain under an accelerated version of the Dublin family reunion process, but a further 400 or so who claimed family links to the UK were left behind. Safe Passage says that the Home Office didn't provide adequate explanations for the refusals, and in some cases hadn't even contacted the family members in the UK to check whether they had a valid claim.

The charity also accuses the UK government of relying on private actors like Safe Passage to do the government's job of identifying eligible children, and of taking an unnecessarily long time to transfer children to the UK once their family link has been verified. "Kids can wait for months until they're actually transferred, with no reason for that happening," says Safe Passage's UK spokesperson Charlotte Morris. According to past debates from the Home Office, the Dublin process is working well, and it is committed to its timely and efficient operation.

Morris says a system needs to be established on the frontiers of Europe that will allow all children with family members in other EU member states to be swiftly transferred. But with a rise in nationalist feeling across the bloc threatening the EU's continued existence, this seems unlikely to become a priority for member states in the near future.

As things stand, Hassan and Ali look set to remain in limbo for a while longer. "Every day, when I speak to him, he repeats all the time the same thing: come on, please, quick, quick, quick," says Hassan. "I say calm down, maybe one week or two weeks or three weeks more, and you will be with me, and he says OK."
But privately, Hassan isn't so confident. "I just want to know," he asks, lowering his voice as he brings the conversation to a close, "with this information … what do you think? Will it happen?"

Efrem, Hassan, and Ali's names have been changed to avoid prejudicing their cases.

Source: Al Jazeera News