Britain has pledged to take in hundreds of child refugees currently stuck in the “Jungle” refugee camp in the French city of Calais in advance of plans to dismantle the settlement.
In a statement read out to British MPs on Monday, Amber Rudd, the home secretary, said she had discussed ways to speed up the resettlement of refugee children eligible to reside in the UK with her French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve.
“I have made crystal clear to the French Interior Minister on numerous occasions … that our priority must be to ensure the safety and security of children during any camp clearance,” Rudd said.
French authorities announced their intent to dismantle the remaining part of the Calais Jungle camp last month.
The southern part was cleared in a phased operation which began in February this year.
Despite the demolition of the settlement, the population of the remaining northern camp has grown, with new arrivals joining those who used to live in the southern camp.
The number of residents in the camp is believed to be more than 10,000 with more than 1,179 children, the vast majority unaccompanied.
Rudd said that she hoped as many children as possible were transferred to the UK before the clearance, with the rest coming within days of it starting.
MPs from the opposition Labour Party have accused the government of not matching their words with action.
Diane Abbot, the shadow home secretary, called the conditions in Calais “indefensible” and “not fit for our conscience”.
“So far this government has offered these children nothing but platitudes. It is not above the ability of the Home Office to resettle unaccompanied minors, particularly those that have a family link in the UK,” Abbot said in a statement.
Natalie Stanton, of the Refugee Rights Data Project, said she was worried that Rudd’s commitment excluded the vast majority of children in Calais.
“It’s encouraging to finally see the Home Secretary speak with such conviction about resettling children from the Calais camp to the UK,” she said.
“However, it’s disappointing that Amber Rudd was unable to give any firm figures on the total number of children that qualify for relocation.
“Last month, charities handed Rudd a list of 387 refugee children eligible to come to Britain – 178 under the Dublin Regulation and another 209 under the Dubs amendment. Since then, Help Refugees has estimated that roughly 11 more unaccompanied minors have arrived in the camp every day.
“These figures account for just a third of the total children in the Calais camp – of which there were 1,179 at Help Refugees’ last count in September. It is unacceptable for any child to live in these dire conditions, which fall chronically short of universal humanitarian standards.”
The Jungle in Calais is one of several camps dotted across the northern Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.
The camps often lack basic necessities such as safe generators for electricity, adequate sewage systems, and running water.
Children and women are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by criminal gangs and abuse. Stanton said after previous attempts to clear parts of the Jungle, scores of children had disappeared.
“When the southern part of the camp was evicted in March, 129 children disappeared – potentially falling into the hands of human traffickers, or worse.
“In order to ensure that every child is protected, the UK government needs to take swift action in the coming days to ensure they are either resettled in the UK or provided with a suitable alternative in France.”