Children who were forced to languish in Calais for up to a year as they waited for the Home Office to transfer them to the UK went on hunger strike and in at least one case a child attempted suicide, the Guardian has learned.
Senior officials at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) raised concerns with the Home Office about the health and welfare of at least 35 children held at a centre in Calais in a series of emails seen by the Guardian.
The majority of the unaccompanied minors, some of whom were from Afghanistan, had made applications under family reunification provisions enshrined in EU law, known as the Dublin III regulation, which must be acted upon within two months.
One of the emails from the UNHCR reads: “In particular, it was raised that the mental and psychological state of the children had deteriorated in recent weeks, including one case of a child who has attempted suicide and 15 who are currently partaking in a hunger strike.
“We were informed that some of the children have been waiting for several months, and possibly up to a year, firstly for confirmation of acceptance and then for the transfer to the UK to take place,” one of the emails reads.
“We have been led to understand that a combination of lack of certainty around their situation, including for the children to fully understand the various stages of the procedure, combined with the delay are considered to be contributing factors to the declining situation for the children.”
Another email to the Home Office from French authorities reads: “We receive very problematic news from the UNHCR concerning minor cases with the UK. We have serious fears about the mental and physical health of these minors despite the quality of support they receive from local authorities in France.
“All of them are in the process of family reunification under Dublin III, and have been waiting for several months or even a year for some, a response to their requests or an effective transfer to the United Kingdom.
“Due to these excessive delays, their mental state has deteriorated considerably: a child tried to kill himself last week and others are on hunger strike.”
The emails provide a snapshot of some of the desperate conditions faced by children arriving in Calais, having made treacherous journeys across Europe from the Middle East, southern Asia and Africa. The children will be held in a mix of accommodation ranging from hostels to foster homes.
The Home Office said it would not comment on individual cases and the current status of the children is unknown.
Under the Dublin III regulation, France makes a “take charge request” to the UK to signify the child wants to be reunited with a family member in the UK. UK authorities have two months to respond. If the request is accepted, they then have six months to effect the transfer.
Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, said: “These revelations are shocking and disturbing. Teenagers and children who are on their own, but have family here in Britain who can look after them, should not be stuck in endless, tortuous bureaucracy.
“The British and French authorities need to get their act together and speed up these decisions and processes so that vulnerable youngsters don’t end up suffering or being exploited.
“Young refugees and asylum seekers have often already experienced huge trauma, and now we have minors going on hunger strike and attempting suicide in refugee camps in Europe due to lengthy delays and uncertainty on decisions about their future.
“Time and again we have urged Britain and France to speed up the system rather than letting families down. No vulnerable minors should be stuck waiting alone in camps for up to a year, when they could be with family, in a safe home or in school.”
Another bundle of emails sent between the Home Office and others from the Foreign and Commonwealth offices shows the department disputing how many of the 35 are genuine “Dublin” cases, as they are unable to trace the children on their systems.
However, it accepts at least 20 are family reunion cases but the official states they are “being appropriately handled within the context of the regulation and indeed our guidance”.
The emails were disclosed in a case at the upper tribunal immigration and asylum chamber, in which the Home Office is being challenged over delays faced by three young refugees were forced to wait months to be reunited with their families.
The three teenagers, who cannot be named for legal reasons, are:
An Afghan boy, 16, who had to wait more than four months to be reunited with his older brother
An Eritrean girl, 17, who waited more than five months to join her brother
Another Eritrean girl, 16, who had to wait more than six months to join her older brother
A judgment will be handed down at a later date.
“When deciding whether to allow children to join family in the UK, the government is routinely exceeding the time limits permitted under EU law,” said Eleanor Harrison, the chief executive of Safe Passage, a charity working on the legal challenge.
“Unfortunately, the delays highlighted in this case are not exceptional. Children who could be rebuilding their childhoods with their family are instead frequently stuck in limbo for a year or more.
“It is of course necessary to make sure family reunification is in a child’s best interests but clearly their interests are not being met if they feel they have no choice but to go on hunger strike or attempt suicide.
“Safe Passage’s own research has found some children waiting an average of 16 months for family reunification in Europe – these excessive delays increase the risk of children absconding, jumping on the back of a lorry or approaching smugglers.
“We would urge the government to meet its international obligations and ensure children are transferred to the UK safely and as quickly as possible.”
Official figures show 450 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have arrived in the UK since the start of 2015 under the Dublin III regulation.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK takes its responsibilities towards unaccompanied children extremely seriously”, adding that it would be inappropriate to comment on ongoing legal proceedings.
“We have been working closely with the French authorities and delivery partners, including UNHCR, to ensure that all the children who are eligible for transfer to the UK can be brought here as soon as possible.
“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection, and we have provided protection to nearly 34,640 children since the start of 2010.”
Calais child refugees went on hunger strike after UK transfer delays – The Guardian