British and French ministers are close to a deal to safeguard or bring to the UK hundreds of unaccompanied refugee children as France prepares to close the Calais camp, the home secretary, Amber Rudd , has told MPs.
Rudd said after a two-hour meeting on Monday with her French counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve, that the official effort would focus initially on safeguarding children aged 12 and under. She said: “We are expecting to reach agreement. When the camp clearances take place in the next few weeks we will be working very closely with the French.”
The home secretary said that the French authorities had agreed to verify by the end of this week a list of 387 child refugees with a legal right to come to the UK, drawn up by the campaign group Citizens UK.“Once we have that official list we will move quickly within days and remove very quickly those children,” she said.
Rudd said that as many children as possible with direct family links in Britain would be brought to the UK under the Dublin convention before the Calais camp was closed while the rest would be transferred during the rest of the operation.
There are thought to be nearly 1,000 unaccompanied children in the Calais camp at present.
She added that she pressed the French minister to ensure that those lone child refugees who qualified to be brought to the UK under the “Dubs amendment” would be moved to safe facilities when the camp was cleared while their cases were rapidly considered.
MPs on all sides welcomed the home secretary’s apparent new sense of urgency on the issue. She promised that bureaucracy would no longer hamper the government’s determination to help the lone child refugees in the camp. A second Home Office asylum expert is to be sent to France and an official-level contact group has been set up between the two governments to deal with the situation. In London a dedicated Home Office team has been set up within its “Dublin unit” to process the transfers.
Rudd refused to put a figure on the number of child refugees who were likely to be brought to Britain as a result of the expected deal or give a likely timetable, saying it would only help the people traffickers. She did however tell the Daily Mail in an interview published on Monday that if 300 child refugees came to the UK that would be “a really good result”.
The French have also refused to name a specific date on their planned clearance of the refugee camp in Calais but it is expected that its closure will rapidly follow the agreement between the French and British over the fate of the near-1,000 unaccompanied child asylum seekers believed to be in the camp.
MPs on all sides also pressed Rudd to accelerate the process and provide a dedicated safe children’s centre in Calais.
Officials from the main French children’s charity working in Calais started a census of all the children currently based in the camp on Monday. The registration of all children was expected to take two days and will be used to verify the original list of 387 children with a legal right to go to the UK provided to the Home Office on 2 September.
The Calais prefecture asked the organisation France Terre d’Asile to conduct a census of all minors, collecting names and ages of all the children currently living in the camp.
Although Citizens UK and the local charity l’Auberge des Migrants, have previously counted and made unofficial registers of the children, the population is very fluid, with some children leaving and new children arriving every day. A spokesperson from theFrance Terre d’Asile said it would not comment on its findings until the census was complete.
Mary Jones, who runs the Kids Cafe in the camp, where approximately 200 unaccompanied children receive free food daily, said she had been told to expect representatives from the charity on Monday to begin making a list of minors. “If they are focused on under-12s, there are very few of them. The youngest, an eight-year-old, made his way to the UK at the weekend,” she said.
The campaigner and actor Juliet Stevenson, representing Citizens UK’s Safe Passage project in Calais, said she welcomed the government’s announcement that it was willing to take in some of the unaccompanied children from the camp in Calais.
“However, they need to do it much faster. Much faster,” she said. “Every night unaccompanied children are risking their lives trying to reach the UK, and the imminent threat of the demolition of the camp is only making them more desperate.
“Three unaccompanied children have died already this year trying to reach the UK from Calais. The government needs to respond appropriately to the urgency of this situation. It must work with the French to safeguard unaccompanied children in the camp immediately, and in the longer term, work to ensure these children have proper access to their legal rights,” she said.