CALAIS, France — When France begins demolition of the “Jungle” migrant camp here on Monday, the fate of 1,300 children will remain largely unanswered.
After a long, heated campaign led by humanitarian organizations, the British government began accepting a small number of unaccompanied child refugees from Calais last week. But hundreds more may not qualify for asylum before the Jungle is destroyed, and time is running out. On Friday, Interior Ministry officials said more than 7,500 places have been made available for the refugees living in the camp and that the minors remaining in France will be dispersed in special centers for teenagers where they will not mingle with adults.
For the few children who are allowed to cross the 20 miles of the English Channel — more than 40, as of Friday — there is neither certainty nor peace, as a number of lawmakers have demanded mandatory dental checks to ensure that the incoming migrants are, in fact, minors.
“I’m not pandering to hysteria,” David Davies, a Conservative lawmaker, told the BBC on Wednesday. “If we want to help children, that’s great, I’m all in favor of that. But I’m not in favor of allowing people in their 20s to say, ‘I’m a child,’ and then to come into the U.K. and make a mockery of our rules.”
His comments followed the publication of a Home Office document, obtained by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, that said 65 percent of refugees whose ages were disputed by British officials were found to be adults. The figures come from asylum applications made in 2015.
Meanwhile, as the first convoys of Calais children arrived in south London last week, family members and locals with banners and balloons were on hand to greet the refugees. But British tabloids splashed pictures of the newcomers on their front pages. “Tell us the tooth,” screamed a headline on the front page of the Sun newspaper, next to a picture of a young man the paper said looked about 40.
Britain’s Home Office has dismissed the idea of screening by dental examination. “We do not use dental X-rays to confirm the ages of those seeking asylum in the UK,” it said in a statement. The office defended its process of assessing the ages of the refugees, saying it works with French authorities and interviews candidates if there is uncertainty.
Inside of the Jungle, a swarm of children and teenagers crowded outside of the camp’s makeshift youth center late Wednesday afternoon, seeking information from French and British volunteers about their chances for asylum in Britain. As young as 12 and as old as 18, those with shoes kicked soccer balls while they waited. Those without stood quietly, shielding their socks from the mud and the rain.
Amid the typical sounds of children at play, there was a palpable frustration as many were told they did not qualify, either because they have no immediate family in Britain or are older than 18. Two Sudanese boys stormed away when a French volunteer told them they had little chance.
Another boy, Sharif Sarfari, 17, said he has lived in the Jungle for 10 months now, having arrived alone from Afghanistan. He said he has tried every legal means of claiming asylum in Britain, where he hopes to finish his studies in engineering. Although in theory he would qualify, he said he has no proof that he is 17 and, thus, no means of crossing the channel.
“If the legal way is not supporting me,” he said, “then I must go in the lorries. I told them I have friends there who will support me, but they are not accepting. So where do we go?”
By “lorries,” he meant the large freight trucks that smugglers typically use for the illegal transport of migrants through the channel tunnel, often at great expense to migrants and usually without the drivers even knowing. It is not a safe passage: Throughout the past year, migrants have repeatedly died en route, mostly from suffocation.
Sarfari said he would continue trying to stow away on one of those trucks, as he has nearly every night since his arrival. Well aware of the dangers involved, he said that he had watched friends from the Jungle make the journey safely.
In theory, there are two categories of children eligible for asylum in Britain. The first are the “Dublin” children, who fall under the Dublin III Regulation, a European Union law permitting the resettlement of refugee children younger than 18 in member states where they have family. The second are the “Dubs” children, named for Alf Dubs, a Kindertransport survivor and House of Lords member who successfully pushed for an amendment earlier this year permitting the resettlement of unaccompanied migrant children without family in Britain.
As the British government has prioritized the Dublin children, critics have attacked the registration process as bureaucratic and chaotic. Citizens UK, an aid organization, threatened legal action against the Home Office on Thursday if more immediate action was not taken. Likewise, about 120 members of both houses of Parliament signed a letter urging Home Secretary Amber Rudd to ensure the children remain safe even after the camp is demolished.
“The modus operandi is so at odds with what needs to happen to come to a satisfactory solution to evacuate the children,” Baroness Shaista Sheehan, who jointly organized the letter, said in an interview. “Something that’s happening is that the children are leaving the camp and going to even more dangerous camps.”
When the French government last demolished a portion of the Jungle, 129 children disappeared. There is no official population census inside the camp, and not all of the children have communication devices.
Susan Williams, a Home Office minister in the House of Lords, told Parliament on Wednesday that there were approximately 1,300 children in Calais, one-third of whom were eligible to go to Britain. Meanwhile, Rudd recently told the Daily Mail that 300 children from Calais would be a “really good result.”
In an interview, Dubs, 84, whose own experience as a child refugee in the late 1930s inspired the recent immigration amendment, said he asks the Home Office when and how the eligible Dubs children will be processed nearly every week but has yet to receive an answer. If the Jungle is demolished Monday, he said, it will be impossible to register all of the children in time.
What concerns him the most, he added, is that children in the Jungle may not know what their options are and which is best. “None of them have been given proper information as to what their situation is,” Dubs said.
Sadaam Ibrahim and Ramadaan Juma, both 17 and from the Darfur region of Sudan, were gathered outside the container units where British authorities were reportedly registering migrants for transfer across the English Channel. Ibrahim, who wants to be a computer scientist, and Juma, who wants to be a doctor, both said they wish to claim asylum in Britain. Neither had heard of the Dublin regulation or the Dubs amendment.
“We have no way to go, but we need help from people to find out how,” Juma said.