Nicholas Farrell

The Calais Jungle ‘child refugee’ conundrum

The Calais Jungle 'child refugee' conundrum
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You just have to look at the faces of the migrant 'children' who have begun to arrive in Britain over the past couple of days from the Jungle in Calais to realise that many are not children.

Just as I did when I visited the illegal shanty-town a couple of weeks ago and met a man from Afghanistan who said he was a boy. I found him inside a remarkably solid timber shack which had the words  'Welcome Restaurant' painted above the door.

He was one of a dozen or so men, sitting about on divans and chairs, watching a cricket match between Pakistan and the West Indies on a large flat-screen television which was powered by a generator. The scene reminded me of Rick’s Café American in the film Casablanca set in Vichy-controlled French Morocco in 1941 where the clientele wait and wait and wait.  Night had fallen and the remains of a candle were lit for me on a table. It was a Muslim establishment and did not sell alcohol but a can of beer was found. It cost me five euros.

He said his name was Imran Sheerzad and I got talking to him because he was, as far as I could tell, the only one in there who spoke intelligible English. He said he was 16 but looked 25. He had been in the Jungle for four months where he had arrived via Turkey and the Balkans after a four-month journey. His family in Nangarhar Province on the Pakistan border had given him 8,000 euros to pay for his pilgrimage.

So I asked him if he was married and he said 'yes' and how old his wife was and he said '18' and if they had a child to which he said 'yes' who is, he told me, a one-year-old boy. And did he have a passport that he could show me? No, he had no passport, no documents at all. So he said.

Obviously, he was not a child but was he at least a refugee? 'I am not really refugee, no,' he conceded. Afghanis do not have automatic refugee status. 'But I need help,' he added. Why was he – why was everyone in the Jungle - so dead keen on Britain? What was wrong with France? 'The facilities,' he explained. He was unable or unwilling to elaborate.

By law, aspiring asylum seekers can only apply once for asylum: either in the first European Union country reached, usually Italy, or Greece; or else, if in the EU for five months or more, the EU country where they are currently. So that’s France. But few in the Jungle apply in France even though they would get 341 euros a month from the French government if they did. They want to reach the promised land – Britain – either to apply for asylum or to disappear.

Had he applied in France? 'Yes,' he said, 'Three months ago.' 'Are you mad?' I asked. 'It’s ok. I have family tie in England,' he reassured me, 'My uncle has supermarket in Birmingham.' Ah yes. So if granted asylum in France, as an 'unaccompanied minor' his 'family tie' will enable him to go to Britain. Even sooner – maybe even today – now that Britain has agreed to take the 300-400 unaccompanied child asylum seekers in the Jungle with a family connection in Britain.

This decision follows the announcement last month by French President François Hollande that he will demolish the Jungle by the end of the year (in good time for the French presidential elections next spring) and disperse its migrants to 164 reception centres elsewhere in France. The bulldozers and the riot police are expected to move in once the unaccompanied children with British links have departed. When they do, the wheel is sure to fly right off.

Many – especially if French and right-wing - or British and left-wing - insist: Britain has a moral obligation to take in not only those unaccompanied children but everyone else in the Jungle as well – up to 10,000 in total - just because they want to come to Britain.

Britain does not. It has no moral – let alone legal - obligation even to take in unaccompanied children without British links from the Jungle let alone adult migrants, even if real refugees. France does.

I agree with the Calais migrants. France is the pits:  not much work and no automatic welfare (once granted refugee status); diabolical restaurant food; and the populace permanently pissed off. But France is supposed to be a civilised country nevertheless and is not some war-torn hell-hole or dictatorship. And France has allowed the Jungle to exist.

Britain’s only obligation is to those unaccompanied children with a British family connection who have applied for asylum in Britain. If they are children. Yet in the year to September 2015, two-thirds of child asylum seekers in Britain whose age was disputed by officials - according to latest Home Office figures - were found to be adults.

The British Dental Association has suggested that verifying the ages of migrant children by their teeth would be 'unethical'. But as Emma Louise Ashord, 37, a dental nurse, had told me in the Dover Priory pub opposite Dover station the night before I arrived in Calais, 'We get loads of them in the surgery who say they’re 16 but they’re more like 30. They’ve all got wisdom teeth.'

So if looking at the faces is not enough, just check the teeth, which the Home Office won’t because it is 'intrusive'. How many more would have been rumbled if it had?