The UK’s new anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, who was appointed by Theresa May to the “critical role”, warned that the slow pace of Britain’s efforts to give sanctuary to unaccompanied child refugees in Calais is exposing them to the risk of modern slavery and exploitation.
He said not enough was being done to protect vulnerable young children living in “unsuitable and unsafe” conditions in the camp. He said that young women, particularly from the Horn of Africa, are being forced into prostitution in the Calais camp’s “nightclubs” to pay people smugglers for the next leg of their journey. Other young women have testified that they have also had to perform sexual services to pay the traffickers. Hyland cited evidence that boys from Afghanistan are made by older men in the camp to perform “bacha bazi”, which involves dancing and sexual exploitation, and warned that young people generally are being forced into criminal activity in Calais.
He criticised worsening conditions in the camp, which he described as “unsuitable and unsafe, particularly for women and children”, with hundreds of unaccompanied children sleeping in overcrowded tents, which puts them at “very high risk of abuse, violence and exploitation”.
“These children have fled violence, poverty and conflict. To reach Calais they have had to travel on long and perilous journeys only to find that their suffering is not yet over. They are faced with the severe and dangerous realities of living in Calais and try every single night to cross the English Channel, even though the risk of being caught and returned to the camp, or even the risk of serious injury or death, is very high.”
The lack of urgency in the UK response to the crisis meant that even those children with a legal right to be reunited with family in Britain no longer had any confidence in the system, and were choosing instead to risk their lives trying to smuggle themselves on trucks to get to the UK. The resulting frustration meant “unfortunately migrants had more trust in smugglers than in state-led procedures that exist to ensure their protection” leading to “risk-taking behaviour, which leads to higher exposure to modern slavery and exploitation” and other multiple dangers, he wrote. “There is very little confidence in asylum-seeking procedures in France,” he said, which was also pushing children to risk their lives to get to the UK.
Hyland expressed concern that UK officials were not effectively identifying or registering vulnerable children in Calais.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that these children are left in the camp at the disposal of the criminal networks and they continue risking their lives daily to reach the shores of the UK,” he wrote. “Not enough is being done to address the vulnerabilities of migrants, in particular unaccompanied children.”