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Refugee children, who have been sent to welcome centres across France after the Calais camp demolishment, claim they have been forced into labour.
Interviews with unaccompanied minors took place from refugee camps and Frances official centres discovered that children have been forced into unpaid labour and ordered to pick apples for French supermarkets. The children said that they were too scared to refuse the work because they feared it would harm their chances of claiming asylum in the UK.
The charity, Safe Passage UK, interviewed 30 boys, a quarter of whom claim they had not been given clean clothes since they had arrived at the centre since leaving the Calais camp site.
Offering a glimpse of the conditions inside some of the 60 or so refugee accommodation blocks set up by French authorities, an estimate of 39% of the children interviewed said that they felt better off in the Calais camp, a site which has been routinely described as a slum “unfit for human habitation.”
A teenage boy from a camp in northern France stated: “It is horrible. We worked all day picking apples and were left to eat the rotten ones. The rest went to be sold in France. We just want to be with our family in the UK.”
Another boy described how they were each forced to pick 4 kg of fruit every weekday afternoon while staying at a French reception centre, and worked under the fear that refusing to do so would impair the chances of making it to the UK. He said: “We are scared not to do it in case it affects our asylum claims. What if they don’t let me live here and kick me out?”
In July, Theresa May promised to make it a priority to demolish the world of the “barbaric evil” of modern slavery, and said the forced labour of minors was one of its ugliest manifestations. On Wednesday, Home Office Minister, Robert Goodwill told MPs that children in the welcome centres were “in a place of safety and being well looked after” and he had “not received any concerns about the facilities.”
Rabbi Janet Darley, a spokeswoman for grassroots community group Citizens UK, which includes Safe Passage UK, said: “We are hugely concerned about the safeguarding of children in France. Our team have had reports of forced labour, and unaccompanied children being required to live with adults.”
It took Safe Passage UK 45 minutes to interview each child in their own language. The interview revealed that five children did not feel safe out of 33. Only five suggested that home officials have spoken to them, with three claiming they had not yet been interviewed from either France or the UK. Three adults were living with children in their accomodation, which has raised child protection issues. One said: “It looks like a prison. We don’t have any things to play, and all the time we are staying in our room and it is not safe for us. We live in the middle of adults, their ages are over 20 years.”
Another added: “I am not happy staying in this accommodation, please, please take us out of here to the UK. We have no proper food, clothes and I am bored here. If the situation continues like this, I may go somewhere else.”
Safe Passage UK, suggested that two boys they had been in contact with had left and two other boys were considering running away if the situation does not improve. Meanwhile, one child said: “If others run away I am not going to stay.”
According to The Guardian, the spokesman of Citizens U.K. has said that: “Children in France are getting increasingly desperate as they hear little from officials, and fill the void with rumours and speculation.”
An estimate of 350 children have been transferred to the UK, with the Home Office expecting several hundred more to be transferred from France under both the Dubs amendment and the Dublin regulations. However, charities suggest that around 2,000 unaccompanied minors were registered in Calais before the demolition and they are campaigning for 1,000 to be brought over before Christmas, after Home Secretary, Amber Rudd stated the UK would take “half” last month.
The Home Office said it “remains absolutely committed to bringing all eligible children to the UK as soon as possible” and that children in the welcome centres are being assessed to see if they are eligible under the Dubs amendment. The Home Office’s new guidelines last week suggests that only unaccompanied teenagers from Syria and Sudan are eligible to enter Britain from France, a decision that has been condemned by charities. Nonetheless, this brings the future of other unaccompanied children into question.