The Home Office has "temporarily" stopped taking unaccompanied child refugees from Calais, potentially leaving hundreds of children stranded in a camp due to be demolished tomorrow.
More than 8,000 people had survived in the makeshift settlement, known as the “Jungle”, and more than 1,000 of those are unaccompanied children. Forty-nine of the unaccompanied children are believed to be under 13 years old, according to the most recent census by the charity Help Refugees.
On Monday, 1,200 French officials and security officers moved in to begin clearing the camp in northern France ahead of its demolition on Tuesday. Authorities expect to move thousands of refugees and migrants out to new refugee centres across France in the next three days.
The camp’s unaccompanied children were supposed to be processed separately, housed in shipping containers in the now-emptying camp, before many of them were due to be transferred to the UK.
However, the Home Office said today: “Due to planned operational activity in Calais, and at the request of the French authorities, we have reluctantly agreed that the transfer process will be temporarily paused.”
The transfer will be suspended for 24 hours, BuzzFeed News understands.
Additionally, Help Refugees told BuzzFeed News that although the containers had been emptied of adults, the children living there were also removed and sent to the processing centres with the adults.
“This chaotic setup is extremely distressing and confusing for the lone minors,” the charity said in a statement. “The younger children are struggling to understand where they are supposed to go, and how they are supposed to get there.”
Citizens UK, an umbrella organisation that has been involved in bringing children over to the UK from the camp, also expressed frustration at the British government’s decision.
“This is disappointing and we hope that the progress made in the last week will resume tomorrow,” George Gabriel, a volunteer with Citizens UK, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “The Home Office must not allow vulnerable children to fall back into the hands of people smugglers because of avoidable delays."
Britain has begun to accept some of the 1,300 unaccompanied children who were living in the camp, although not without some controversy.
A small number of children were admitted at the beginning of last week, entering the UK under the “Dubs amendment”, which grants refuge for the most vulnerable. French authorities are being helped by charities to interview the children, determining who is eligible to come to the UK.
Early this morning the majority of the camp was peaceful – however, as the day wore on activists on the ground said tensions were escalating as refugees and migrants queued. The press of people wishing to leave the camp ahead of the demolition saw long queues develop.
Officers had clashed with some of the inhabitants of the northern French camp last night.
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who chairs the home affairs select committee, said Britain had left it “far, far too late” to help those most in need in the camps. She said it was “shocking” that the camp had been allowed to endure for so long, with people living in “dangerous and squalid” conditions.
Cooper, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said her main concern was that the camp’s demolition and clear-out had been a “last-minute process”.
“There are still hundreds of children and teenagers stuck in the camp, and the French authorities have not put in place proper alternatives for the children to go that are safe,” she said.
“There are children and teenagers who have family in the UK who could be looking after them. They are still stuck in Calais today, and that is what is really worrying.”
Cooper continued: “Once the clearances start, we know that there is a significant risk that many of those children and young people disappear. That is what happened last time when part of the camp was closed without a plan for the children and teenagers.
“And the consequence is they slip into the arms of the smuggler gangs, the traffickers. Just at the point at which they might have been able to be reunited with their family, then they are lost.”
The Labour MP's concerns are shared by charity workers, who say in the rush to clear the camp, many of the most vulnerable children and teenagers may be lost in the scrum.
“Once the demolition starts there are no second chances. If it results in a single child going missing, or forces them into the hands of smugglers and traffickers, then we will have failed them," Lily Caprani, Unicef UK's deputy executive director, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
“The authorities must prove they have learnt the lessons from last time and keep every child safe throughout this process. During the last demolition, which saw people scattered by tear gas and rubber bullets, more than 100 children went missing because it began before their safety was guaranteed."
Trucks and diggers are expected to arrive tomorrow and clear the area of tents and shelters left behind. The entire process is supposed to take three days.
Ahead of the clear-out, buses from the camp have started to depart. Sixty buses are due to depart today, with 45 scheduled for Tuesday and 40 for Wednesday, according to Sky News. Each bus will carry 50 people to approximately 7,500 beds set up in 167 asylum centres across the country, according to French officials.
The French interior ministry warned it "does not want to use force but if there are migrants who refuse to leave, or NGOs who cause trouble, the police might be forced to intervene."
The "Jungle" camp has been mired in controversy. Jean-Marc Puissesseau, mayor of Calais, said he was "very, very happy" the camp was being demolished. “For two years we have been living in constant stress, with a lot of attacks on the highways to try to slow down the traffic for the migrants to get into the lorries,” he told the BBC.
Part of the temporary camp was demolished in January of this year, but humanitarian organisations have continued to warn authorities about the dangerous and cramped conditions. Puissesseau warned that extra security was needed, otherwise the camp would return.