***Interviews with Unicef and the researchers are available***

Children experience sexual exploitation, violence and forced labour on a daily basis in the camps of Northern France, according to the findings of a new Unicef France and Unicef UK study. 

The children’s testimonies paint a picture of abuse and tragedy, with cases of debt slavery and forced criminal activity, such as assisting smugglers at ferry terminals. Sexual violence is a constant threat, including the sexual exploitation and rape of boys, and rape and forced prostitution of girls. Interviews with young women identified practices of exchanging sexual services for the promise of passage to the UK or to speed up their journey.

Many of these children have fled conflict and are now trapped in the camps, some desperately close to reaching family already living in the UK where a bed is waiting for them.

The study looked at 60 children between the ages of 11-17 – from Afghanistan, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, and Vietnam – living in seven camps along the coast of the English Channel between January and April 2016. 

In most of the camps an "entry fee" is levied by the traffickers before the minors are allowed to stay there. The unaccompanied children who are unable to pay find themselves forced to agree to perform laborious tasks for the adults, such as selling food at the informal night-time market which operates in the so-called Calais Jungle. 

Complaints of cold and fatigue are commonplace due to the dismal living conditions, with children constantly exposed to the elements. There is no access to regular schooling despite the fact that this is a mandatory provision. Some children have expressed their desire to be hospitalised in a psychiatric ward following instances of mental breakdowns and aggressive and violent episodes. 

Traffickers are now charging between £4,000 and £5,500 per person to cross the English Channel – a higher price than ever before. And because of the increased security presence this situation has pushed children into the hands of those traffickers, or forced them to take even more significant risks in order to pass through without paying – in some cases by hiding themselves in refrigerated lorries. 

Unicef UK Deputy Executive Director Lily Caprani said: “Immediate action by the UK Government could stop children falling into the hands of traffickers and show it’s serious about its recent commitments to refugee children. 

“The Prime Minister says unaccompanied children should be brought to the UK if they have family here, yet these children’s cases are moving far too slowly. These camps are no place for a child – we know there are at least 157 children in Calais with the legal right to be with their family in the UK.

“The longer these children have to wait, the more desperate they may become and the more likely they are to risk their lives fleeing the appalling conditions of the camps to reach their families.”

The report estimates that, as at March 2016, there were 500 unaccompanied children living across the seven sites, including Calais and Dunkirk, and that around 2,000 unaccompanied children have passed through them since June 2015.

Although the average stay in these ‘jungles’ is five months, some children had been there for as long as nine months and one had been there for over a year. However, this average is quickly increasing because of heightened security at the borders and the increased difficulty of making these journeys. By staying in these camps longer, children are subjected to more and more dangers.  

The protection of unaccompanied children is a state obligation, as laid out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. But response is fragmented and often the process does not have the best interests of these children at heart. 

Unicef UK is calling on the UK Government to do more to reunite unaccompanied refugee children in Europe with their families in the UK, so they don’t have to experience the horrors of the camps in France, or the conditions in which they are living in other European countries such as Greece, for a prolonged period of time.

16-year-old Bilal* joined forces with Unicef UK and Citizens UK to call on the Home Office to redouble efforts to help lone children, many of whom are stranded, following months in dangerous camps across Europe. Many of these refugee children have a legal right to be reunited with families who are waiting for them in the UK.

Also published this week was Unicef ‘s report into the changing refugee and migrant children’s harrowing journey to Europe. Some 4,760 children were among the almost 28,000 people who made the perilous crossing from North Africa to Italy in the first four months of 2016. Of those children, 94 per cent were unaccompanied. 

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Notes to editors

*Bilal’s name has been changed to protect his identity, More information on the campaign can be found here

Spokespeople are available for interview including the researchers and representatives from Unicef UK.

Many of these children have relatives and family in the UK, and under the Dublin III Regulation they have the right to be reunited with them. However, currently this process is overly long, complex and poorly controlled. Since the beginning of 2016 up until April 2016, 52 referrals were submitted, 24 decisions were made and 20 transfers were carried out.  

Unicef UK is calling on the UK Government to: 

1) Ensure that sufficient resources are dedicated to making the family reunion process function effectively including funding Home Office staffing, proactive identification of children, and reducing delays in the process (which should take a maximum of 3 months).

2) Ensure that children receive reliable information – in languages they understand and child-sensitive format – about the family reunion process.

3) Guarantee access to quality legal assistance for unaccompanied children, so that their request for family reunion in the UK can be submitted as quickly as possible.

4) Publish guidance on how to handle family reunion cases under Dublin III, and resource local authorities to conduct the necessary assessments of families to ensure that family reunion is in a child’s best interest.

This week Unicef published a Child Alert on the routes being taken by children into and through Europe. It highlighted the dangers faced by unaccompanied refugee children, including those travelling from Libya to Italy. 

For more information please contact:

Unicef UK Press Office, 0207 375 6030, media@unicef.org.uk

About Unicef:

Unicef is the world’s leading organisation for children, promoting the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere. Unicef UK raises funds to protect children in danger, transform their lives and build a safer world for tomorrow’s children. As a registered charity we raise funds through donations from individuals, organisations and companies and we lobby and campaign to keep children safe. Unicef UK also runs programmes in schools, hospitals and with local authorities in the UK. For more information please visit unicef.org.uk