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The child refugees risking the Channel by boat – one year on

A group of suspected migrants are brought to shore by Border Force officers at the Port of Dover in Kent after a number of small boat incidents in the Channel in September. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Bridget Chapman, who swims regularly in the Channel, wasn’t surprised when desperate asylum seekers began travelling to the UK on small dinghy boats last year. On a clear day she can see France’s coastline from where she lives in Folkestone, Kent. “If you’re stuck in Calais and you can see the British coast quite clearly, it must be really tempting to think: I’ll just get a boat,” she said.

It has been a year since the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, declared the increasing number of migrants attempting to cross the Channel a “major incident”, but boat arrivals are still a regular occurrence. On Boxing Day this year, more than 60 migrants were picked up while attempting to cross in small boats.

Since Javid declared the major incident in December 2018, it is estimated that more than 1,800 people, including many children, have crossed the Channel in small boats to the UK, compared with about 300 for the whole of 2018. Chapman, who works for Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN), which supports unaccompanied minors who arrive in the UK at youth centres in Canterbury and Folkestone, has seen a 50% rise in demand in the past year.

Bridget Chapman at a centre that supports young asylum seekers in FolkestoneBridget Chapman at a centre that supports young asylum seekers in Folkestone.

Bridget Chapman at a centre that supports young asylum seekers in Folkestone. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

The government announced it would be working closely with France to bring the number of boat crossings down, but campaigners say the strategy has failed to deal with the root of the problem. The crackdown on migrants attempting to reach the UK on trains and lorries has resulted in more turning to small boats, while the situation in northern France has compounded people’s need to leave.

Maddy Allen, who works for Help Refugees in northern France, said: “The situation has continued to deteriorate. It really is the worst it has ever been. The crossings are taking place alongside large-scale evictions. It’s beyond inhumane, we are calling them makeshift camps, but in reality it’s no shelter.”

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In September, authorities in Dunkirk evicted more than 700 people, including families and young children, from a temporary migrant camp. These evictions have become a feature of life for migrants in northern France since the dismantling of the so-called Jungle, a refugee camp where about 10,000 migrants lived, three years ago. Many migrants have complained of beatings, regular arrests and the confiscation of their tents and sleeping bags.

Calais clamps down as asylum seekers say: ‘They just beat us’
“It’s unliveable, it’s dangerous, and hostile. What we’re seeing is mass homelessness on a really grim scale,” Allen said.

At the same time, the safe routes for seeking asylum in the UK are being tightened. Charities have heavily criticised the government for dropping family reunion rights for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, warning it will leave them with “no options” except to take dangerous routes.

While the Home Office has not provided figures on the number of migrant boat crossings that have taken place since last Christmas, a factsheet published in October stated: “Since January, over 100 people who entered the UK illegally on small boats have been returned to Europe.”

For those languishing in northern France, the distance between the two countries appears deceptively short. Chapman said: “I swim all year round in the Channel and I know how dangerous it can be. At night, when the air is clear and France is lit up, it looks like it would be a short walk and you would be here. It’s just not that simple in the water: there are strong tides, the water is freezing, and the Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world.”

The journey can take anything from eight to 24 hours, with smugglers cramming 30 people into boats made for six.

Yet children as young as 13 continue to make the dangerous boat journey alone. Two unaccompanied minors who did so were among a group of young refugees in a youth centre ran by KRAN at the bottom of a hill in Folkestone. The young asylum seekers spent their morning playing on guitar, painting and watching TV.

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A banner being made at the youth refugee centre in Folkestone. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian
“People who arrive on boats, in our experience, have got extremely good asylum claims. They want to make themselves known to authorities at the earliest possible opportunity so they can make their claim,” Chapman said.
Once asylum seekers are picked up by the authorities, they are first taken to a Home Office building in Dover for a health check and then given an initial screening interview so they can lodge an asylum claim. Adults or families are transferred to a hotel, usually in London, to live on a temporary basis. They are then moved to somewhere in the country where there is capacity and accommodation.

Unaccompanied minors have a different journey; they are first moved into a reception centre in Ashford, which Chapman describes as “clean, bright, and warm”. The young asylum seekers get their own room, three meals a day, pocket money, and are assigned social workers. They stay in the reception centre for an average of seven to eight weeks before they are moved to independent living, somewhere in Kent.

There are 352 unaccompanied asylum seekers under the age of 18 in Kent, according to KRAN. There are not enough foster families to place all the unaccompanied minors under the care of an adult. This is where KRAN steps in, teaching the young asylum seekers basic life skills such as cooking and budgeting, along with English language lessons.

A group of suspected migrants are brought to shore by Border Force officers at the Port of Dover in Kent after a number of small boat incidents in the Channel in September.

A banner being made at the youth refugee centre in Folkestone. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

By January 2020, there will be 920 people who arrived as unaccompanied minors in Kent that have since turned 18. Among them is Faisal Hakimi, a 20-year-old refugee from Afghanistan who works as a mentor at the centre. He said: “I try to help by answering their questions about the Home Office and I sometimes help with translation. Mostly, we’re here because they’re feeling really lonely. They’re really young. They’re 13, 14, 15 and it’s really hard.”

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Another mentor, 25-year-old Amani Arab, said she was lucky to have been granted humanitarian protection that allowed her and her family to fly to the UK from a refugee camp in Lebanon. She has slowly been able to rebuild her life in the UK after fleeing Syria in 2013 and wants to become a cook.

“There are many young children here and I want to be able to help them in some way so I often come here to cook meals. It feels amazing how happy I can make them with such a simple act,” she said. Her mother, who often comes to help her, is widely referred to as Mum by the rest of the group.

Integration with the local community is key to the work that KRAN does, as the response to boat arrivals from the media and politicians can be alarming and inaccurate. “We did one integration activity with the local primary school where the school selected some young people from families who had negative attitudes towards refugees. The young students were really scared and anxious about the visit, but within about five minutes of being here, with some biscuits and a football, everybody was friends,” Chapman said.

Hakimi already has a lot of hometown pride. “Many people say Dover is the worst place in England, but I would say they’re wrong. It’s the best place,” he said. “I feel like I was born in Dover. The people, the sea, the white cliffs – everything about Dover is nice.” When he talks about his favourite meal, fish and chips, Chapman interrupts to tell him: “Jewish refugees introduced fish and chips to this country.”

(www.theguardian.com.uk)

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Netherlands, IOM launch Global Migration Initiative to protect people on the move

COMPASS will provide vulnerable migrants including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children access to a broad range of protection and assistance services.

 The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands launched the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions initiative (COMPASS) at the beginning of 2021. COMPASS is a global initiative, in partnership with 12 countries, designed to protect people on the move, combat human trafficking and smuggling, and support dignified return while promoting sustainable reintegration.

The initiative is centred on a whole-of-society approach which, in addition to assisting individuals, will work across all levels – households, communities, and the wider communities – and encompasses the following partner countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

“We want to mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully,” said Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM.

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“One key component is also undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children, will have access to a broad range of protection and assistance services such as mental health and psychosocial support, while migrants in transit who wish to return home will be supported with dignified return and reintegration.

Community level interventions will focus on improving community-led efforts to address trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and support sustainable reintegration of returning migrants. COMPASS will work with national and local governments to enable a conducive environment for migrant protection, migration management and international cooperation on these issues.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to launch the COMPASS programme in cooperation with IOM, an important and longstanding partner on migration cooperation,” said Marriët Schuurman, Director for Stability and Humanitarian Aid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

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“The programme is a part of the Dutch comprehensive approach to migration with activities that contribute to protection and decreasing irregular migration. Research and data gathering are also important components, and we hope that the insights that will be gained under COMPASS will contribute to broader knowledge sharing on migration and better-informed migration policies.”, added Schuurman. The initiative has a strong learning component, designed to increase knowledge and the uptake of lessons learned, both within the programme and beyond its parameters. COMPASS will actively contribute to global knowledge that supports countries in managing migration flows and protecting vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking. The implementation of COMPASS is set to start soon.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as the donor to the COMPASS initiative, pledges its active support to partner countries to improve migration cooperation mechanisms within its long-term vision. 

IOM, the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, contributes its expertise as the technical implementation partner to the initiative. IOM works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners in its dedication to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. 

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A child, 40 others drown in shipwreck off Tunisia

Photo: Mediterranean Sea

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are deeply saddened by reports of a shipwreck off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia, yesterday evening. The bodies of 41 people, including at least one child, have so far been retrieved.

According to reports from local UNHCR and IOM teams, three survivors were rescued by the Tunisian National Coast Guard. The search effort was still underway on Friday. Based on initial information, all those who perished were from Sub-Saharan Africa.

This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand State-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year. Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority.

Prior to yesterday’s incident, 39 refugees and migrants had perished off the coast near the Tunisian city of Sfax in early March. So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.

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UNHCR and IOM continue to monitor developments closely. They continue to stand ready to work with the national authorities to assist and support the survivors, and the family members of those lost.

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Ethiopian migrants return home from Yemen with IOM support in wake of tragic boat sinking

Yemen: Stranded Ethiopian migrants prepare to board an IOM-facilitated flight from Aden, Yemen, to fly home to Addis Ababa. Photo: IOM/Majed Mohammed 2021

One hundred and sixty Ethiopian migrants have returned home safely from Yemen today with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just one day after a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 16 children.

More than 32,000 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, remain stranded across Yemen in dire, often deadly, circumstances.

“The conditions of migrants stranded in Yemen has become so tragic that many feel they have no option but to rely on smugglers to return home,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies.

At least 42 people returning from Yemen are believed to have died on Monday when their vessel sank off the coast of Djibouti. Last month, at least 20 people had also drowned on the same route according to survivors. IOM believes that, since May 2020, over 11,000 migrants have returned to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys, aided by unscrupulous smugglers.

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“Our Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme provides a lifeline for those stranded in a country now experiencing its seventh year of conflict and crisis. We call on all governments along the route to come together and support our efforts to allow migrants safe and dignified opportunities to travel home,” added Labovitz.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on global migration. The route from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries has been particularly affected. Tens of thousands of migrants, hoping to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), now find themselves unable to complete their journeys, stranded across Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen.

While the pandemic has also caused the number of migrants arriving to Yemen to decrease from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020, the risks they face continue to rise. Many of these migrants are stranded in precarious situations, sleeping rough without shelter or access to services. Many others are in detention or being held by smugglers.

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“We cannot find jobs or food here; Yemen is a problem for us,” said Gamal, a 22-year-old migrant returning on the VHR flight. “I used to sleep in the street on cardboard. I could only eat because of the charity people would give me and sometimes we were given leftovers from restaurants. I never had much to eat.”

Since October 2020, in Aden alone, IOM has registered over 6,000 migrants who need support to safely return home. Today’s flight to Addis Ababa was the second transporting an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopians who have been approved for VHR to Ethiopia. Thousands of other undocumented migrants are waiting for their nationality to be verified and travel documents to be provided.

Prior to departure on the VHR flight, IOM carried out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel and are voluntarily consenting to return. Those with special needs are identified and receive specialized counselling and support.

In Ethiopia, IOM supports government-run COVID-19 quarantine facilities to accommodate the returnees on arrival and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation to their homes. The Organization also supports family tracing for unaccompanied migrant children.

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Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other vital assistance.

Today’s flight was funded by the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid and PRM.

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