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Calais child refugees: UK government needs less hysteria and more support

Written by Karen Hargrave


Today marks the start of a week-long operation to clear the Calais 'Jungle' camp. Of the 10,000 residents who will be dispersed to processing centres across France, 10% of them are children who are at great risk of being lost and exploited in the chaos of the demolition.

Some of them were brought over to the UK last week to be reunited with their families. However, instead of welcoming these children coming to join their families – and commending the government for finally bringing these vulnerable children to safety – certain media outlets and MPs sparked a wave of public outrage. 

Newspapers relentlessly questioned the ages of the new arrivals, with some going so far as to use facial recognition software to check how old they were. MP David Davies even called for dental x-rays to ensure these were in fact children arriving.

The numbers don't justify the hysteria

This overblown response was provoked by the arrival of not thousands, not hundreds but mere dozens of children as part of a British government programme to save lone children from the grim conditions in Calais and reunite them with their families in the UK.

So why the media frenzy? With over 60 million displaced people worldwide, we Brits seem to have lost sight of the fact that the number of refugees taken in by the UK pales in comparison to countries like Jordan and Lebanon, where displaced people account for 38% and 26% of the population respectively.

Countries that host far more refugees than the UK are certainly watching as the British media whips up a panic over just a handful of children.

Kenya, for example, has been home to hundreds of thousands of refugees for decades. When the European ‘refugee crisis’ broke out last summer, many Kenyans took to Twitter to critique Europe’s response:



I dread to think what, looking at the UK today, they might be saying now.

But this is more than the UK becoming a laughing stock on Twitter. ODI's own research shows that when richer countries treat refugees in a punitive way – by detaining them offshore and restricting their family reunification rights for example – it paves the way for similar measures in less well-off countries.

Earlier this year, when the Kenyan government announced the closure of Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, it too drew comparisons with Europe. One of the government’s justifications for its decision was that ‘rich, prosperous and democratic countries are turning away refugees from Syria, one of the worst war zones since World War Two’.

Less hysteria, more support

As a strong, developed economy, the UK should be leading the way in promoting sensible, open and humane policies towards refugees. Rather than criticising the government for daring to let in pubescent boys, we should be asking it to do a lot more. This argument is, unfortunately, more difficult to make as public hysteria prevails.

The Calais ‘Jungle’ is scheduled to close today but hundreds of children remain in the camp. Among them are 500 unaccompanied children without family ties to the UK, just 80 of whom were brought to the UK this weekend under the Dubs Amendment, which commits the UK to offering safe refuge to unaccompanied children in Europe. Media, MPs, and the public should urge the government to guarantee safety for all of these children, who should never have been stuck in the ‘Jungle’ in the first place. All must act quickly in what – with the bulldozers looming – is now a battle against the clock.

Scaremongers in the UK should think about the global example we set with our refugee responses. The UK government should be commended for finally trying to secure safety for children in Calais, not lambasted for fulfilling its promises.