More child refugees may attempt to cross the English Channel to join loved ones in the UK because of government plans to ditch the legal routes enabling asylum-seeking minors to join their relatives, a charity has warned.
Amid a sharp rise in asylum seekers crossing from France in small boats, Safe Passage International said more children would fall into the hands of smuggling gangs and risk their lives in dinghies after the Brexit transition period, when ministers are set to end family reunions currently allowed under the EU’s Dublin Regulation.
With less than five months left under current rules, the charity – which helps unaccompanied minors transfer legally from Europe to the UK – is concerned that many people will run out of time or lose faith in the system and try to cross the busy stretch of water themselves.
It said it had received a surge in enquiries in recent months from unaccompanied children and their families trying to access the legal route before the transition period ends, with the figure doubling from an average of 15 a month up to March, to 30 a month between April and July.
Jennine Walker, head of UK legal at Safe Passage International, said: “The government says it wants to reduce the numbers of people crossing the Channel, but if children and separated families cannot access family reunion, they are going to have no choice but risk their lives.
“Unless the government agrees a family reunion replacement that is at least as good as Dublin, smugglers and trafficking gangs will have a field day when the transition period ends.”
Ms Walker said the charity already struggled to convince some children to wait in France because smugglers promise a Channel crossing that takes a “matter of hours”.
She added: “It is dangerous and illogical to expect a child to sleep rough in Calais when they have a parent, sibling, aunt or uncle here in the UK. We know of several children who have died attempting to reach their families here in recent years.”
In May, the government published a draft Brexit proposal to replace family reunion – but lawyers described it as a “blank cheque to people-smugglers” that strips people of their rights and makes the system discretionary.
A cross-party group of MPs tried to table an amendment to protect current family reunion rules in the Immigration Bill, but they were voted down by the government.
Lord Alf Dubs, who was a child refugee himself and has tabled an amendment to protect family reunion in UK legislation, criticised the government’s draft Brexit text as “completely inadequate” and said there were no guarantees the EU would agree a family reunion deal.
“The government expects us to congratulate it on the numbers of lone child refugees it has welcomed, when the reality is most of these have arrived in the back of lorries and are now increasingly resorting to dinghies. If we want to stop this happening, we need to give more children safe and legal routes,” he added.
It comes after home secretary Priti Patel condemned a rise in Channel crossings – at least 597 arrived between Thursday and Sunday alone – as “appalling and unacceptably high”, and committed to making the route “unviable”.
Home office minister Chris Philp said on Tuesday that he would not comment on details of the plan to halt Channel migrants but claimed there were a “number of measures, some of them new, which are under discussion”.
The Independent revealed on Tuesday that the government was warned nine months ago that its own policies were “pushing migrants to take more dangerous routes” across the English Channel in an official report by a committee of MPs, among them Ms Patel.
Meanwhile, a group of 25 Conservative claimed in a letter to the home secretary that migrants crossing the Channel were “invading” Britain, with one complaining that asylum-seekers could simply “paddle in”.