Last week we joined Duncan Lewis Solicitors in the High Court, as they represented a teenager we work with known as ZS.
ZS is an incredibly brave young man who is challenging the Secretary of State with the support of his lawyers and our team, hoping to bring justice to himself and many other young people who we believe should have been brought over to the UK via the Dubs Amendment in 2016, but still remain heart broken in France today, scarred by what has been an incredibly upsetting ordeal.
The Dubs amendment was established to bring over the most vulnerable of all young people who were in the refugee camp in Calais, France- commonly known as the ‘jungle’ – but had no direct family links to the UK. The spirit of the scheme was to reflect the kindertransport operation that rescued thousands of Jewish young people in WWII. Lord Alf Dubs, the person who lobbied for amendments to the Immigration Act 2016 that allowed for this scheme to be developed, was one of the many children rescued by this operation between 1938-1940.
Originally, the scheme that was expected to enable approximately 3000 young people to seek asylum in the UK, has in fact only allowed international rights for approximately 350 young people since 2016. With the support of Duncan Lewis Solicitors we submitted evidence highlighting the Secretary of State’s failure to act or respond to information that had been presented to her, outlining significant child protection issues which we believe made ZS eligible to come over to the UK under the Dubs Amendment, as a matter of urgency.
ZS’ Dubs transfer was refused even after he had suffered abuse at the hands of violent gangs, and then again after trying to end his life on three separate occasions. One main barrier was his ethnicity as he is from Afghanistan, and the Dubs scheme would only consider those from Sudan or Syria.There was, however, discretion available which would allow the scheme to consider all young people if they were seen to be at high risk of exploitation.
As well as ZS not meeting the ethnicity criteria for the Dubs Scheme, the Secretary of State also declared his case as one which would not be considered on the grounds that procedurally, evidence of ZS’ risk of exploitation had not been received through the ‘proper channels’. These channels, she outlined, were only through French Officials and not UK NGO’s, thus deeming any referrals made by UK NGO’s as inconsequential. Evidence was presented of several child protection referrals made to key officials in the French Local Authorities, which they had failed to respond to, even after many attempts were made to follow up on them. We are also presenting the case that the secretary of state had tightened the Dubs policy so much so that it actually excluded most of the young people who were in the Calais camp, then only accepted referrals via the french authorities. This is reflected in the small amount who actually made it over to the UK via the Dubs Scheme. The referral procedure was never published or circulated to organisations on the ground working directly with the young people residing in the camp. In effect, this lack of procedural knowledge amongst key organisations left many young refugees unable to be officially considered for safe and legal passage to the UK.
An inappropriate interview process for young people after the eviction
It is our belief that ZS and potentially hundreds of other young people were inappropriately interviewed after the eviction of the camp and when relocated to various locations around France. They were often placed in overcrowded and understaffed accommodation .The interviews held with the Home office officials at the time were brief, 20 minute meetings, during which officials were to determine whether young people had family in the UK and if not, whether they were at risk of exploitation or extremely vulnerable (the Dubs criteria). These interviews were carried out without an appropriate adult present and in highly stressful environments, which we would not deem as child friendly. No child had been prepared for this interview.
In our experience, a good, high quality assessment should be respectful, child focused and informed by evidence. The interviewer should ensure the child’s individual needs are being taken in to account for the purpose of equality, the child should have a clear understanding of the purpose of the interview. Support should be put in place after the interview so that the young person can ask questions, have things translated, get feedback and know how to find extra support.
What we have seen is that the Secretary of State has not attempted to obtain the information required to identify potential indicators of exploitation thoroughly, nor was a realistic amount of time invested in this process. From what we can see there has been no consideration of the challenges and barriers young people have in making potential disclosures of exploitation and abuse. Based on this interview process, the Secretary of State has also not taken into the account the fear many young people who resided in the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp have with authority figures due to experiences of war and oppression in their home countries, as well as the ongoing police brutality they had to suffer in Calais.
How were the Home Office justifying a fair assessment for the Dubs Amendment?
One of the key purposes of the interview, conducted by the Home Office, is to identify (in 20 minutes), whether the child was at risk of or is currently being sexually exploited. Having worked personally with victims of sexual abuse and exploitation for many years across a number of specialist services, this is something I find the most shocking.
Most victims of sexual abuse and exploitation generally only disclose this information to trusted individuals. Child victims may take many years to make such disclosures.. The majority of indicators present in the behaviour of the individual, which is usually picked up on by the people and professionals who know them best and see them regularly. Being aware of the changes in behaviour, such as an individual becoming withdrawn, is not something which would be normally be apparent or obvious unless you have spent a sufficient amount of time with that individual. In the cases of the young people in Calais, those who knew them best were the professionals who knew them personally and worked with them on a day to day basis. These professionals were mainly the British NGO’s present in Calais, and these professionals were the ones who were excluded from submitting evidence to the Dubs scheme, based on the process of referral as set out by the Secretary of State, thus excluding ZS and other young people in a similar position to him.
The Secretary of State has made life changing decisions on the futures of these young people, without taking into account vital evidence which was made available to her, through the legal teams and NGO’s working on the ground. Once those decisions were made the majority of young people did not receive a letter outlining or explaining the outcome of their interviews, nor was any appeals process provided. This left many young people, who were already vulnerable and traumatised, feeling rejected and let down.
The Secretary of State defended her decisions made on ZS’ case and described them as “rational and reasonable thing to do” by her Barrister. In regard to the lack of dissemination of the required procedure for Dubs referrals to NGO’s and legal teams working on the ground, who had direct working relationships with the young people, the Secretary of States Barrister said it was also reasonable to simply expect this information to make its way to the right people.
We now await a judgement
I hope for justice for ZS and I hope for change, so that these vulnerable young people will be protected in the way they should be. They are young people before anything else and we are moral people in a position to help.
How could this case affect the future for other young at risk refugees?
Here is a summary of what I would hope would come out of this case:
1: Referral pathways to the Dubs scheme made available to all organisations working directly with at risk unaccompanied minors in Europe.
2: Referral process made public for how authorities and services such as ours should formally pass on evidence to the Home Office
3:Interviews to be conducted in an holistic manner and with an appropriate adult present.
3: Considered evidence from professionals working directly with young people. Case notes, observations of workers on the ground taken into account .
4: A full explanation of the outcome given to young people after their interviews, both verbally and in a letter including advice on options, next steps and how to access support.
5: An open and clear policy that will consider each child individually no matter what nationality.
So we will have to wait and see what the actual outcome will be. Thank you to everyone who has supported us through this long and challenging case. Our hope and thoughts are with the young people affected by its outcome.
Elaine Ortiz, Founder of the Hummingbird Project