Too many under-age migrants in Kent

Migrants want a new beginning
“New beginning” by Thomas_Cat is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The news that KCC is likely to litigate so that other counties take a share of under-age migrants is unsurprising.  We have known for weeks that Channel crossings are increasing as the weather improves. The Home Secretary vows to deter such migrants by saying that any who arrive by illegal routes will automatically be sent back (although to where is not clear). In contrast, the spokesperson for the Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) says that young migrants are an amazing resource: some of them have been helping out at vaccine centres and care homes.

Four school-leavers from Iran

One Sunday in 2019, four of them came to the town centre church. They were handsome, well-proportioned youths eager to interact. The one who spoke a little English was keen to find out whether he could buy a neck-chain cross at the church. None on sale here, he was told, but the jewellers in the High Street had some.  

I wonder if he thought this cross would be a quicker route to assimilation and jobs? The one of them called Mohammed might not have opted for this ploy. More appropriate for introduction to baptism might have been the booklet of the gospel of Luke that had been distributed the previous year, but we did not have one to hand. 

Further questioning over refreshments revealed that they came from Tabriz in northern Iran, and their language was neither Farsi nor Arabic but Azeri, which is closer to Turkish. If they were serious about Christianity, a quick google showed there are in fact plenty of churches to choose from in their home city, including some of the most ancient Christian sects such as Armenians.

But why had they chosen to make the difficult journey across Europe and then across the Channel? What is so intolerable about Tabriz, which is listed as a city of some 1.5m people mostly employed in industry and trade? Only basic conversation was possible with the one who had a little English. From him we gathered that they were all recent school-leavers. He wanted to be an engineer.

Decisions on migrant status

In the British newspapers, some stories attempt to make a distinction between refugees and illegal migrants. Home office staff have to ascertain this in order to make decisions on refugee status. With regard to child or youth migrants, three factors are crucial to this decision:

  1. The age of the applicant
  2. Their degree of vulnerability
  3. The political situation in their home country

Under-age migrants

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) came into force in the UK in 1992. A child is defined as aged 17 or under, so the decision about the age of a refugee applicant is crucial. How this is done is revealed in this from a Home office website:

“The document strengthens guidance for staff when they are assessing whether an individual’s physical appearance and demeanour very strongly suggests that they are significantly over 18 years of age. The updated guidance also reflects the significant safeguards that are built into the policy which allow a large margin of error in favour of an individual’s claim to be a child.”

So the decision on age relies on impressions at an in-person interview. Actually, where it is legally necessary to ascertain a young person’s age for a court case, forensic scientists use an Xray of the hand, but this is not done for refugee entry to UK.

Unaccompanied children arriving across the Channel border in Kent are processed by a different team of staff from other migrant arrivals. It is not expected that they will all remain in Kent, as under the National Transfer scheme (NTS) other local authorities are supposed to accept referrals. It is this referral system that is not functioning well currently, which is why KCC is threatening court action.

Vulnerability to trafficking

The definition of trafficking comes from the 2000 Palermo protocol of the UN

“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

In UK the Modern Slavery Act of 2015 was designed to counter trafficking.  Research has been done on the countries of origin such as Vietnam, Albania and Nigeria. In spite of much media talk of “criminal gangs” involved in the Channel crossings, it is unclear how many of the passengers are trafficked or are willing, paying migrants. The French local press reveals cases of Vietnamese girls travelling by rail to Rouen and then paying people smugglers for onward transport towards UK.

If migrants arriving in the UK seem to have been trafficked, then different procedures and decisions apply for their accommodation and rights to stay. A recent court decision is that the Napier barracks in Folkestone should not have been used for vulnerable migrants.

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The definition of refugee comes from the 1951 UN Convention:

Someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

About 200,000 UK residents are currently here on refugee status, which is actually a lower proportion of the population than those in Germany, Italy, Spain or Greece. In Greece there are 698 refugees for every 100,000 people: in UK it is more like 300.  UNESCO points out that the vast majority of refugees, 85% of them, live in developing countries.

Kent’s welcome to young migrants

On the one hand, there are media pictures of ugly scenes of organised demonstrations in Dover against migrants by boat. On the other, there are the voices from KRAN praising the young migrants who work in care homes. There is now the argument that young migrants should be dispersed to other counties, just as Greece is arguing that the migrants in the camps there should be dispersed across the EU.

On further reflection about those 4 young Azeri migrants from Tabriz in 2019, my guess is that they were  over 18; they were not vulnerable and they were not refugees.  They were eager school-leavers keen to get on in the world.  I hope they were not expelled. Countries like the UK with ageing populations need young workers. But should they risk their lives on the Channel waves to get here? Or should UK devise a system of global applications like the US green card ? Currently such young migrants show themselves to be the winners in an ordeal of the fittest, those with the strength of body and mind, assisted no doubt with money from their families, to get them through the trials of the long journey to Kent.