Child refugees in northern France facing exploitation and violence on a daily basis, UNICEF warns

Child refugees in northern France are facing exploitation and violence on a daily basis​, including threats from adult men armed with knives and machetes, Unicef has warned.
An alarming report has revealed that unaccompanied minors who lived in the Grande-Synthe refugee camp in Dunkirk before it burnt down last week were “constantly fearful” of sexual abuse and attacks with weapons, and that no one – including the police – was there to care for them or to protect them.
In a series of interviews conducted by Unicef last month, 13 unaccompanied minors said due to brutal treatment by the authorities in France during their journeys, they had turned to smugglers and traffickers who were offering information and apparent protection, but who in turn abused and exploited them.
The report also found that despite frequent contacts with the authorities in European countries on their journeys towards the UK, children have repeatedly been ill-informed about their legal rights to protection, including their right to be reunited with their families.
The boys interviewed, all from Kurdish Iraq and Afghanistan and all of whom are going through the legal process of being united with family in the UK, said they had fled conflict and recounted numerous horrific stories about their journeys through Europe, including being assaulted by the police and arbitrarily detained.
Once in Dunkirk, the children were controlled by a group of Kurdish traffickers, and all described the immense violence in the camp. The study reported that there was particularly strong pressure on the Afghan boys, who were segregated from the Kurds and forced to carry out tasks for the traffickers and to sleep on the floor of the communal kitchen.
One 16-year-old boy, named Can and from Afghanistan told Unicef: “The Kurdish gangs are very dangerous. They have weapons. Every third evening there are gunshots. The police don’t want to get involved. I know in any case that they are not there to protect us.”
Another Afghan boy, aged 15, said: “They threaten me so I will pay them. There is gunfire, tear gas, knives, machetes.”
None of the children interviewed had been informed of their right to apply to be reunited with their families members legally, with the only child who had heard about this having learnt from his father following a BBC report on this issue.
Unaccompanied children anywhere in Europe are currently entitled to apply for a transfer of their asylum case to the country where their family member is residing, but the study found that most children only discover there is a legal process for reuniting with their family members by word of mouth once they reach the camp in Dunkirk.
They said they feared detention and deportation to the first countries of the EU they passed through or their country of origin – in these cases Hungary or Bulgaria – so tried to avoid having their fingerprints taken in Italy and France.
Unicef said this fear to engage with official processes was compounded the children’s lack of trust in the authorities, which had prevented them from learning about their rights and encouraged them to turn to smugglers and traffickers as their only perceived source of protection and their only realistic option to join family members in the UK.
The report also warned that the uncertain situation is having a negative impact on the children’s mental health, and often they end up risking their lives to cross illegally to the UK from Dunkirk even though they have ongoing legal processes.

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