Councillors criticise national response to child refugees stranded in Calais

Ministers and party leaders have been condemned by local politicians for a lack of leadership over the plight of lone child refugees during a visit to the sprawling Jungle migrant camp in Calais.

Only a handful of lone refugee children have been brought to the UK since an amendment from Labour peer Lord Alf Dubs in the House of Lords forced the government to say it would accept some child refugees.

After visiting the Jungle, councillors said they would support stationing officials from local authorities in Calais to help register and process unaccompanied minors currently trapped in the squalid camp.

Stephen Cowan, Labour leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, criticised his party leader Jeremy Corbyn and said it had fallen to councillors to “step up”.

Currently, councils are responsible for the costs of caring for unaccompanied children – more than 4,000 of whom are claiming asylum in the UK – including schooling, foster care, university fees and housing, and receive funding at a fixed rate from central government.

More than 100 children are believed to be stranded in the Jungle despite having legitimate grounds for asylum in the UK but issues of identification have prompted local authorities to consider sending experts to assist French officials in processing them.

Asked if he felt there had been a lack of national leadership on the issue, Mr Cowan told the Press Association: “I definitely think so and I would say that.

“Yvette Cooper (chair of Labour’s refugee taskforce) is doing an amazing job. Lord Dubs is a friend of mine who has shown leadership, but it’s not coming from the front bench on the mainstream parties.

“Yes, I’m attacking Corbyn – it’s not coming from the frontbench of the main parties and it should be.”

Ealing Council’s Labour leader Julian Bell said: “We’re all under financial budgetary pressures but sometimes you know you have to do something.”

The Local Government Association (LGA) and a host of councillors were greeted by scores of children in a centre at the camp, where they are cared for by charities.

Upon arrival in the Jungle itself, they were verbally attacked by one migrant, who criticised them for British overseas military campaigns.

He said: “Stop bombing our countries – you are supposed to be the educated people, but you are the most ignorant.”

The contingent of local authority politicians made the trip across the Channel to meet their French counterparts and discuss how best to care for the stranded children.

They visited a string of makeshift huts lining the ramshackle settlement, including a number of cafes and shops set up to support the destitute community.

Desperate migrants approached members of the British press to ask if they could come with them when they returned to the UK.

Following the visit, a meeting took place with the mayor of Calais Natacha Bouchart, a long-time critic of Britain’s handling of Europe’s migrant crisis, who admitted there had been failings between the national and local governments in France, according to the LGA’s David Simmonds.

He said talks had been “positive” and plans had been made for the two nations to come together in future.

“It feels like goodwill has been missing from this process for a while,” he said.

“I imagine France, and the mayor in particular, are a bit fed-up being criticised by people in other countries and what local government is good at is finding practical solutions, so that’s what we’re going to do.”

He confirmed they had discussed sending over British officials to help identify lone children making asylum applications to help accelerate the process.

The move comes after Lord Dubs, who came to Britain on the Kindertransport programme for Jewish children, called for Prime Minister Theresa May’s “urgent intervention” in reuniting children living in the Jungle with their families in the UK.

He called on the Government to show “more humanity and intelligence” to child refugees “than the Chamberlain government did to the Jewish people”.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2016, All Rights Reserved. Picture – Chris White from St Albans Council visits the Jungle camp near Calais. (c) Steve Parsons / PA Wire.