Missing Efrem: the human story of our government's failure to care for child refugees

As campaigners challenge the government in court over the Dubs amendment, how one young man was let down by a system which was supposed to help him. 

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On a muddy path on the edge of the Calais "Jungle" refugee camp, children, adolescents and young men jostled, acutely conscious the rest of their lives could be changed by this one moment. “Put up your hand if you’re under 18,” a harried-looking blonde woman in a yellow hi-vis vest was shouting. All the hands shot skywards. 

“Put your hands down again, you’re not all minors,” she sighed with exasperation.

It was October 2016, the week before the Jungle’s demolition, and its thousands of residents were confused and frantic. They had fled bombs, torture, hunger or crushing poverty; crossed oceans, borders and barbed-wire fences; survived detention by militias, beatings and teargassing - some while still children. 

For those who didn't speak French, this felt like a last desperate chance to get to the UK – to families or friends they had grown up with; a society they had heard such positive reports of. Minors were being separated into those who could be brought to the UK under Dublin Regulations - which allow for family reunification - and those who might qualify under the Dubs Amendment, proposed by former refugee Lord (Alf) Dubs to cater for the most vulnerable refugee children. The rest would be sent to reception centres across France.

Standing at the edge of the scrum, watching calmly, was 17-year-old Efrem. It was four months until he’d go missing, but his disappearance would be a direct consequence of what happened that day.

His story highlights the vulnerability of young refugees, the lack of any oversight and the black hole they can easily fall into.

By his shoulder was Denay, a 12-year-old who smiled shyly. “The priority is the children,” Efrem said, glancing down at his friend, even though legally he was a child too.

Over the next few months, after I returned to London, Efrem phoned me regularly. In the weeks after the Jungle’s closure, authorities moved him to a reception centre near Marseilles, where he mournfully explained there was no schooling and nothing to do. Young refugees were told they’d get interviews with British authorities who would evaluate their cases. Along with many of the 1,600 others, this was the only reason Efrem had agreed to go. 

The teenager would chat to me for long periods of time, asking me about my job and my family. He was bored and restless.

“Hey Efrem, sorry I missed your call! I’m in Iraq for work. Are you ok?” I texted him on December 10, 2016.

“Wawww good sally u lost. will u comeback soon,” he responded, before asking me to visit him in France.

Soon afterwards Efrem was told his application to come to the UK had been refused. Dozens of others were given the same news with no explanation, lawyers said. For young people with their lives on hold it was incomprehensible and devastating.

Early on Christmas Eve morning my phone rang again. It was Efrem, asking for the number for a smuggler. He had left the reception centre with a group of other teenagers and jumped a train back to Calais. There, he was sleeping rough during the day, making more bids for England by night.

The next time he called was New Year’s Eve. It was so cold, he said. He didn’t know how he could survive it.

I sent him the number of a local good Samaritan in Calais who had offered to provide food and shelter.

“Ok sally thanxxxx lol i appriciate u,” he replied.

The last time we spoke was late February. He was still sleeping outdoors, still hoping to get to England, but suspected he might be in France for a while yet. He asked me to come and visit.

After March 1, Efrem stopped logging into his Whatsapp or Viber accounts, and his phone went straight to voicemail.

Tracking a missing minor is difficult. As with much of the response to refugees in Europe, the most vital efforts are being made by volunteers with limited authority or resources. 

The French do not take missing children reports for migrants, Michael McHugh from the Refugee Youth Service told me - partly because France is considered a transit country. "Child protection services in Europe are not really geared up for people on the move,” he said.

McHugh also spoke of the many reasons a teenager could go out of contact - they could have been trafficked, injured, or have made it across to England and cut all contact. Some young people are in a lot of debt to smugglers from the cost of the journey to Europe, and may be forced to work to repay it, or they might have gone into hiding to avoid doing so.

Others have their phones - their only lifeline - confiscated by the police, something McHugh said is becoming more and more common. One refugee told me his phone was thrown in a river by Greek authorities, while another 15-year-old said French security smashed his screen. Sometimes teenagers are killed after being hit by cars or trucks while trying to board them. In summer 2015, I attended the funeral of a 17-year-old Eritrean who fell down a hole while attempting to evade the Calais police in the dead of night. In January last year I witnessed the raw grief at a memorial for a 15-year-old Afghan boy called Masud who suffocated to death in a lorry. 

In early 2016 alone, Europol estimated that at least 10,000 unaccompanied minors had disappeared while travelling through Europe, sparking fears they were being targeted by organised criminal gangs.

When a minor goes missing in Calais and someone notices (not always guaranteed), McHugh or another volunteer or charity worker will report it to CTAC – the UK’s Child Trafficking Advice Centre, run by the NSPCC in partnership with the Home Office and other agencies.

When I told him what had happened, McHugh also offered to print out a photo of Efrem and put it up around Calais and nearby Dunkirk, asking anyone who knew him to get in touch.

“Every child has the right to have an adult looking after them,” he replied when I expressed hesitation. 

“It’s the pensioners, the anarchists, the Calais old age pensioners, the activists, the journalists that care about these children. We are all these kids have.”

Nine months after the Jungle camp was closed, there are again hundreds of teenagers sleeping rough around Calais, according to Annie Gavrilescu at charity Help Refugees. Research done by the Refugee Rights Data Project in April found 97 per cent of them had experienced police violence, and 95 per cent have no access to legal advice. Some 92 per cent had been woken and moved on by police while trying to snatch a few hours of sleep.

It’s hard to get figures on how many minors have left French reception centres since October, because the centres themselves don’t always report the disappearances, Gavrilescu said. Instead of classifying minors as “missing,” they are classified as “unaccounted for”. No one’s responsible for these children, she noted.

This week, the UK High Court will hear a legal challenge brought by Help Refugees. Campaigners argue that the government didn’t bring over enough unaccompanied refugee children under the Dubs Amendment and didn’t properly consult with local authorities who were willing to offer more places to minors. They are also pushing the government to commit to offering sanctuary to the remaining 280 refugee children it promised places to under the Dubs amendment. So far, only 200 minors have been moved to the UK of a pledged 480, all of whom came from the Calais camp.

***

For Efrem, legal routes weren’t enough. Nearly two months after he went off the radar, he called me.

He had made it to the UK - “Birmingham! In a hotel!” - and had been there for the last month. Someone had taken his phone but he had it back again, Efrem said. He came in under the Channel crammed into the back of a truck, hedged in with a group of others.

Now he was waiting again - for his asylum interview. “I’m very happy,” he laughed.