27th Oct 2016

Lone children at risk in Calais camp demolition

  • (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

There are several schools in the Jungle, and a yellow, double-decker school bus where children's drawings adorn walls and windows. There are playgrounds, hills to climb, a kids’ cafe for children only.

Still, it's hard to imagine a worse place for a child to live than the Jungle, as the slum in the French port-town of Calais is often called.

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  • The number of children in the camp recently doubled. (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

More than a thousand children do and almost all came here without their parents.

They sleep in crowded, mud-stained tents with adult men. They are prey for human smugglers, and the riot police that is meant to guard them sometimes shoots at them with tear gas and rubber bullets.

At night, they try to get out of the Jungle by jumping on lorries that might take them across the Channel.

Last month, a 14-year old boy jumped to his death while trying to get to the UK and reunite with his brother. He became the youngest Jungle casualty, but he was not the only one.

Charities such as Help Refugees urge the children to apply for asylum in France.

From the other side, the smugglers put pressure on children to use their services because their relatives, who already live in the UK, pay hefty sums if they make it across.

Many children are not aware that they are being manipulated and exploited.

They trust the smugglers’ middlemen, who live among them in the camp and speak their language, more than they trust French officials.

They are frightened of being fingerprinted because they have been told that, under EU rules, if they are in the system, their registration could be used to send them back to the country where they first entered the European Union.

The Calais region does not apply the first-point-of-entry rule to minors, but the children have been told that fingerprinting is “a bad thing”.

Deliberate uncertainty?

Belgian liberal MEP Hilde Vautmans and green MP Wouter De Vriendt, who visited the camp on Wednesday (12 October), were appalled by what they saw.

”It’s beyond me how the French state could let children live here,” Vautmans said.

But with the French authorities planning to dismantle the camp, in a move expected in the next few days, the situation risks becoming worse.

French president Francois Hollande visited in September and described the Jungle as a ”humanitarian emergency”.

He promised to flatten it but there is no reliable information on when and how the demolition would take place.

Some volunteers, such as Lieven Clarysse, from Belgian charity Humain, believe that the uncertainty is a deliberate policy because the French hope that people will flee the site instead of trusting the authorities to take care of them somewhere else.

He said French policemen went round the camp with megaphones telling people to go before the demolition starts.

The last time that local authorities smashed up part of the Jungle children vanished.

”When they destroyed a part of the camp, in February, 129 children went missing. We never saw them again,” Annie Gavrilescu, from the charity Help Refugees told EUobserver.

”We are doing everything we can so it won’t happen again.”

Vautmans, the Belgian MEP, added: “Maybe the French authorities have a plan [for the camp residents] but the fact that nobody knows about it is creating a bonanza for children’s smugglers”.

Empty promises

Five months ago, the UK agreed to bring over some 200 unaccompanied minors from Calais who had the right to be reunited with their families in Britain.

Only a handful of them have been resettled so far.

Amid reports of the imminent closure, Amber Rudd, Britain’s new home secretary, pledged on Monday that the UK would take in up to 400 children ”within days”.

French authorities have also made promises.

Jean-Francois Roger, from the French charity France Terre d’Asile, said the government had created more than 12,000 spaces in reception centres all over the country.

He said France was emptying migrant camps ”every day” and could re-distribute 3,000 people a day.

The French have asked his group to count the number of lone children at the camp.

Other charities said there were 1,022 of them at the end of September. A count by France Terre d’Asile, earlier this week, found 1,291, of whom 1,252 said they wanted to go to the UK.

France Terre d'Asile is working more closely with the government than other NGOs. But even Roger admitted that there are more questions than answers.

“We don’t know how the French authorities want to work with this information,” he told EUobserver.

”We are ourselves wondering how they will deal with the distribution of children,” he added.

”Some of the children have already open claims in the region, whether for asylum in France or reunification with family in the UK. How will authorities make sure the process stays underway and is concluded as fast as possible? Will they provide children with appropriate reception conditions? We don’t know”, he said.

Preparing for the worst

When EUobserver visited the Jungle on Wednesday (12 October), there were no signs of preparations for the UK’s Rudd to make good on her pledge.

There were also no signs of French resettlements.

Children were playing football with volunteers and asking questions about what would happen to them when the camp is gone.

“We try not to worry them about next week,” Johnny Willis from the British charity Help Refugees told this website.

“There is a brim of hope, but there have been promises before, which only ended with the children being bitterly disappointed.”

Some charities are trying to stop the demolition.

One group lodged a request with a court in Lille on Wednesday to block the move until all the migrants had been found homes elsewhere.

But others are preparing for the worst case scenario.

Gavrilescu, from Help Refugees, spoke to EUobserver on Wednesday while collecting children’s names, phone numbers and any other information that could be used to find them if they also vanished.

Clarysse, from Humain, said volunteers were learning first aid and firefighting techniques in case the demolition prompted violence.

He is expecting up to 2,500 police officers to descend on the camp with bulldozers.

If things turn ugly, it would not be the first time that camp residents, including children, have faced rubber bullets and batons.

Tear gas canisters attain a high temperature when they are discharged and can set fire to tents. As French authorities have in the past prevented firefighters from entering the camp, British volunteers have built their own firetruck.

”Look here,” Clarysse told EUobserver, pointing to a rubbery substance on the ground.

”That’s the remains of teargas battles. They are everywhere,” he said.

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