Calais’s migrant children suffer as Europe procrastinates

Life in the ‘Jungle’ is miserable for everybody, but for children and their parents it is often impossible


Aziza lives in a tiny, dilapidated caravan in the Syrian corner of the migrant camp outside the French port of Calais known as the Jungle, living proof of Europe’s inability to devise a safe, rapid, legal means of immigration, even for those it has promised to welcome.

The 34-year-old widow opens the door reluctantly. Like most of the refugees she is wary of telling her family name. “Here, everything is strange to me,” she says.

Aziza is from Deraa, the Syrian town where the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad started five years ago. Her husband, Mohamed, a restaurant owner, died in the regime’s prisons.

Aziza left Syria seven months ago with five-year-old Suleiman and three-year-old Suha in the hope of reaching her father and five brothers in Britain.

The family took the “Balkan route” that 850,000 migrants passed through in 2015. It was closed this week.

“At the Macedonian border, we walked for two hours,” Aziza says. “A man offered twice to carry Suleiman on his bicycle, but I didn’t trust him. The children cried the whole time.”

Now Suleiman is starting to ask questions. “He has become very naughty,” Aziza says, sighing. “In Syria he loved his toys. Now he breaks them. He’s very frightened and he won’t sleep in the evening. He keeps asking, ‘Is Daddy dead or alive? Are we going to see him?’ ”

The refugee widow weeps for a few moments before regaining her composure. Suleiman helps by clowning.

Life in the Jungle is miserable for everyone. For a vulnerable woman with small children it is impossible. Black mud sticks to everything. Nothing dries. “I cannot queue, because the children are unruly, so other Syrians help me. It is very cold. When it rains the caravan leaks.

“I cannot let the children play outside,” Aziza continues. “I’m afraid of kidnappers and I’m afraid that Suleiman will learn from older boys. He has started lying. He brought home a hashish box from the Afghans. The girl in the caravan next door taught him to beg.”

Two months ago Aziza was interviewed by Citizens UK, a group of volunteer lawyers who file applications for family reunification with the British government. “Three days ago the lawyer told me they haven’t had time yet,” Aziza says with a sigh.

Men pass on the rutted, muddy path outside, hunched over with large bundles on their backs. Others carry a wooden shelter on their shoulders, like pallbearers. They have been driven out of the southern part of the refugee camp, which the French began demolishing on Febuary 29th.

Displaced Afghans, Sudanese and Eritreans are crowding into the Syrian quarter, creating worse conditions. Aziza is considering taking the children back to the war in Syria.

Youssef: ‘I am not afraid any more’

The tall, thin boy, with a beardless, pale face, and dark hair and eyes, sits on the top bunk in a plywood shelter, looking for all the world like a 19th-century romantic poet.

When he left Damascus alone, five months ago, he knew he was suffering from an inherited blood disorder called thalassaemia, which requires transfusions. He is too weak to join the nightly treks to the port and Eurostar complex.

Youssef’s father died before the war. His brother Ahmad was killed by a sniper. He refuses to seek asylum in France “because my mother could not wear her veil here”.

Refugees usually cite the Aegean Sea crossing between Turkey and Greece as the most harrowing part of their journey. On Youssef’s first attempt the engine failed, and the vessel began taking water. “There were 55 people in the boat, including two babies,” Youssef says. “Everyone was crying except me. I threw everything I had into the sea and started bailing out water with my shoes. I thought I was going to die.”

Youssef has no close relatives in England, so he is not eligible for family reunification. But he could stay in the UK as a minor until the age of 18, when he could appeal a likely deportation order. “I love England. The language, the people. All my friends are there. I just want to cross. I won’t give up. If I can get there they will give me transfusions.”

Youssef is strengthened by the naivety of youth. And he has Alicia, a 14-year-old English girl who lives in Dover, 35km away.

Youssef’s voice becomes reverent when he mentions Alicia and their daily phone calls. The girl visited the Jungle with her mother, who was trying to help the refugees. She has long blond hair and blue eyes. It was love at first sight, Youssef says. “They’re the Romeo and Juliet of the Jungle,” Youssef’s neighbour Mahmoud, who listens from the bottom bunk, says with a laugh.

Youssef is certain he will get to England, marry Alicia and become a movie star, “like Tom Cruise”. He has remained a normal teenager, despite the war, the journey, the hardship, I tell him.

“It’s been a very long five months. I am tired,” he replies. “This life is different, but I am still the same Youssef. It is still good to be alive.”

Youssef sees only one change in himself: “I’m not afraid any more.” He has been targeted with pepper spray by French police on two occasions. “I couldn’t see for two hours. I was crying.”

Two weeks ago he was walking outside the Jungle with a small group of Syrian migrants late at night. “The police opened their car doors and starting beating us with truncheons. I ran away. One of the Syrians speaks French well, and he heard a policeman say it was the fault of the Germans, for inviting the refugees to Europe.”

Liz Clegg: ‘They’ve gone a little bit feral’

The boys stay up most nights, trying to reach England. They come back to Clegg’s shelter before dawn, soaking wet, and ignore her pleas to put on dry clothing before sleeping.

They’re gurriers who sometimes lie, steal and fight. “They’re usually the oldest boy in the family,” Clegg says. “Most of them have lost their father, and their families are threatened or the Taliban want to turn them into child soldiers. The family scraped together the money for them to leave, and they’re under pressure: they have to get there, because everyone is counting on them. Sometimes I see floods of tears. One of them told me his mother sold the house to find the money.”

The Afghan boys have been further traumatised by the demolition of their “homes” in the southern Jungle. “We have a lot of behaviour going on,” Clegg says. “And, of course, they’re lads, so they’re trying to big it up. So they kind of go ‘Ah yeah? So I’ll smash a f***ing window while I’m upset,’ and they actually just want a cuddle. They are normal human beings. Male. Twelve years old. In f***ing shit. Terrifying situations. And they are reacting in a normal, human-being way.”

Clegg smokes with her morning chai in Haji’s cafe. One by one, her Afghan charges straggle in, seeking approval for a new bracelet or haircut, asking for shoes, a phone, plasters, a bear hug. She has taught them to say please and thank you and to clean the table after a meal. “Through stress and survival they’ve gone a little bit feral,” she says.

The people Clegg calls tourists give her money to feed the boys. “They come to take photographs and hang out and drink tea in the Jungle,” Clegg says. “They don’t want to stay, but they care. My relationship with the boys is based on what I can give them. It’s about shoes, socks, haircuts, resilience . . . ”

On February 21st the Letters Live and Help Refugees associations organised a reading in the Jungle theatre. “I thought about who I cared about most, and the letter I wanted to write most was to the children – one child in particular. So my letter is to Jamil,” she said, in a video that you can watch on YouTube. The 12-year-old stood grinning beside Clegg as she read: “Jamil, I’ve packed another bag for you tonight. I’ve managed to find a really good sleeping bag this time. It’s cold. I remembered the bin bags. Please use them. It’ll help you keep a bit drier. There are two pairs of socks and a torch in the side pocket, and I’ve put in some snacks and €5. Please try not to lose your phone again. Jamil, I’m scared. I’m scared I’m going to lose you. The forms they’ve given me don’t have a box for you, and no one’s prepared to change this.”

Clegg spoke of “the panic I feel because I may never know what came of you”. Worse still, she feared that he would join the list of those who died trying. “Jamil, I beg you: listen to me. Don’t get into a refrigerated lorry. Wait for something safer. Massoud was older. He still died.”

Massoud: Killed climbing out of the roof of a lorry

Massoud was 15. His sister in London had petitioned for him. He could have immigrated legally, but he tired of the wait.

“He was always asking me, ‘How much longer will it take?’” says Mohamed Nabi, an Afghan refugee who shared a tent with Massoud.

Massoud left for Dunkirk in late December. On New Year’s Eve the boy’s brother-in-law called Nabi from London to say Massoud had hidden in a lorry. He realised from the GPS in his smartphone that it was heading for Belgium, not Britain, and tried to climb out through the roof. He was killed when his head hit a bridge.

Clegg wants Britain to take dozens of Afghan boys aged 10-12 immediately, regardless of whether they have family in Britain. “It’s a matter of child protection,” she says.

A recent report in a British newspaper claimed that at least seven boys have been raped in the Jungle. Clegg has lived there for six months and says if that had happened she would know about it.

The female volunteer who was the source of the story is “mentally ill”, Clegg says. “She has come here and is implying there is mass child abuse, organised rape. I’m ashamed because these blokes here are amazing and they put up with these children.

“People wanted to make them economic migrants” – who have no claim to asylum – “and now they want to make out they’re a bunch of paedophiles. And everyone’s, ‘Oh my God! Mass rape of children in the camp!’ It’s delusional crap. But the reality of them living like this . . . Okay, it’s got to be mass f***ing rape of minors before anyone’s going to pay attention. It’s disgusting.”

Clegg criticises her compatriots: “What the f*** does that say about the human mind, the western mind now, that their interest is more on the next soap opera on the telly than what is actually happening on their doorstep?”

She avoided media until the French announced that they were going to raze the Jungle. This is Clegg’s 15 minutes of fame, she says, and she intends to use it.

“It’s not just about Calais. We have to make the world wake up. These are wonderful human beings, and they are suffering horribly. This is a massive humanitarian crisis. There are hundreds of thousands of children involved, and we have to respond properly. Europe has got to wake up and stop pretending this is not happening.”

Hunger strike: Their lips are sealed

Five of the Iranians stopped eating on February 29th. On March 2nd eight sewed their mouths shut with threads and needles. More followed, with the grisly process filmed by television cameras. The number reached 12 at one point, but two have given up.

“It’s a plea for anybody in the world to come and help the refugees,” says Simon Dunning, a 34-year-old independent British volunteer who is with the hunger strikers 24 hours a day. “Their dream would be for Canada, America, Ireland, Australia – anybody – to come in and save the people who are persecuted here by the French.”

Dunning has spent the past seven months in the “Jungle”; he provided the Iranians with sleeping bags, blankets and wood for building their shelters. He is trying to persuade the men to abandon the hunger strike. “It’s horrendous, the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

Sewing one’s lips or even eyes shut is a traditional form of protest in Iran. Last November six Iranians sewed their mouths shut because they were not allowed to cross the Greek-Macedonian border at Idomeni.

The Calais hunger strikers include an unaccompanied 17-year-old boy called Susan. He wants to study in Britain, where he has an uncle.

After nearly three weeks of hunger strike the men are weak and emotional. Most have been sentenced to death in Iran. One of the hunger strikers was convicted of apostasy for tatooing Masonic symbols on his own and others’ bodies. Another, an Iranian Kurd, distributed literature for the separatist PKK. Yet another converted from Islam to Christianity. These offences are punishable by death in Iran.

When the men first sewed their lips shut they said they would talk only to the UN, CNN or Al Jazeera. They later held brief press conferences in the Jungle, but neither the French government nor anyone else is paying attention.

“They did it as a reaction to the demolition,” Dunning says. “It hasn’t been a cohesive marketing strategy. It’s just been a total headf***. My fear is that they will die in vain.”

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