What next for the children of the Calais ‘Jungle’?
The camp is gone, but the future for hundreds of child refugees remains utterly bleak
Migrants walk past French policemen to climb in buses as they leave the Jules Ferry reception centre, next to the recently demolished “Jungle” in Calais. Photograph: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images
Alawi (17), a quiet, polite, shy young man from Syria, has lost his entire family. From the Deir ez-Zor region, scene of intense internecine fighting since 2011, he made it into Turkey, across the Aegean and up through Europe.
Last weekend his home was a mattress by a dirt road on the outskirts of the French port town of Calais.
He approaches The Irish Times, because he hears the interpreter speaking Arabic. He wants to get to London, he says. He wants to be a footballer and will play for any team that accepts him. “I am good,” he says with a smile.
However, he is increasingly anxious, because despite having had an interview with British Home Office officials in recent days and despite qualifying for relocation there, he hopes, he has lost the phone he had at the interview and is terrified he may miss a call from officials.
The interpreter takes his new number and promises to find out what she can.
The Irish Times visited the migrant camp known as the Calais “Jungle” on the outskirts of the port town last weekend, as the Opposition was preparing a cross-party motion calling for the “immediate” relocation of 200 unaccompanied minors from the camp to Ireland.
An estimated 1,400 young people were being accommodated in 125 shipping containers, in a fenced in area, adjacent to where the main “Jungle” camp had been. Dozens were sleeping on the dirt track beside it, in tents, on mattresses, and under a nearby foot-bridge.
The migrant camp, which was at the nearest point in Europe to England, had grown up over several years into a make-shift “town”. Home to 10,000 people at one point, it had, as a site of squalor and raw humanity, come to represent the nearest, most visible symbol of the migrant/border/humanitarian crisis which continues to engulf Europe.
The French authorities, particularly those in the Pas-de-Calais department, hated it and were determined to raze it. In the past fortnight some 6,000 adult inhabitants were dispersed to reception centres around France; this week they finished the job, bussing 1,616 minors away.
The authorities say the young people will be able to make their asylum applications at these centres, either to stay in France or for relocation to Britain, though many could face deportation.
We met dozens of young people, including children as young as 10, without any adult guardian. Since the demolition of the camp, which was almost completed by last weekend, they were worried about their future and desperate for information.
The only state presence last weekend were large groups of police. Volunteers were providing food and some make-shift schools were running in the sand-dunes.
A charity, Calais Kitchen, was providing two meals a day and clean water.
“All here is no good,” says Khanwalid. “We want go to London.” He shows us a phone number and address for an uncle in Middlesex.
Through the metal fence, children as young as six can be seen, almost certainly with older brothers.
Leletishi (15) and Aziza (17), from the Oromo community of Ethiopia, are among the teenage girls being housed in a site adjacent to the container site. Bright, smiling and shy, they too want to get to Britain, Leletishi to study medicine so she can make money to send home to her younger siblings. They had travelled through Egypt to Italy and survived their boat sinking in the Mediterranean.
“We haven’t lived through all of this suffering to accept to live like this. We want to study and work,” she says.
None wanted to stay in France.
Living conditions in the “Jungle” were dreadful, but almost worse has been the “horrifying disregard” for their rights by the authorities, according to Michael McHugh, a child protection worker based in England but volunteering in Calais since February.
The children have been pepper-sprayed into their camps as well as being subjected to beatings and arbitrary arrests and are viewed by many in authority as not entitled to the most basic rights, says McHugh. Many are suffering post-traumatic stress and serious mental health problems, with self-harm and suicide attempts not unusual.
McHugh tells of going to the Calais police to report that some of the children had gone missing.
“The response I got from the policeman was: ‘Il n’y a rien à faire’ – ‘There is nothing to do’,” he says.
Asked if it was not a legal obligation to protect children’s safety under international treaties, McHugh says: “Of course it is, but so is it illegal to beat children, deny them an education and tear-gas their homes. These children’s rights are being violated daily.”
The only way the young people saw of getting out of the camp and towards a future has been to get to England.
It has been in this appalling context that a group of Irish volunteers came together to form the Not On Our Watch campaign to urge the Irish Government to intervene and take 200 of these children and teenagers.
Supported by more than 40 church groups and organisations, including the Irish Association of Social Workers, the Migrant Rights Centre, the Children’s Rights Alliance, the Immigrant Council of Ireland and the Methodist Church, their call has been taken up by the Opposition, culminating in the cross-party motion which was discussed in the Dáil on Wednesday night.
Consumed this week with the Garda strike crisis, the Department of Justice and the Government have not come to an agreed response to the call.
Non-committal statements from the Ministers for Justice, Foreign Affairs and Children on Wednesday evening, in response to the motion, might be seen as “holding positions” until the Cabinet discusses the issue next week. A vote on a cross-party motion will be held then, it is hoped.
It has been pointed this week by some that many of the bombs dropped in these wars arrived by plane, via Shannon.
Last month alone, 2,635 people reached Greece and 10,198 crossed the sea to Italy, according to the UNHCR. As of this week, it is estimated over 4,200 people have drowned in the Mediterranean, in 2016.
About 40 per cent of all refugees are children including tens of thousands alone without an adult. According to Eurostat, just over 118,000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in the European Union between January 2015 and October 2016.
By October, across all of Europe, 75 unaccompanied children had been relocated from Greece: 38 to Finland, 18 to Spain, nine to Luxembourg, four to Germany, three to the Netherlands, and two to Portugal. Ireland has taken one and has pledged to take 20 by the end of next year. It is time, many say, that Ireland rolls up its sleeves and gets properly involved.
Meanwhile, children such as Alawi, Khanwalid, Dadullah, Leletishi and Aziza are waiting to know their future. Their dispersal now around France, it is hoped, will be a positive new start for them. Many will have a bed for the first time in many months, and will have a chance to tell their stories, in the hope of refuge and a future.
Though they all speak of wanting to get to Britain, many say it is because it is English-speaking. Several spoke highly of Ireland given their positive experience of Irish volunteers in Calais.
The the British say they will take just 300. The future for the 1,300 others remains unclear, while for thousands more across Europe the future remains bleak.
The Government points to legal complexities and resource issues that may pose problems, though others point out these children have faced far greater complexities and legal issues, and overcome them. It would be “unconscionable” says McHugh, if it were governments such as ours that put up the final barriers that could be overcome.