Children in Calais refugee 'jungle' risk falling through cracks in coming demolition

Hundreds of unaccompanied minors have made their way to a squalid tent city on the outskirts of Calais, but a partial demolition order for the camp puts the young refugees at risk of falling through the cracks, the CBC's Nahlah Ayed writes.

Court rules in favour of downsizing squalid tent city near French coast

CBC's Nahlah Ayed reports on the desperate situation facing hundreds of unaccompanied minors live in the refugee camp known as 'The Jungle' 2:13

How far would you be willing to send your 12-year-old in order to save his or her life?

Faisal's parents sent him a long way: more than 7,000 kilometres, even entrusting his life to paid smugglers.

Faisal's huge green eyes grow even wider as he describes the wolves and the scorpions he glimpsed on his journey from Afghanistan and through Iran, all the way to a neglected camp on the edge of Europe.

In excellent English, he explained why he was sent off.

"The Taliban say … 'Give your sons to us,' " he said in an interview. "My father say: 'I'm not giving you my sons.'

Faisal is 12 years old and came to Calais from Afghanistan with a 10-year old brother. He says the family sent them off to escape the Taliban. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

"And then they killed my one brother. And then we came here."

That, according to Faisal, is also how he and his 10-year-old brother — and a growing number of unaccompanied young Afghans and others — came to be among the 7,000 current residents of the Calais Jungle.

It's the same squalid tent and caravan city French authorities have now been cleared to downsize by bulldozing a large swath of it.

Staging ground

Supportive aid workers and residents alike find themselves in the bizarre position of having to defend the lowliest of refugee camps, a ramshackle, muddy village left to fester on the shore of a rich continent.

It is because of the unaccompanied children that the destruction was postponed. But a court has ruled the plan legal and so the residents are now to be evicted.

Though it has been made slightly more comfortable with the help of aid workers and donations, the so-called Jungle is no place for anyone to live, let alone children. It has few toilets and barely any showers. It is dirty and constantly monitored by police.

Ismarais, a 12-year-old from Afghanistan, told CBC his parents sent him on a route that took him through Iran, Turkey before he landed in Europe. (CBC)

But it is the perfect staging ground for young and old alike to try to sneak onto a truck or a car or a train that will get them through the Channel Tunnel over to the United Kingdom, where many say they have family.

There is no other available avenue for these children to make their case for asylum.

"It doesn't have to be like this," says Pru Waldorf, volunteer and founding member of Calais Action, a grassroots U.K. group that is one of the few helping on the ground, providing everything from clothing to medical supplies. They deliver aid to the displaced as far as Greece.

The children especially, she says, deserve to be heard.

"It's a lack of political will that stops the U.K. and French governments from placing a temporary U.K. immigration outpost in Calais to process the most urgent asylum claims to Britain."

'Legitimate claims'

She says research indicates a high proportion of Calais' vulnerable — certainly the unaccompanied minors and families — "have legitimate claims for asylum in the U.K."

"These children should not have to risk death in order to find life."

But at the edge of the continent, any sympathy for asylum seekers — young or old — seems to end.

So the residents keep trying to get to the U.K.

Pru Waldorf, a volunteer with Calais Action, a group working on the ground to help asylum seekers, self-funds her work in France and Greece. (CBC)

As a result, the Jungle lives on and keeps a largely nocturnal schedule. Many sleep in and wake up late so they can take advantage of the night to try again. Police stationed around the camp keep a constant watch.

On the day we visited, word spread through the camp that someone, again, had been killed trying. It's not clear how.

Still, as the sun began to set, dozens of young men carried small bags and made their way out.

Among them are dozens of little figures, sent off by their parents to find lives better than the ones they could provide.

No sleep for 3 days

So Faisal and his little brother, who sleep in a tent, also keep trying despite the danger.

"Three days I no sleep. Police don't leave me. Going try, come back. Try, come back. Try, come back."

Home does weigh heavily on the boys' minds.

"I miss my mother. Too much," Faisal says quietly.

Many do make it to the U.K. Just 50 kilometres across the channel, at the other end of the tunnel, Kent has seen a dramatic rise in the number of unaccompanied children arriving in the past year. As of Christmas, there were as many as 1,400. Earlier, they might have seen 300 a year.

Once they do arrive, the children are entitled to the same social services as citizens. They are housed and schooled. Many of them are placed in community housing or with foster families if they're younger. They can also apply for asylum.

"When they leave their families, they don't know if they will ever see them again, they don't know if they're going to make it," says Jessica Maddocks of Kent Refugee Action Network, who teaches many of them life skills, English and math in the city of Canterbury.

'Very traumatized'

"A lot of them are obviously very traumatized by things they've experienced," she added. "They have a lot of stress in their lives and a lot of uncertainty about their future."

All of this has led a number of British celebrities to sign a petition calling on the government to allow the unaccompanied minors to come over.

The planned demolition and the terrible conditions back in Calais are further reasons. At least 1,000 — and as many as 3,000 — people will be homeless again and hundreds of unaccompanied children could fall through cracks.

There are 400 to 500 unaccompanied minors in Calais alone, according to Help Refugees UK, one of the groups working on the ground there.

Most of the minors here are from Afghanistan. The youngest among them is 10. Many more are en route across Europe.

"We will risk losing track of all of the children we have built relationships with and some kind of eye on here. That's our main worry," says Philli Boyle of Help Refugees UK.

Migrants walk through a makeshift camp set outside Calais, France, on Feb. 23, 2016. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

In the days leading up to the threatened eviction, the attempts to get across took on a greater urgency.

For Faisal, too. He says his younger brother has mental health problems and needs a doctor. His uncles in the U.K. could help. too, he says.

In between their attempts, Faisal tries to be a kid, playing on a set of swings that volunteers — everyone here is a volunteer, there are no official NGOs per se — have set up.

It was among the common spaces here set for destruction. But it's been given a reprieve. The court ruled common places, like the mosques and a church, will stay standing.

It is small comfort, say the few looking after the asylum seekers.

"It is very clear to us, volunteers and pressure groups, that the demolition is happening because the French government wants the camp gone," says Waldorf.

"We can clear the camp in Calais now. But this will not change the fact that there is no strategy in place for those hundreds of thousands of people who are currently on the road or held in camps across Europe."

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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