Sunday, December 10

Calais camp as refugees await the bulldozers: Panic sweeps if Jungle is dismantled



Europe’s biggest slum – around 10,000 migrants are squeezed into a sprawl of wasteland east of Calais will be no more in a few weeks. Bulldozers will raze an eyesore that has acquired new political significance in the run-up to next spring’s French presidential elections.

There is no plan B for children like Einas, who spent eight months and his family’s savings journeying from southern Ethiopia to northern France, the dream will die when the Jungle is dismantled.

“I am here to reach the UK, that is all I think about, I have no other plan,” said the unaccompanied 17-year-old, who arrived in the Calais camp in January.

Few child refugees appear to have a fallback strategy once the Jungle is no more. As rumours circulate over when the forced eviction will happen, aid organisations in the camp have already begun distributing suitcases.

The injection of uncertainty has caused panic among the camp’s unaccompanied children. On Saturday charities said they were witnessing signs of “hysteria”. Some warn that youngsters are taking increased risks as they attempt to climb on to lorries heading into the port, fearing that their chance of reaching the UK is fading.

Inca Sorrell, of the camp’s unofficial women and children’s centre, said: “Children are willing to take more risks. They are going out most nights fearing that all this will be taken away from them. There is real panic. At least the adults have been given options.”

Adults and families have been told they will be dispersed to smaller reception camps across France. The mass dispersal has been warmly applauded by local people. Amid polls showing robust support for Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s anti-immigration, far-right Front National party, the fate of the Jungle has occupied the centre of the political stage.

Last week Nicolas Sarkozy, the former Republican president, who is running for the office again, said he would force Britain to open a migrant centre to deal with asylum claims from those stranded in Calais. On Monday, President François Hollande is expected in Calais to underline his determination to demolish the camp and scatter its itinerant population across 164 reception centres.

It seems incredible that the Jungle’s most vulnerable inhabitants – the unaccompanied child refugees – will be the biggest losers from the political fallout. Jess Egan of the camp’s Refugee Youth Service, said the organisation had already submitted recommendations to the French authorities underlining the need to refer vulnerable children to safe houses throughout France. Last week the UK’s anti-slavery commissioner warned that children in Calais were being exposed to the risk of slavery and exploitation.

Among many aid workers, the strongest anger is reserved for the approach of the British government to the issue and its failure to honour its promise to help child refugees. According to Egan: “They have already had a recent murder on their hands, a child who had family in the UK but who died because the process to take him there was not speeded up.”

The reference is to Raheemullah Oryakhel, 14, who was fatally struck by a lorry nine days ago on the main road into Calais. The teenager had a legal right to join his brother in Manchester but had grown disillusioned by the lack of progress in relocating him.

On Friday night his body was repatriated after an appeal raised £3,400 to fly him back to Afghanistan. Refugees inside the camp raised £860. Abdul, a compatriot from Laghman province in Afghanistan, who arrived at the camp in February, helped raise the funds. This weekend he said: “Everybody is scared at the moment, we are feeling that the UK government is to blame for Raheemullah’s death. Some are starting to think that the solution is to stay in France.”

For many child refugees, the Jungle, for all its squalor, has become the only source of stability, thousands of miles from home.

“Many have been here for more than a year. Here, the only constant they have is the youth centre, the faces of the adults who they know and can trust, the kids’ cafe, it’s unbelievably stressful for them,” said Emily Carrigan, who has worked with unaccompanied children in the camp since the start of the year. She said that living in limbo was affecting their mental health. “We see signs of trauma, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].”

As Carrigan speaks, 15-year-old Safi from east Afghanistan, who has been in the Jungle for a year, turns up. He is polite and attempts a smile, but is notably timid and withdrawn.

Even as the French authorities prepare to demolish the camp, more children are arriving. Help Refugees has noted a 51% increase in unaccompanied minors in the past month, with 11 arriving every day. Carrigan said they had seen a large increase in the numbers of unaccompanied girls arriving in the last two months – mostly Eritreans aged about 16. “They are underage girls and I am really scared they don’t understand the dangers that are out there,” said Carrigan.

Many fear a violent denouement when the end finally comes. Charlie Whitbread of the charity Care4Calais said riot police had teargassed the camp most evenings during the past week and felt confrontation was inevitable. “The police like to put on a show of force, it could get ugly,” he said.

And the children that Britain still refuses to accept will just have to fend for themselves.