Update From Calais As Camp Closure Looms

Photographed by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.
In the run up to the French presidential elections next year, the notorious refugee camp in Calais known as 'the Jungle' has once again been thrust into the spotlight. On Monday, President Hollande visited Calais for the first time in four years to announce his intention to demolish the camp. Flying over the so-called 'Jungle' in his helicopter was the closest the President came to visiting the camp itself, before confirming at a meeting in the town centre that a full eviction of the site, including the government-run shipping containers and Jules Ferry Centre home to most of the camp's women and children, would be completed by 31st October.

But what does this mean for the 10,000+ inhabitants of the camp, in particular the unaccompanied minors who account for almost 10% of the total population? The authorities claim there will be sufficient places available in reception centres or CAOs located across France but their plan currently contains no provision for the 1179 minors living in the camp, 87% of whom are unaccompanied and the youngest of these is just eight years old.

These are the camp's most vulnerable residents, exposed not only to regular tear gassing and police brutality but also the risk of trafficking, slavery and exploitation, as the UK's anti-slavery commissioner warned last week. On Wednesday, a nine-year-old boy was allegedly shot in the head with a rubber bullet by the CRS, leaving him paralysed – this was also posted about on Refugee Support's Facebook page but at the time of writing, it has not been officially verified.

The eviction and demolition of the southern half of the camp back in March saw 129 minors disappear without a trace, potentially into the hands of traffickers. There is no doubt that the forthcoming eviction will put already vulnerable children, many of whom have a legal right to travel to the UK, at even greater risk while the British and French governments appear to be doing little to safeguard them.
Photographed by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.
Children watch a film inside the Jungle Books Cafe on 6th September 2016 in Calais, France. The drop-in cafe for children is facing closure and is embroiled in a legal battle with the french authorities. The cafe is run by volunteers and provides safe haven for up to 700 children living in the camp. Children attend language classes, are given free food and the opportunity to charge their mobile telephones so they can contact relatives at home.
On 9th May this year, the Dubs Amendment was passed allowing safe passage to the UK for the most vulnerable child refugees but not one single child has been brought over to date. The charity Safe Passage has identified 387 children eligible to travel safely to the UK under this amendment and the Dublin 3 family reunification, yet the British government has failed to process a single application in almost five months. This unacceptable lack of urgency on the part of the authorities not only leaves children in the camp exposed to the very real risks of trafficking and sexual exploitation, but pushes them to risk their lives trying to cross the channel illegally. Less than two weeks ago a 14-year-old Afghan boy named Raheemullah Oryakhel was killed by a lorry he was attempting to board in the hope of making it to England. Like many other unaccompanied minors living in camp, Raheemullah had a legal right to join his brother in England but after months of waiting with no word on his application, he chose to risk the perilous journey crossing as a stowaway, becoming the third child refugee to die in Calais this year. Another child who had a legal right to travel safely to England but who died trying to get there illegally. Another child failed by the British government.

I've just returned from a stint in Calais, where I was volunteering as part of a team distributing clothes to the camp's residents. Once a week we would distribute at the youth centre and I would spend the day with some of these unaccompanied minors, the children our governments are ignoring. As with any group of teenagers, they vary in character and build; some are six feet tall with broad shoulders and beards, while others the same age are childlike, slight and with skinny legs. Some are very sure of themselves, singing and fist pumping you as they enter, cheekily demanding you hold up each pair of socks in the box before selecting the first pair you showed with a grin. Others are painfully shy, looking at the floor and mumbling an embarrassed "thank you" as they take their hygiene kit. The awkward 12-year-old holding a faded pair of second hand boxer shorts that are way too big for him, but we've run out of medium and small sizes and so he takes them anyway because size large is better than nothing.

Each boy I meet makes me think of my younger brothers, both now too old to be considered a 'minor' but still vulnerable in my eyes. It could be them in the falling apart shoes stuck together with electrical tape so they can be worn, but won't survive a downpour.
Photographed by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.
A young boy drinks tea outside the Jungle Books Cafe on 6th September 2016 in Calais, France.
Photographed by PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images.
Children attend a lesson at the Jules Ferry day centre next to the so-called 'Jungle' migrant camp in Calais, northern France, on 25th August 2016.
The most recent census conducted by Help Refugees on 19th September found that there had been a 51% increase in unaccompanied minors in the past month, with 11 newcomers arriving on average each day. As news of the eviction spreads in the camp, boys like Raheemullah and the teenagers I met in the youth centre are becoming increasingly frustrated with waiting for their asylum claim and, with no 'plan b' for when the camp closes, are taking even greater risks to reach their families in the UK.

With the French presidential elections around the corner, the decision to close the camp at Calais looks to be a politically motivated one, appeasing the inhabitants of the reportedly 'most right-wing town in France' where posters of Marine le Pen decorate billboards across the centre. Once more, the lives of the vulnerable and dispossessed have become political currency to win votes and, as we are seeing time and time again as this global refugee crisis plays out, those who will pay the biggest price are innocent children. How many more will die or disappear into the hands of traffickers whilst attempting to join their families in England, we don't know. What is certain is that unless adequate provision for their safety is made as a matter of urgency, the forthcoming eviction will see more children unaccounted for, failed by the French and British governments – who should have protected them.

What can you do?

Put pressure on your MP and the government to expedite the Alf Dubs amendment process. You can find your local MP and write to them here: https://www.writetothem.com/

Donate money to Help Refugees which will be used to buy rucksacks and suitcases for the eviction: https://mydonate.bt.com/donation/start.html?charity=127188

Buy discounted sleeping bags from the Leisure Ware Help Refugees page that will be delivered directly to Calais https://www.leisurefayre.com/section.php/86100/1/help_refugees

Load a car or van with food, sleeping bags and rucksacks and drive over to Calais. For more information and the current needs list visit http://www.calaidipedia.co.uk/home

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