Young people are still dying in Calais, and the UK have left children with no choice but to return there
I returned to Calais this past week, several months since the eviction of the refugee camp that had once existed there. I hoped to find the port returned to its former slumber, a tourist town of not much of note once again - but instead I found that the refugee crisis in the North of France is far from over.
As I walk from the Youth Hostel on the beach towards the centre, a CRS riot-police van slows as it passes me and the two officers inside crane their necks to get a better look. Outside the Calais train station I notice a group of children carrying sleeping bags and wandering aimlessly through the town centre. I issue a friendly 'Hello' in English as they pass me on the pavement, and after a few metres, one boy from the group sheepishly turns back to speak to me. There are five of them - fifteen and sixteen-year-old boys, from Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan - and all 'ex-Jungle residents' that have just arrived back in Calais from their accommodation centre in Marseille. They have the look of a secondary school camping trip who've realised they're horribly out of their depth - grinning timidly and nervously looking round at the town they used to know so well.
But Calais has changed a great deal since October and the demolition of the Jungle. In its place is a cold, hard city - where the temperature hasn't risen above freezing in a week and where locals are more unwilling than ever to receive refugees. There are casual reminders of the state of things wherever you look: every few blocks a billboard is covered in repetitions of Marine Le Pen's face and on each side of the central motorway through town is a vast cement wall (paid for by £23 million of British taxes). Gone are the vast numbers of volunteers and in their place are the police vans that patrol the streets, and wait outside the train station to trap returnees. They're looking for who they consider an archetypal 'stranger' - black and brown skinned boys and men, perhaps in second-hand donated clothing or carrying a backpack or a sleeping bag - who they'll stop and ask for identification (legal in France since the extension of the national state of emergency). If they're an adult they're arrested and placed in immigration detention. If they might be a child, then they are to be brought under state protection and provided accommodation by France terre d'asile in St. Omer. But these children are in Calais because they intend to reach the UK and not to stay in France, and so they're only permitted to stay in this centre for a maximum of five days before being turfed out and back onto the streets again.
I explain to the boys who I am: a volunteer for the charity Help Refugees, who worked in Calais for many months last year. I can get them some help if they want it, but first 'Why are you here?' I ask. Rahimi, a 16-year-old Afghan boy points to his friend and jokingly tells me 'He's an economic migrant from China'. His friend, a Hazara boy from central Afghanistan pushes his glasses back on his nose, and laughs, unable to speak a word of english. They're back in Calais to try their luck, climbing onto lorries with the hope of reaching the UK. I worry whether these boys truly understand the seriousness of the situation and the danger they're putting themselves in, in being here.
I guide them to the parking lot of a local hotel, out of concern that they might be spotted by one of the CRS vans circulating. There I call Pauline Le Coënt, a volunteer with the French charitable organisation Utopia 56, who arrives promptly with a car of volunteers and begins to distribute to the teenagers cups of hot tea, packaged hot food, survival blankets and sleeping bags (provided by the charity Help Refugees). Pauline gives them an emergency phone number to call and where possible writes down each child's details. She tells me that she has now seen over "120 different children" since the 7th of January. Each day, Utopia help as many as 60 different kids. She must also offer each child the opportunity to be placed in state protection, which in most instances they refuse. After they've eaten their fill, they disappear off into the back roads of Calais.
A few days later I join Utopia 56 on one of their 'Night Maraudes'. We stop at town parks and in laybys and walk around but find no kids at first. At a woods near the old sight of the Jungle, we park the car and open the boot. Minutes later and a group of children emerge. They're greeted with hugs by the volunteers and happily receive a cup of tea to warm their frozen fingers. One boy tells me he has cousins in the UK that he could stay with, and another, a brother. They were interviewed by the UK Home Office in their centre, later receiving a rejection but with no explanation as to why.
The boys had previously been living in makeshift shelters in the woods nearby but the police had come and destroyed their dwellings. The interior ministry of Pas-de-Calais on Monday confirmed that they would continue to disallow structures to "make a point of no attachment". Officials in Calais want to make sure that there is no return of "the Jungle". The camp was undoubtedly a dangerous place, but for these children at least it provided shelter at night, somewhere to prepare food, some basic sanitation, a community and adults to watch over them. Now all they have is a sleeping bag in the snow.
Pauline tells me that some 80 to 90% of the children returning to Calais are from the Horn of Africa: Eritrean or Ethiopian. As such these children were not even considered for Alf Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act, that provided a little over 200 children with no family in the UK, sanctuary there. It was recently revealed in The Guardian that a delegation of UK Officials met with the Eritrean government with the aim of reducing migration from Eritrea. They offered aid money in return for a promised softening of human rights abuses that never materialised. As a result of new guidance the Home Office put out in response to this agreement, the percentage of successful asylum claims for Eritreans dropped from 85% to 60%. This allowed the UK Home Office to refuse to consider any Eritrean children from Calais, over 12 and without family, for transfer to the UK. Now they're back here again, climbing onto trucks and risking their lives to reach the UK by 'illegal' means.
Many of the children returning claim to have close family in the UK and many have no knowledge of the law as it affects them. Tina Brocklebank of Help Refugees describes the absence of information being shared by officials to the children on the ground: "Children don't understand. There is a complete lack of clear and accessible information. When they go to St. Omer, they're not being asked whether they have family in the UK. No one is explaining to them their legal rights."
Beyond that, it's apparent that these children no longer trust the systems put in place to protect them. They moved from Calais to accommodation centres across France, under the pretext that they would be rightly considered for transfer to the UK under the Dubs amendment. But as Tina explains, the Home Office "moved the goalposts", only considering a small percentage of the children from Calais for transfer. At each step of the way, the Home Office has ducked and dodged their responsibility to the children of Calais, so it's no surprise that they now have no faith in any system meant to keep them safe.
Reports from volunteers I speak to are that on several occasions police have taken sleeping bags from children and tear gassed where they have been sleeping. Children fear being beaten and having their shoes stolen as happened in the Jungle. On multiple occasions the police have refused to take children into state protection citing that they are too busy with local issues.
Just a 30-minute drive from Calais is the refugee camp of Grande-Synthe in Dunkirk where over 1,300 refugees (mostly families with young children) live in chipboard cabins in a gravelled field. Over 100 unaccompanied minors still remain there - exempt from the Home Office proceedings that considered children from Calais for transfer to the UK. This number is increasing day by day as the mayor of the town allows for new migrants to enter the camp in response to the below-freezing temperatures. Yet camp officials here have not allowed for the construction of more shelters and so many young people sleep in a building used during the day as a community kitchen. Children are also returning to the smuggler-run "mud-pit" camp in Norrent Fontes and to Hazebrouck where kids hide in the woods near the lorry park, asleep during the day and in the night climbing onto lorries.
In Calais, I met with Kibrom and his friend - two Eritrean boys who I used to know from the Jungle and who have returned to Calais from their accommodation centre in Nancy. They were told that the UK Home Office had completed their task of transferring children, and that they would need to claim asylum in France or leave. I buy them some chips and we stand in the park and eat them. Kibrom's friend Alex made it across a few weeks ago, in the back of a refrigerated lorry. A girl travelling with him became so cold that she was later hospitalised. The boys look desperate and depressed. They tell me that yesterday a boy died in Calais.
In the centre of town a small group of local people gather to mark the death of John Sina, a 20-year-old from the Horn of Africa, who was killed after being struck by multiple trucks on the motorway passing near Calais. His name is spelt out in candles on the pavement and a couple of locals say a few words about his passing. His name is added to a growing list of young people who have died attempting to reach the UK from the North of France: last September 14-year-old Afghan Raheemullah Oryakhel fell off a lorry and was struck by a car in Calais; in July 19-year-old Ertirean, Samarwit was killed in a hit in run in town; and on Christmas eve last year, a 17-year-old Congolese boy fell from the undercarriage of a truck as it boarded a ferry in Dunkirk, and was crushed.
The UK have long since moved on from considering the needs of asylum seeking children in France, while the French continue to deny the increasingly obvious existence of migrants here in the North. The few volunteers that remain here scramble to attempt a support system for the children who choose to come back. Pauline explains that more accommodation centres are going to be closing this week and they have had more and more phone calls from children saying that they're planning on travelling back to Calais. As such they're expecting a huge number of returnees over the next several weeks. And it's no longer just returnees - children that have never set foot before in Calais are also now arriving. The British and French might wish for the refugee crisis in Northern France to be over, but for the children here who are roaming the streets, sleeping under bridges and in the woods, the end to their suffering is not yet in sight.
For more information on the children who lived in 'The Jungle' in Calais or to donate visit www.helprefugees.org.uk
Some names have been changed to protect the anonymity of minors.
Photo Credits: Benny Hunter.