THE BLOG

Children Of Calais Deserve Our Welcome, Not Hostility

22/10/2016 15:21
Phil Le Gal via Getty Images

I am currently in Calais. A visit I have done several times, but this time it's different. This time is likely to be my last, as on Monday the camp will be cleared and the 'Jungle' will be no more.

This is no bad thing. The jungle is by no means a safe haven for refugees, especially not children. I've been here many times over the past year for Save the Children, particularly focused on the dangers facing the hundreds - now more than 1,000 - children in the camp who are here on their own. The government made a commitment in May to play a role in offering sanctuary in the UK to some of these children, and now that promise is being realised. But unfortunately, what should be a jubilant moment is being marred by hostility in some quarters.

I know from my visits, that extremely vulnerable children remain here in the camp. These children have experienced unimaginable horrors - more than most adults would face in a lifetime. We are proud that the UK Government is doing something to help. These children should be welcomed, not met with doubt and fear.

When I have been in the jungle I've been haunted by the sight of vulnerable children walking around, alone and unprotected.

Like, for instance, an 11-year-old Afghan boy I spoke to on my last trip. He had been alone in the camp for four months. He didn't behave like a child of his age - he was clearly untrusting and found it hard to communicate. At such a young age it was hard to tell if this was something exceptional, perhaps learning difficulties, or, as I suspect, a symptom of his experiences. What was clear was that he needed was to be kept safe: something the jungle can never offer a child.

For months and months, children have been living in the jungle in makeshift tents and huts with no one to protect them. Children who attend a youth centre run by the Refugee Youth Service in the camp tell staff there that they feel permanently scared. Permanently.

The camp will be razed in a matter of days, turning that fear to terror for many of the children, with their future still so uncertain. Little to no information is being provided to them and they do not know where to turn. Understandably they trust very few.

In August, the Refugee Youth Service, our partner on the ground, found a 10-year-old boy who had severe bruising on his calves from an exploded tear gas canister. He was unable to walk. It was also thought he might have broken his leg after being hit by a rubber bullet that was fired in his direction. These tactics are often used to disperse crowds. Tactics people fear will be used when the camp is finally dismantled next week.

I know that fear is growing among the volunteers too. Those people who have tirelessly given up their lives to provide some sort of stability to children in the form of a familiar face. As Monday looms, they are worried the children will begin to run or get caught up in violence. They remain helpless to provide them with any assurances they will be kept safe. Last time the south side of the camp was demolished, 129 children went missing. They have never been accounted for.

France and the UK are now making plans for next week's eviction. As I walked around the camp today I saw scores of children queuing to be registered by the authorities. They look anxious, they look tired. But hopefully the evictions will be peaceful. Hopefully soon their anguish will subside.

One 17-year old Syrian boy called Yazan* I met some months ago said something that will forever stick with me: "I would have stayed in Syria, but war made me leave. I thought outside would be better. I believed in humanity outside Syria, seeing as it is dead inside."

This should be a proud moment for the UK. This is our chance to show our humanity.

There really are hundreds upon hundreds of children still in the jungle. I've seen them with my own eyes. Any effort to help bring these children out of danger should be celebrated.

I worry about what the children will face if they are brought to the UK and the possible prejudice that might follow. But I know that whatever may lie ahead in the UK, at least these children will be safe. At least these children won't have to live every day in the fear.

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