In the early hours of today - men, women, children and families packed up what little belongings they had in donated rucksacks and began the long walk to a warehouse where they were asked to join a queue. Here, each person is divided by category - adult, family, minors and vulnerable people. This will be their label, the thing which will determine how quickly they are processed and ultimately where in the world they may end up.
Adults and families who reach the front of the queue will be offered two regions in France to chose from. This decision determines where they will travel to next. For us, here in the UK, this decision may seem a hugely important one - where you may end up, where you may call home, where you may try to build your roots. For many of the refugees in Calais though this will simply be yet another leg in a long and tedious and arduous journey. A journey which for some will have taken many years and seen them travel through innumerable countries, witnessing and suffering through things most of us could (thankfully) only imagine.
From the warehouse they will be herded through to a tent, each large enough to hold 50 people. Once a tent is full, they will board a bus, heading to a destination which many will not have heard of. From here the future is uncertain. This morning the first buses left for Burgundy. Our friends at the Refugee Info Bus handed out maps as quickly as they could show refugees where in France each region sits. In uncertain times information is often the greatest comfort of all.
As the residents leave for refugee centres in destinations around France many with close family in the UK tell our volunteers that their dreams of being reunited with their loved ones are slipping away. Residents like the 27 year old Syrian mother I met many months ago whose husband had been murdered by Isis in front of her. She and her two small children were hoping to join her parents in the UK, the only family she had remaining.
For unaccompanied minors (of which, in the last Help Refugees census, there are over 1,000) it's a different story. Some with family in the UK have already started to be brought over here under the Dublin III regulation (something they were entitled under international law to do long, long ago). Here they face the psychological challenge of not only having to readjust to life in a new city (and somehow starting the long process of trying to heal from all the horrors many of them have experienced in their homelands, during their journeys, and even in Calais at the hands of the police and the extreme right wing groups) but also face being splashed over the front pages of our press, accused of being liars, and frauds and fakes. A welcome even those without psychological scars may struggle to understand.
Others will have no family here and may be eligible to come to the UK under Dubs Amendment which passed back in May. It's taken six long months for the first children to be brought here under Alf Dubs amendment - far too long for these young people to have been left to languish in Calais. We may never know the full damage done to them during their time there. But the numbers are small - so far only 43 girls who arrived in London this weekend. Other girls who weren't chosen as part of the 43 fainted when their names weren't called out from a list. The registration of these young people being left so last minute has caused much distress and little dignity.
For the majority of the unaccompanied minors, who range in ages from eight to 17 years old, the future remains uncertain. We are told they will being herded from the camp to shipping containers where they must wait to hear what will happen to them next. But today, at the time of writing, not one of the under 13 year olds has been registered. We hope the chaos we are now witnessing in Calais camp does not result in more children going missing. As we know from the Help Refugees census 129 children went missing following the last part demolition of the camp back in February. Many of the children are already severely psychologically damaged, deemed at high risk of suicide. Others are simply confused, with very little information or guidance for them. For us too, the Help Refugees team, who have been working in Calais for the past 15 months, the information is incomplete.
Meanwhile in the Calais camp itself will be dismantled. Schools, churches, mosques, shops, cafés, and homes will all be destroyed - most of which were built and donated by volunteers and refugees themselves. For a population of people who have already been displaced at least once in their lives this grotty, dirty, muddy place will have been home. It may not have been much, and certainly we welcome any moves by the French to relocate them to more dignified and safer accommodation, but seeing their houses and their communities destroyed once again will not be easy.
Our Calais team have also been through hard times. Young volunteers with kind hearts who have already seen and heard too much now face having to try to deal with over 8,000 people being potentially traumatised by yet another displacement. This job should not fall to these young people. It should be carried out by a large NGO with experienced staff, trained and mentally prepared to deal with such a distressing task.
In our last Help Refugees census we counted 8,124 people. Each one of them is a unique individual with a very different story and reason for being in Calais. Each with a different hope for what their futures may hold. As they continue on their travels today we hope each and every one of them soon find a place to call home.
Help Refugees are the largest grassroots NGO in Calais and also work across Greece, Turkey and Lebanon. To donate to their work please visit www.helprefugees.org.ukSuggest a correction