In the Calais camp of refugees and migrants, there are over 300 unaccompanied minors between the ages of 8 and 16. There are many more children there with their parents or other family members. They play snooker and cards in the youth centre or the 'Kids Restaurant'. They zoom around the camp on bicycles, play endless games of Connect 4 and read or study in the 'Jungle Books' library on the camp.
They are from countries in the Middle East and East Africa, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan. Some of them are orphans but most of them aren't; most of them have been sent to Europe by their families, in the hope that they will find safety there and access to a reasonable level of education. At home, most of them will not have been able to attend school, either because there haven't been any schools to go to, or because the walk to school has become too dangerous. Parents in these regions are often scared to let their children leave the house in case they get hit by a bomb or caught up in a fight between opposing forces.
Volunteers and older refugees do everything they can to support these children, but there is only so much that can be done on the camp. Working in the medical tents this weekend, a fourteen-year-old Afghan boy turned up with burns and scars on his face. He had arrived on the camp that day, having travelled by boat and on foot for the last three months to reach the camp. He didn't speak English and I didn't speak Pashto, but we found him new clothes and a tent to sleep in. He smiled and shook my hand, saying 'thank you' when I left him with the youth workers at the end of the day. His parents and younger siblings remain in Afghanistan.
Like many of the refugees, these children have been told by people smugglers that they will be taken to the UK and that there they will be welcomed. Understandably, when they reach Calais and cannot get across to the UK, when it dawns on them that the UK may not take them in, there is a huge sense of confusion and frustration. Many of them walk hours every night to Calais port, jumping under or over fences to try and board trucks or trains. A few of the children have died in attempts to reach the UK, and they often come to the medical tents wounded and exhausted after their nights outside.
Facing constant uncertainty about their future, these children can crack under the pressure, or simply become despondent, refusing to leave their tents to get food, to socialise or to receive necessary medical attention.
Recently, one of the major charities operating in the camp, Care4Calais, teamed up with the National Union of Teachers in the UK to begin a project which aims to connect children in Calais with children in the UK, and raise awareness of these unaccompanied minors. Schools all over the UK have asked to be involved and British children have written hundreds of letters of support which Care4Calais has distributed in the Women and Children's centre, as well as the school in the camp.
British children have drawn cards with messages of support and welcome, often asking to be the other child's friends and telling them about life in the UK. "If you get this, please come to Bristol, it's very safe and it's in the UK," reads one. Another one says: "Dear Refugees, I'm so sorry your houses are knocked down. I hope you come to the UK because the UK is nice and carm. I am really sorry that you have to live in small blue tents."
The message that emerges from these many letters and cards is of welcome, and all of the charities working with the Calais unaccompanied minors are trying their best to make this message a universal one.
There isn't an easy solution to the conflicts raging in the parts of the world the children in Calais are from. Neither can we 'fix' the various psychological difficulties these children are struggling with. But educating children across the world about the fates of others, no less human than themselves, and encouraging cross-cultural friendships and ties, can only help us to show more humanity in the future.
To see the messages written and shared by the children in the campaign, please click here.
To read some of the Calais childrens' stories, please click here.