Photo credit: Benny Hunter
I first met 16-year-old Dawit at 3am on a cold French morning in Calais. 'The Jungle' refugee camp he called home was on fire and had been mostly evacuated to the perimeters, and he was slumped over, clutching his leg in pain. He was completely helpless yet refusing to go to the hospital for the abscess he'd been ignoring while traversing Europe on foot - because he was too scared. As Dawit grew to trust me, he told me his story - of how he had fled his home country of Eritrea and travelled to Europe through Libya, where he was imprisoned and tortured with electricity and acid. As a result, he suffers from PTSD and social anxiety, distrusts officials and fears entrapment, and as such is unable to make rational decisions in his own best interest. Dawit's abscess hospitalised him and during his hospital stay he was interviewed by the UK Home Office as an assessment of his own best interest (Dawit has family in the UK and as such is eligible for family reunification under the Dublin III agreement) before he was taken to an accommodation centre for minors.
Some weeks later, it was purely by chance that I was in Paris on the same day that Dawit was. He called me and explained in agitated, broken English that his accommodation centre was 'no good': he'd fled and planned to sleep on the street that night. Official accommodation for minors in Paris is practically hidden from view and impossible to negotiate but luckily a collective of concerned Parisian citizens stepped in with a sofa bed in a warm apartment last minute. As I helped Dawit down the steps into the Paris metro, his crutch in one hand, his eyes darting around this strange place, I thought to myself "How is it that I am I doing this?". How was it that a physically and mentally handicapped child was able to slip through the safety net of European child protections and end up sleeping outside in the cold and in the rain?
The Eviction of 'the Jungle' camp in Calais was a deeply stressful and uncertain time for its underage inhabitants. On 2nd of November, the 1,500 unaccompanied minors living temporarily in the container camp within 'the Jungle,' were bussed to state-run accommodation centres (CAOMIEs) and dispersed all over the face of France, without any information about where they might end up. While worrisome in its execution, the accommodation of vulnerable children was a positive step in the right direction; one that NGOs in Calais had been calling on the French government to complete for many months. Children who have accommodation in these centres have been promised by the UK Home Office that they will be interviewed, and have their cases heard by officials, for transfer to the UK either as part of a family reunification process or under the Dubs Amendment for those vulnerable children without family.
Over the past week, myself and another volunteer have been visiting these centres to offer a familiar face and to try to calm the nerves of those we had previously worked with in Calais. The centres we have visited have been mostly clean, warm and safe environments - with beds, showers and state-provided food or a stipend - a great improvement over the dangerous and wholly unsuitable environment of 'the Jungle' where many children had lived in squalor, some for a year or more. While some centres have rallied to provide children with stimulating activities and excursions, education and social support, others have unfortunately fallen short and minors have complained of boredom, lack of support, lack of proper clothing and, as a result, heightened stress. One centre was stormed by far-right nationalists and another experienced an arson attack the day before children arrived (security was hired by the local Prefecture, but cancelled after only one week due to lack of funds). Yet minors have shared that they feel safer in these centres than they did in 'the Jungle,' with one boy stating:
"We are safe here. In 'the Jungle,' there were fights, and the guys were raped."
Not all children who previously lived in Calais have since found safety in a CAOMIE centre for unaccompanied minors. Others were wrongfully age-disputed by police or officials as they queued for the buses, and then placed into adult accommodation centres (CAOs), whilst others have decided to return to the street or a smaller camp to sleep rough, while avoiding the police (who after months of police brutality in Calais, they understandably distrust). It is these children - the ones that have slipped through the cracks and are now uncared for - that are the most at risk. 129 children went missing following the eviction of the South Side of 'the Jungle' in March (although this is not acknowledged by the French state who completed no official registration of their own). Now, the French are not tracking the movements of those children who choose to leave the centres and those who disappear, and so far no efforts have been made to place those now outside of centres (and the Home Office system), back into accommodation.
The emotional wellbeing of those children staying in accommodation centres is now at risk as they wait for news from the Home Office about how to apply for a transfer to the UK under Dublin III and Dubs. Those already registered in Calais and waiting (some for many months) are even more of a flight risk. During the eviction, a bus due to take 30 children to the UK was cancelled without explanation (with the children being later dispersed to centres). Since then, proceedings have been halted. Both the families in the UK and the children in France have been left hanging in limbo mid-process. Minors, some of whom last saw UK officials on the busses that took them to their temporary homes, have no idea what is going on:
"One week I've been here and we have not been registered [by the Home Office] I think Calais better for going UK."
Although they are legally obliged to, the UK Home Office are not considering for transfer those children with cousins in the UK. For those children without family in the UK, new guidelines have been published by the HO that states that only children under 12 years of age and children from Sudan or Syria, under-15, will be considered for transfer to the UK. These guidelines were only shared with UK Charities yesterday and none of this information has been shared with the French staff at accommodation centres or the children evicted from 'the Jungle' (who left under the suggested pretence that they would be fairly considered for transfer). These arbitrary guidelines rule out a large proportion of the children (including whole nationalities such as Afghans and Eritreans) waiting patiently and expectantly in these centres for news of what next.
Many of these asylum-seeking children already suffer from stress disorders and depression, from experiences in their home countries and the journeys they made since. They had been given a glimmer of hope by the French and British authorities, if that hope is extinguished it will be impossible to rekindle. In its place they will have only their anxiety and suicidal thoughts. One boy told me that "I only want my brother. I will kill myself if I am not with brother." Silence has been utilized by both the UK and French as political leverage before, during the eviction period, and it was the NGOs like Refugee Info Bus that stepped in to fill that space and distribute information to camp residents. Now once again, children are being kept in the dark about their future.
As they wait and wait and wait, their ambivalence turns to distrust. The lack of information is driving the unaccompanied minors of Calais to make desperate and dangerous decisions and some will likely feel their only option is to return back to the road. It was the French state that eventually took these children into their care - now it is the turn of the British to act fast and to communicate their plans with those it directly affects. Every day that they hear nothing draws them closer to despair. Without hope of reaching the UK by legal routes, more vulnerable children like Dawit will decide to take their fate into their own hands, leaving them homeless in Europe during the freezing Winter months.
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.