On Monday, the French government intends to demolish migrant camps referred to as the “Jungle” in Calais. This could be particularly harmful for unaccompanied children. During the last demolition, 129 children went missing. Today, French police estimate 900 unaccompanied children live in the camp, while some nongovernment groups estimate there could be 1,300 to 1,600.
No one would claim that the camp is a good place for these children. Conditions are grim. It’s getting cold and rainy. Children live in tents and flimsy shelters, and have access to very few services or information about their options. Nongovernmental organizations provide some legal services, as well as food, clothing, and safe spaces for children to hang out for a few hours. But children remain at risk of sexual exploitation, violence, and trafficking.
But these risks will increase if the camp is demolished without either France or the United Kingdom providing the children with adequate care and protection.
Joshua (not his real name), a 15-year-old Eritrean boy who has been in Calais for five months, is no exception. He lives squashed in a tent with three friends. When we met Joshua, he was in the Kids Café, a safe space where children can get food, relax, and learn. Joshua told us how he had been tear gassed by the police more than once and how he felt the police “hate us.”
Each night, he tries to reach England, the goal of most children and adults in the camp. “We try to go, we eat, we sleep. That’s our life.” Joshua wants to go to England because he speaks English and sees opportunities there.
Organizations we spoke to reckoned about 300-400 of the unaccompanied minors in Calais would qualify to enter the UK under European asylum regulations, based on family ties. The UK also has discretion to take other children, like Joshua, who have no family ties.
But by the end of Friday, only about 80 children had arrived in the UK.
Most kids will remain in France. Joshua had not been told about his options to stay in France and said that he believed France did not want him. Those who do wish to claim asylum in France are stuck as there are few places available in reception centers currently.
The French and UK governments have a responsibility to find these children safe shelter before the camp is torn down. The French and UK governments should now move quickly to ensure Joshua and other unaccompanied kids in Calais are protected, and give them a chance of a future.