Children from the Calais camp not accepted into the U.K. are scattered across France, some in official centers, others on the streets. Daniil Ukhorskiy, a 17-year-old Human Rights Watch intern, describes the fate of fellow teens he met in the camp’s final days.
News that the U.K. Home Office may take in no more unaccompanied children from the former “Jungle” camp in Calais is bound to feel like a betrayal to the many teens who have been anxiously awaiting word on their transfer requests.
They’re likely to wonder whether they made the right choice when they accepted offers to relocate from the camp. They were moved to centers elsewhere in France, when most were hoping that new lives awaited them across the English Channel, where many have relatives. Now they’re probably asking themselves whether they would have been better off if the camp had never been closed.
I visited the Calais migrant camp the weekend before its demolition, and I can see why they would have mixed feelings about leaving. As appalled as I was to see a shantytown on the edge of a modern European city, I also found a vibrant community created by the migrants who lived there and the many dedicated volunteers who put their lives on hold out of a sense of common humanity.
The Kids’ Cafe, filled with the booming bass of Bollywood music, conversations in a mixture of Pashto, Tigrinya and other languages, and the scent of spicy food, was one example of the social solidarity that they had built at Calais.
All around the room, young faces were fixated on the TV screen or their phones. The 22 square yards (20 square meters) plywood structure with a canvas tarp, provided free meals and recreation for the estimated 1,300 teens living on their own in the camp and perhaps most importantly a sense of belonging over their lonesome journeys. Many had traveled on their own – unaccompanied minors, deserving of protection from receiving states.
The walls were plastered with an eclectic combination of hand-drawn banners in Arabic and broken English, a poster of London’s iconic double-decker buses, and a variety of paintings by migrant children of all ages. At the front of the room, a bar served everything from cookies and tea to chickpea curry with rice, tended by residents and aid workers.
Outside, a drizzle turned into a steady shower, and heavy raindrops hit the canvas roof in between blasts from the stereo. Teenagers poured in seeking shelter, and soon the room was full.
A battered pool table in the center of the room was surrounded by Afghan boys in torn jackets and footwear ranging from heavy boots to flip-flops. Lacking a triangle, the oldest-looking pool player arranged the balls with his arms, carefully pushing them into place. Soon the game was in full swing, with as much arguing as playing, with waving arms and cues.
The air was heavy with tension and anxiety. Most of the other boys in the cafe were silent and glassy-eyed, mostly sitting on sofas looking at their phones. I tried to imagine myself, sitting alone in the corner of the cafe, stateless, homeless, completely dependent on the kindness of strangers to survive, and knowing that, in days, the Kids’ Cafe could be gone forever.
A shy-looking boy agreed to speak with me about his life in the camp. Clad in a faux-leather jacket, jeans and battered sneakers, a wispy mustache along his upper lip, “Aman” told me he was 15, from Eritrea, and had arrived in Calais after a perilous journey through Italy and France. He fled the repressive regime back home, which is known to conscript young boys for military service for indefinite durations. His English, although heavily accented, was proficient.
As with most of the others, he dreamed of reaching the U.K., though unlike many of them, he had no relatives in Britain. When asked whether he had considered staying in France, he shook his head with a sour expression. “Police are too difficult here,” he said. He added that they had used tear gas and other repressive measures that had injured some of the children.
Every night, he travelled to the port, a two-and-a-half hour trek, hoping to latch on to a train that slowed down enough and smuggle himself into Britain. He had been detained repeatedly. Police would apprehend the entire group and hold them for 16 hours, then release them, he explained.
Aman’s persistence is testament to his enormous strength and resilience in pursuing a life of dignity. Having made the perilous journey from Eritrea, he was a hand’s reach away from his intended destination, taunted by the cliffs of Dover that can be seen on a clear day.
In the camp, he shared a shabby tent with three roommates, where they slept at night, sardined together. He was acutely aware that his makeshift home could be destroyed at any point. But he found it hard to imagine that the camp, which felt almost like a town, with rows of shops and restaurants, would simply disappear overnight.
“[Go to the] port, eat, sleep. That is my life,” he said, before shaking my hand with a thin smile and disappearing into another corner of the cafe.
It’s hard to know what the future holds for Aman. He wasn’t eligible to enter the U.K. under the E.U. family-ties provision, and he is too old for transfer under the Home Office’s rules for humanitarian transfers under an immigration law provision known as the “Dubs amendment.”
His only real prospect is to stay in France. But repeated clashes with police have left Aman and other children wary of French authorities. Although they transferred over 1,500 unaccompanied children to centers throughout the country during and immediately after the camp’s demolition, those in the new centers are desperate for information about their fate. Some of these children have since left on their own. An unknown number have found shelter in smaller informal camps that lack the infrastructure or support that was available in Calais. Others are trying their luck on the streets of Paris.
With the visible scar of Calais gone and the attention of French and international media elsewhere, the world may soon forget about the hundreds of migrant children now scattered across France. The U.K. should move expeditiously to accept the children and their families, thereby making the fullest possible use of the Dubs provision. For their part, French authorities should move quickly to give all remaining children the information and support they need to make asylum claims in France.
Unless both countries take these urgent steps, for many – perhaps most – of these children, the demolition could end up being one step forward, two steps back.