In January 2016, a landmark court ruling allowed unaccompanied Syrian teens living in the Calais “Jungle” to cross the English Channel from northern France and join family members in the UK while their asylum claims were assessed. The decision potentially opens the way for other refugee children living without their family in inhumane conditions. Reported.ly’s Malachy Browne met some of them.
British volunteer Liz Clegg first came to our notice in one of the make-shift cafes that have sprung up around the Calais camp. Sitting at an adjacent table on a freezing January evening, Clegg was surrounded by seven young boys aged 10 to 13 as she shared a meal of Biryani rice with a tomato-based curry and pakoras cooked by the team of Afghan chefs who run the cafe.
None of the boys with Clegg is accompanied in Calais by a family member. Some have lost parents, usually fathers, in their home countries. Others have been separated from their family along the refugee journey. Some are affected psychologically by their loss and loneliness in this harsh, tough environment.
The boys are boisterous as they dine. Two tussle with each other at the end of the table. Others move around from table to table. As I sit opposite, a 13-year-old boy named Jalil looks me square in the eyes and spits “Fuck you!” Again, more forcefully: “Fuck you!” Afterwards it emerges my padded jacket made me resemble the uniformed police that permanently sit with tear gas and batons by the entrance to the camp.
Clegg and her daughter Inca handle the aggressive horseplay admirably – a hug, a smile, a gentle word. Clegg feels that looking after the children is part of her remit in running a women and children’s center in the camp. She set up the camp after initially coming to Calais over five months ago with her large truck to help distribute aid.
“I started to become aware that there was quite a lot of women here,” Clegg said in an interview. “I decided I would target women’s distribution once a week. We ran a boutique-style distribution, a free shop for women to come and get clothes and hygiene stuff – whatever they needed.”
When donations allowed them to build the center, it served as a safe environment for women and children in a camp where 95% of the population is men.
When I visit the center the next day, it’s bustling. A volunteer is sawing timber fixtures for the main center building. One boy is cycling a racing bicycle, repeatedly nudging it against one of the volunteers. Clegg sits inside the “Caravan of Calm” in a scene that is anything but calm. Three boys are cramped around Clegg, drawing flags on copy books with markers.
Clegg’s attention is constantly demanded. One boy asks for help with his drawing, another grabs her by the arm looking for a marker. Voices shout over each another. Amid the noise, an English teacher enters the cramped van to ask when she might offer lessons at the center. Dispossessed of his bicycle, our former cyclist bursts in, grabs a bundle of copy books and tosses it on the huddled group. Another arrives in with a saw he found outside.
Most of the boys are from Afghanistan; most have just a few words of English. Education focuses on practicalities. They manage their own pocket-money as a way to teach math. Clegg encourages the boys to speak it and to write shopping lists in English. She admirably defused the situation with the cyclist by getting him to write “Hassan cycle tomorrow” on one of the copybooks.
“There’s a lot of scabies too,” she says. “You can imagine what it’s like with 10- and 12-year-olds. And because they scratch so much, sometimes they get secondary infections. We installed a scabies shower which they’ll use tomorrow.”
I inquire how they installed the showers. “Showers are easy. Rainwater, a solar panel, pump and we’re set.”
I then ask if boys try to cross the Channel Tunnel in trucks like older refugees. A 14-year-old and 17 year-old were killed in recent months; another teenager was killed recently.
“The younger they are, the more risks they take,” Clegg says. “They climb into trucks, under trucks. We lost one a few weeks ago. He died in a truck. We’ve lost quite a few, actually.”
The facility has improved the boys’ behavior, Clegg continues. The boys get in trouble less. They have a structure. After five months in the camp on a voluntary basis, I ask whether she can stay, and what their future would hold were she to leave.
The boys would be “lost,” she says.
These boys aren’t the only children in the Jungle. A photojournalist I walked the camp with, Rob Pinney, has met children born to families here in recent months. Several other toddlers live with their families in caravans that line a section of one street in the camp. Sheltered from the freezing conditions, they peer playfully through windows as we pass. With lines of washed clothes neatly running between neighbouring caravans, this section has all the appearance of a semi-permanent existence.
A recent report from the nearby camp in Dunkirk showed just how perilous the conditions are here for infants and children. Guardian reporter Patrick Kingsley interviewed an Iraqi man living with his wife and baby boy. “Oscar always is sick,” he said. “If we don’t arrive in the UK, probably I [will] lose my child.”
Landmark ruling gives hope
Remarkably, Oscar’s father is a British citizen. Having come to the UK after the 2003 war in Iraq, he later returned, only to flee his home again when Islamic State seized much of Iraq. Calais sits just miles from the UK border, yet “bureaucratic” migration policy dictates that this desperate British citizen cannot enter with his family.
However, a January court ruling in favor of four young Syrian refugees in Calais has given hope. The three teenage boys and a dependent adult were allowed to join their family in the UK while their asylum claims were appraised.
Organizers from Citizens UK, who backed the legal challenge, described the historic decision as a victory against human traffickers and for refugees who have a legal right to be reunited with family in the UK.
“A safe legal route is the alternative to an unsafe and illegal route,” an organizer with the group said at Kings Cross station as the boys arrived on Jan. 21. “Hopefully we can roll it out.”
However, what hope there is of altering Britain’s migration policy appears to rest with the legal system and not the political establishment. British Prime Minister David Cameron has twice made inflammatory remarks in dismissing people living in Calais as a “swarm of people” and a “bunch of migrants.”
The women and children center in Calais accepts donations, which you can do on this website.