The photograph published yesterday of a small Syrian boy pulled from the rubble in Aleppo gives some clue to the awful experiences that cause people to flee their home country, not knowing where they will end up. The young people I work with in the Calais refugee camp are usually older – generally around 12 to 28 – but to me they all seem very young.
Now a new report from the Refugee Youth Service suggests the situation for child refugees has worsened sharply, and that hundreds are at risk of disappearing. The dangers are many, and we are increasingly dealing with psychological damage in addition to the physical risks and deprivations.
These young people don’t want to be thousands of miles away from home in this place with a foreign culture where they barely speak the language and don’t know anyone. Every night they worry about the families they have left behind – families that could be dead.
Working in a refugee camp is not just a job. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. Pretty much all volunteers struggle with the nature of the work we do. But for those who live in the camp, the loss of hope, lack of information, fear and uncertainty mean the smallest things come to matter a lot.
The lack of showers, hot water for washing, and laundry facilities, the overcrowding and the monotonous, cheap food handed out in queues like in a prison – all make it tough. What is worse is the hostility and sometimes violence that the boys experience from the police and sometimes from local people, or those passing through Calais.
There is a lot of racism. People beat and abuse these boys, call them names and throw rubbish at them in the street. The UK doesn’t want them. And these young boys, when they have been beaten by far-right protesters or the police, come to me and say: “Why don’t people like me? I’ve done nothing wrong. Why doesn’t England want me? I will work hard.”
I wish I could help them more. But what I can do is make sure that any pair of jeans or second-hand shoes that I give them are not dirty or damaged. I can’t bear to hand over something that gives the message “You have nothing so, although this might be a bit rubbish, it’s good enough for you”. Even though we are really low on donations, and most things we receive are second hand, our volunteers sort through the clothes with care because the people here have nothing. We want to show them respect and treat them with the dignity we would want for our own families if something awful ever happened to them.
We desperately need support. Since the camp demolitions earlier this year many people thought the camp had closed and our donations have dramatically dropped. There are so many things we don’t have. But what the children in the camp need most is hope, and they will only get that if they see real action being taken to get them to safety in the UK. Time moves slowly for a child, and leaving them to wait in the camp for months while their applications are processed will only create more faces that are as lost and hopeless as the little boy in the ambulance in Syria.
• Donate at www.care4calais.org