The treatment of Calais camp children isn’t just neglectful – it’s abusive | Bronwen James Crowther

Organisational chaos in the wake of the evacuation has permeated every aspect of hundreds of young refugees’ welfare, leaving them exposed to intolerable risk

The Calais camp lies in limbo, with most of its inhabitants long gone. Those who remain face hardship beyond anything the camp has previously known. Before, there was shelter – now hundreds sleep on the fringes of its dirt tracks. Before, there was at least some sense of ease – now shocked and abandoned refugees live in a state of constant tension. Fire is a constant threat, and the bulldozers are coming.

Volunteers grapple not only with the urgency of the situation, but also with the knowledge that it should – and easily could – have been prevented.

When the French authorities began the registration and resettlement of refugees, those of us involved felt an initial sense of relief. But after three days of relatively smooth action the warehouse where the registration took place closed its doors. It did not open them again. This was despite previous assurances that all refugees would be accommodated. Those left behind had no chance of safely reaching asylum centres. Most minors, registered separately, were confined to a fenced-in yard and housed in shipping containers. The rest were left homeless alongside the adult population of the camp.

Where next? The last days of the Calais refugee camp

Why did the system not provide for all? How could any state leave children without shelter – and in some of the most dangerous circumstances in western Europe?

Despite being provided with up-to-date and detailed census information from my organisation, Help Refugees, and the local charity, l’Auberge des Migrants, the authorities chose not to take heed of these estimates. The 50-person, four-day census operation identified exact numbers of men, women, and children within the camp, and put the total population at 10,188. Though promised over 12,000 spaces in accommodation centres throughout France, almost 2,000 refugees have been abandoned once again by an uncaring government, and are left behind in the ruins of the Calais camp.

Over two weeks ago Help Refugees warned authorities at a local tribunal in Lille that housing minors in the “container camp” would be tantamount to exposing them to fire, violence, and extreme trauma. My colleague’s words went unheeded, and now seem almost prophetic. There are now approximately 1,500 children subjected to these conditions.

Children housed in the containers report choking on the smoke that blows in from their burning former homes. They say there is no drinking water, that the toilets are never cleaned and the showers are not working. Food is served only from 3pm to 5pm, and there is only one meal a day.

The authorities have utterly failed to safeguard these young people, and show little to no regard for their wellbeing, health, or mental states. The children in this camp are starved of care and attention, and are in constant danger. Their treatment is not just neglectful – it’s abuse.

The lack of organisation has permeated every aspect of these children’s lives. The crippling hunger pangs reported by many are alleviated only when groups of volunteers are allowed to distribute food. Without an identification wristband, children are not permitted to use the few still-working shower facilities – a fact made worse by the decision of the authorities to register some children without providing wristbands.

Arbitrary security measures mean that services such as the Refugee Info Bus – founded by long-term volunteers to provide refugees with WiFi and legal services – are barred from approaching the container camp, cutting the children off from means of communication and legal assistance. With this, and the recent banning of human rights lawyers acting as observers from entry into the camp, it is feared that the mistreatment of the camp’s children will go unchecked.

Volunteers are banned from putting up tents to house the homeless adult and child refugees outside the container camps, in yet another example of the restrictions that serve only to further endanger refugees’ lives. With a large portion of the camp in flames, many are sleeping on the dunes surrounding the camp, exposed to the rain, the cold, and the people smugglers.

Despite desperate conditions and daily heartbreak, the volunteers of Help Refugees and other organisations continue to provide food, water, and some comfort to the refugees who are left. Many volunteers are from the UK, and express their devastation that their country is not answering France’s calls and the refugee children it is failing – at present, it seems unlikely that the UK will take in more than the 274 children it already has. Many other volunteers are French, and must bear witness, distraught, to their nation’s mistreatment of refugees already so weakened by months of subsistence in the camp.

On 1 November charities operating within the camp received notice from the French authorities promising that all children in the container camp would be transferred by bus to accommodation centres across France this week. A representative from the UK Home Office on each bus will ensure that any children legally eligible for asylum within the UK are able to apply for transfer to the UK. It is unknown how long this legal process will take.

This is a testament to the work of the volunteers and legal workers in the camp, and presents an opportunity for these children to leave behind the trauma and misery of life in a refugee camp. However, there are no guarantees, and charities must continue to work to ensure that refugees throughout France are given a far better standard of care than was provided for the children of the Calais container camp.

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Bronwen James Crowther

The GuardianTramp

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