'They are falling apart': the fate of lone children in Calais' refugee camp

As the UK vacillates over admitting unaccompanied minors, boys as young as 10 make their own nightly efforts to get in

A typical day for the group of 10- to 13-year-olds who live in the Calais refugee camp without their parents begins sometime around four o’clock in the afternoon, when they wake up.

There is nowhere on site to take a shower, and the wooden shacks and caravans where they live in groups of two or three have no water, so they make their way to a small wooden hut that serves free rice and beans.

As they eat, they discuss the teargassing that some of them got the night before at the hands of the French police, when they were trying to get into lorries travelling to the UK. An 11-year-old rolls up his tracksuit bottom to show a cut he sustained when a police officer pulled him off a lorry. There is a lot of laughter, but a couple of the younger boys sit away from the group, silent and gloomy. Volunteers looking after this group of the youngest boys, travelling alone, say they are increasingly worried about them.

“They are falling apart. We’re watching a deterioration of their mental health. They can be tearful, they aren’t sleeping, they have nightmares. They aren’t coping well,” says Liz Clegg, a volunteer from Devon who, in the absence of help from any mainstream children’s charities, has taken responsibility for a group of between 20 and 25 boys.

12-year-old A from Afghanistan.
12-year-old A from Afghanistan. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi/The Guardian

In the wake of Monday’s defeat of a Lords amendment that proposed bringing 3,000 lone child refugees into the UK, MPs will be asked to consider a new version demanding that Britain resettle an unspecified number of unaccompanied refugee children currently living elsewhere in Europe. As the fate of child refugees is discussed in parliament, volunteers looking after the youngest in Calais are dismayed that politicians in the UK have been so slow to recognise that they need urgent help.

A survey by the British voluntary organisation Help Refugees at the beginning of April found 294 unaccompanied minors in Calais, the youngest of whom is eight. Most of the 10- to 13-year-olds are from Afghanistan and Syria. Spend an afternoon in the camp, and you meet dozens of them.

The younger boys are reluctant to say much about their families, or what pushed their parents to send them alone on such a dangerous journey, but they are very clear that the Calais camp is a frightening and unsuitable place for children.

“There is no life for us here. People are fighting. It’s very dangerous. People get crushed by cars,” says S, 12, from Logar province of Afghanistan, through an interpreter. He has a nasty cough and his chest sounds infected. “It is not a good place for us, running every night for the lorries. We don’t sleep nicely. The weather is very cold. There are no showers. We don’t have clean clothes.”

Makeshift shelters at the Calais refugee camp
Makeshift shelters at the Calais refugee camp. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi/The Guardian

None of these younger children attend the handful of pop-up schools that volunteers have opened across the camp, and look surprised at being asked whether they did. “How can we go to school? We’re out five or six hours every night and we get back eight or nine in the morning. We want to sleep,” S says. “We aren’t here for school.”

His father, a shepherd, is dead, and he says his mother sent him away to stop the Taliban from taking him. It feels unkind to ask him how he is coping – particularly through an interpreter in the crowded children’s cafe with the other boys craning their necks to hear what he says – or if he misses his mother or regrets having embarked on the journey. These children have met a number of journalists over the months, and view them warily. The experience of being interviewed is just another strange aspect of life in Calais. “I miss my family, but I can’t go back there. We had a problem in Afghanistan,” he says, offering no further explanation. “I want to study in England. I want to start life there.”

Volunteers ask that the children should not be named or identified in pictures, so they pull scarves over their faces to be photographed, which unfortunately obscures their broad pre-teenage smiles and their smooth cheeks, years from needing to be shaved. It disguises how childish they are.

Calais refugee camp
This group of 12- and 13-year-olds made their way alone from Afghanistan to Calais. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi/The Guardian

Inside their caravans, however, it’s obvious that these are very young children, some of whom would be in primary school in the UK, trying to fend for themselves in unimaginably difficult conditions. When A, 12, also from Afghanistan, stirs tinned tomatoes on a hob, he has to reach up, stretching his arm over the edge of the pot to stir. He is still too short to cook easily at the stove. He opens a cupboard that reveals very little to eat about four tins of Tesco Value chopped tomatoes – a donation from the UK) – some chickpeas, four tins of baked beans and a few loose potatoes.

Two more 12-year-olds from Afghanistan share a hut around the corner with an older Afghan, unrelated to them. The small room is tidy, a meagre quantity of donated milk cartons are lined up neatly, and coats and trousers are hung up on nails on the wall alongside a John Lewis frying pan and a plastic hand mirror. There is nothing to indicate that children live here – no football or cricket bat, nothing unnecessary. Outside the door there is a strong smell of burning plastic as camp residents start lighting fires to cook food.

For the remainder of the afternoon, the younger children hang around together by the caravans, or near the free food, half-watching a Bollywood police drama. Sometime between 1am and 3am they will leave their shelters, and walk for about an hour to try either to scramble on to the top of a lorry or to get into the back of a parked vehicle. Usually they travel in groups together, with some adults.

M, 12, from Afghanistan: ‘Usually I’m teargassed’
M, 12, from Afghanistan: ‘Usually I’m teargassed’. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi/The Guardian

The translator, who is himself trying to reach the UK, advises against asking too many questions about how the children get on to the lorries, or how they know where to find stationary vehicles, to avoid getting them into trouble with the adults who are helping them. It is an excursion that the younger boys say they found very alarming to begin with, but most of them have been here for five or six months and have been making the same attempt five or six nights a week.

“The first time I was scared, and now I am not at all,” S says. “Every day we say: ‘We will be lucky tonight, we will get to London.’” He frequently manages to get on to a lorry, helped to climb on by an adult, before police pull him off at the checkpoint. Often the French searches of the vehicle find nothing, but the children are discovered during the subsequent, more rigorous checks at the British checkpoint before the lorries are allowed on the ferries.

The children can name about half a dozen boys who have managed to make it to England, some of them clinging on to the underside of a lorry. They can also name children they knew who have died trying to make the trip.

Calais refugee camp
The interior of one child’s caravan. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi/The Guardian

The French police make no particular effort to be kind to the vulnerable young children they find walking in the early hours of the morning, he says. “They pull us off the lorries and they say ‘Go jungle!’” M, another 12-year-old from Afghanistan, says. “Usually I am teargassed.”

The boys laugh when they are asked to explain how they get ready to go out at night. They say they don’t need to get ready because they don’t take anything with them. None of them have any money, so they can’t buy food or bottles of water for the trip. All they have is a mobile phone, often given to them and topped up by the volunteers. French police frequently remove their phones, the children say, when they catch them near the port.

Because there are no mainstream charities looking after the children, Clegg has taken responsibility for many of them in an ad hoc way, along with her daughter Inca Sorrell, 23, who has also been here permanently since the early autumn.

“We do the basic things. These children have been tramping through Europe. Do they need shoes, trousers, food? We make sure they have somewhere safe to live,” Clegg says. She finds places in caravans, next to families, for the new arrivals. She has organised a scabies centre, where their clothes and bedding can be disinfected. Now that the children are mostly fed and warm, she worries more about their growing behavioural and mental health problems.

She stays in touch by phone with many of the boys who have travelled to the UK, and is currently visiting one very troubled child who is struggling in foster care. “The journey has been horrendous for the children, particularly because they have been smuggled. They have got themselves to Calais, the final station before their great goal, and they are trapped here. There are high levels of depression. You can see that in them. Most of them have been there for around five months. The stress of living in the camps is quite high.”

She worries about the huge risks involved in spending every night trying to get on lorries and has tried to persuade them to apply for asylum in France, but many are reluctant. “They have all experienced brutality at the hands of the police, being pushed off lorries, punched and kicked. They say they have had teargas sprayed into their mouths. That has been a lot of the children’s experience in France and that is part of the reason why they are not engaging with France. You can understand why they feel as they do.”

One of the more vulnerable children who managed to smuggle himself to the UK, still has nightmares about the French police. “You’d would expect them to be dreaming about the Taliban or the people smugglers,” Clegg says.

She is amazed at how little formal support there is for the children. “I came to hand out a few wellies and tents. Eight months later I am still here and nothing has been done for them. There is no meaningful child protection going on, no meaningful engagement. People assume there are charities like Save the Children looking after them. They aren’t. People don’t realise the conditions they are living in.”


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