Calais camp demolition begins as charities call for protection of minors

Crews move in with diggers and electric saws as Unicef UK says it is ‘unacceptable’ for process to start while children remain

The demolition of the makeshift camp in Calais began on Tuesday, as charities said the measures were unacceptable while children remained and calls were made for all the children to be registered and taken to safety.

Crews wearing hard hats and orange jumpsuits began tearing down tents, sheds and other temporary buildings as refugees and migrants continued to board buses for relocation centres elsewhere in France on the second day of the massive operation to clear the area.

The workers, who were escorted by scores of French police, used electric saws to take down wooden shelters, and mechanical diggers to remove debris from the sprawling site where an estimated 6,000-8,000 people have been living.

The charity Unicef UK said it was unacceptable for demolition to begin while children remained in the camp.

“The children waiting to go into converted shipping containers are still in danger and keeping them safe must be the No 1 priority,” said Lily Caprani, the charity’s deputy executive director.

“There is only one chance for the authorities to get this right and they need more time.

“The UK made a commitment to bring those children with a legal right to be here and agreed with the French authorities that the demolition must not begin until every child is safe. We’ve seen the home secretary achieve real progress by bringing some of the vulnerable children to the UK, but there are hundreds more in Calais still waiting to reach safety and we cannot lose them now.”

Calais camp volunteer Michael McHugh said there were now fewer protective adults at the camp. One boy, aged 13, from Darfur, who had made his journey to Calais after walking through the desert with other children, was typical of those left marooned on the site, McHugh said. “They were being looked after by the other men, maybe men from their village back home, who have now left the camp, and who is looking after them [now]?”

French riot police stand guard as the camp is dismantled.
French riot police stand guard as the camp is dismantled. Photograph: Etienne Laurent/EPA

As the dismantling work began, a group of children, which included for the first time those under 13, arrived in Croydon from Calais after the Home Office lifted its 24-hour “temporary pause” on transfers from France, put in place, according to the department, to enable preparations for the camp’s demolition to get underway.

The group had been transferred under the terms of the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act 2016. It requires Britain to give a safe haven to some of the most vulnerable, lone refugee children without direct links to the UK.

They will be dispersed to local authorities’ children’s services departments around Britain after being processed as unaccompanied child asylum seekers.

One in four councils in England have said they will not take part in the national transfer scheme under which the Dubs children will be dispersed. The home secretary, Amber Rudd, has said there is sufficient immediate capacity to support the children being transferred to Britain.

She has said, however, that as hundreds more children arrive in the coming weeks the Home Office would need to identify further places and would be working with local authorities to ensure that happens. The council that covers Theresa May’s constituency of Windsor and Maidenhead is among the 38 so far to have said they do not have the capacity to take any more refugee children or families.

The dispute over the delays in identifying and processing the 800 children under 18 in the Calais camp who claim to have family links with Britain continued on Tuesday.

The French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, revealed that France had asked the UK to take all the unaccompanied child refugees in the camp – thought to number almost 1,000 – before the demolition preparations began. But this had been rejected by British ministers, who said there should be case-by-case examinations by officials in the camp before anyone was brought to Britain.

Rudd told MPs that Home Office officials had interviewed 800 children in the camp who claimed close family ties to Britain in the last week to verify their claims and their ages. The Home Office said it expected the transfer of children from the camp to Britain to take place daily from now.

About 3,500 people have so far been bussed to shelters around France, where most hope to apply for asylum.

On Tuesday, about 400 unaccompanied minors were taken to converted shipping containers in part of the camp where families had previously been living, with that number expected to rise to nearer 1,000.

Before the demolition work began, aid workers and government officials inspected tents to ensure the area had been emptied. Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais who lobbied for the camp to be demolished, watched as the first few huts were pulled down on Tuesday.

“For the last three years, life has been hell in Calais,” she said. She warned that the demolition of the camp was unlikely to mark the end of the issue for the town, which remains on the map as a perceived gateway to Britain for migrants and refugees.

“Our fear today is that about 3,000 migrants still in the camp are not agreeing to go, and they could cause clashes with the security forces,” said Bouchart, as riot police with teargas and stun guns lined the makeshift streets in the camp and heavy goods vehicles with industrial-sized skips were driven through the sandy passages.

The UK has taken almost 200 teenagers over the past week. On Tuesday, scores of them were waiting to be interviewed by French and British officials.

The French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said all unaccompanied minors “with proven family links in Great Britain” would eventually be transferred to the UK.

Isolated scuffles, however, broke out on Tuesday morning amid a chaotic and poorly managed registration process. Hundreds of minors and young adults were caught in a crush before dawn, as riot police kettled teenagers in an effort to manage queues. The children were forced to sit on a muddy roadside bank, and when the gates opened the police reacted forcibly to the inevitable surge.

Sudanese people in the camp have accused the authorities of prioritising children from other countries over children from Sudan. A Sudanese representative, Mussa Mahdy, removed 150 Sudanese minors from the kettle area and accused the authorities of discriminating against them. “Everywhere we go – Italy, Germany, France – they don’t want the Sudanese,” he said.

Women, a rare sight in the past 48 hours, arrived in a group of about 30 in the afternoon, demanding that Britain give them support whatever their age.

Cheering and holding up a banner that said “Please England, Help All Womens”, they chanted: “No more jungle, we need help, under age, over age, all the same, all humans, one right.”


Alan Travis, Lisa O'Carroll in Calais and Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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