The last couple of weeks in the Calais jungle were difficult. The French state and local government played political football with the British Home Office on a stage set by the international media. Just the lack of information alone was grounds for psychological torment for people living in the camp. Plans changed by the day, by the hour. No one seemed to have a plan. Myself and another volunteer took a small group of 16 year olds to register for a wristband so they could sleep in the government run containers and potentially be registered by the British Home Office to get a golden ticket to the UK. This is day one of the demolition. One of the boys we had found in the ‘Family Field’. This was a group of caravans that had originally been designated as a family area following the evictions in March. It was purposefully more sheltered from the rest of the camp but, as time had gone on and numbers of people living in the camp increased, other residents moved into the area.
We had come to the area as the Prefecture (a significant local french politician, think Mayor crossed with local MP) and his demolition team had begun taking apart the shelters opposite the bus, very close to the family field, and we wanted to make sure all the families were out of the area and to let people know who were still there that the demolition had begun. As it turned out the team was going to very slowly take apart a small number of shelters for the sake of the media. The Prefecture had wanted the demolition to begin because it had been a long time coming, the Chief of Police had said they weren’t ready. So they came to agreement this small area would be demolished so the film crews had something to film.
The boy approached us and asked us for help. He said he’d been living in a container but had been told to leave that morning because they were emptying the containers for the unaccompanied minors and he would have to go and register for a wristband to be allowed back in. His English was near fluent. I point this only because he had the language and confidence to ask for help. Many others did not. He said he had left to be registered, queued and then told he was not a minor and asked to leave. He showed us his papers, written in an Arabic script. The numbers are familiar to me and I could see his year of birth was 2000. There had been no translator at the front of the queue and one person from the Home Office making very quick judgements, contravening all guidelines on age assessments. It’s often not until you interact with someone or watch them interact with people from their own age group that their age becomes apparent. He said he was still able to get into the container using his old code but he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to go in there so he’d come to stay with friends in their caravan. We accompanied him to the warehouse where the registration process was taking place and picked up a few others along the way. He told us he loved films and wanted to be a musician. When we arrived nobody knew what was happening. There was a huge group of people squished behind metal barriers that would occasionally surge forward as one CRS spoke in English over a mega phone, telling people not to push. Occasionally, another CRS would circle the group and point pepper spray at them. We discovered this was the queue for unaccompanied children to register. We found an official who said they weren’t registering any more children because it had become too chaotic. We suggested they employ some people who specialise in crowd control – think festival vibes. He gestured to the CRS – riot police, equipped with guns, tear gas, bullet proof vest who have physically and psychologically harmed these people over months. There is hard evidence of this. We told him they specialised in controlling violence, not managing teenage boys queuing for a bus. Meanwhile a protest staged by women approached from behind us, they were demanding recognition as people and safe passage to the UK. He then said, while people were distracted by the protest, if we gathered up a few children over on the opposite side of the road he would let them through to be processed. Which we did. He hesitated. The longer we waited the more attention we drew, until eventually he stopped speaking to us and it was announced that all registrations were over for that day. The boy from the family field put his jumper to his face and burst into tears. But I am underage. Where am I supposed to go*?
That night the bus that we had worked on as The Unofficial Women and Children’s Centre (UWCC) burnt to the ground. The children who stayed in containers next to the bus watched it burn. They phoned me to ask why the bus was on fire.
That’s just the beginning of the horrific human rights violations, political chaos and media manipulation that took place over the following days. In many ways the eviction was fairly smooth. Lack of information aside, there was less police brutality than in March’s eviction, they provided enough buses for the adults and, until all the adults had gone, there were no riots. They just left 1500 children with no parents, food, water, hygiene facilities, in a desolate camp that was now nothing more that wasteland and ashes. And wouldn’t let them out. Many of these injustices are documented in the mainstream media so I’ll leave it to the reader if they want to investigate further.
In the weeks leading up to the eviction, we took the kids on two trips. We went to the watch Cob Calais, the women’s basketball team, after the kids became obsessed with High School Musical, and we went bowling. It’ll be chaos they said – yes it will, we said, but if the kids are happy – who cares! They loved the basketball – we were so impressed how long they kept focus for and picked favourite players and asked questions and joined in with the drum rolls and chants – although they didn’t do any of the chants I’d made up before we arrived, I had clearly gone down the cool ladder and was now the embarrassing teacher. They shushed me. After the second half they began to become more distracted, particularly the younger ones, and ran around the seats and played with bubbles as kids are want to do at sporting events. We ran around after them, frantically counting and recounting to make sure there were no lost children or injuries. We grouped together for some food and a couple of the kids discovered the fabulous game of going up and down the escalators making it difficult for us to round them up. So much fun. At the end of the match we went and spoke to their favourite players and played on the basketball pitch. They were totally star struck.
Going bowling was also a lot of fun. Some of the kids just wanted to pretend play on the arcade games which was fine, and at the end of the bowling game, everyone had a euro to actually play one of the arcade games.
Before the eviction we went to visit three of the families who had been resettled in CAO’s – ‘Welcome Centres’. We went with the intention of visiting people we cared about but also making sure they were getting adequate support in a difficult transition. No longer were they trying to get to the UK but, now they were living in small french villages. What we found was a mixture of people who were glad to not be living in the squalor of the jungle, but who were isolated. Some had bed bugs, others received no bedding for weeks, a pregnant woman with no French or English was expected to attend hospital appointments with no translation, not all the kids were in schools. Some expressed that they would rather be in the Calais Jungle, a sentiment that had been voiced over phone calls. However, some of them had football lessons and were housed near each other, and had social workers they appreciated. We stimulated volunteer support in these areas with much success. Many people and associations hadn’t been aware families had moved in, others just needed a push in the direction of what was needed to help families integrate. I haven’t visited any of the unaccompanied children or men in the Welcome Centres, but reports from volunteers who continue to work in Calais aren’t overly optimistic. There’s still little information, some people have gone on hunger strikes, some people weren’t brought food for the first few days, boredom is rife, many children have disappeared, deportations have started. In December, a group of us from the Unofficial Women and Children’s Centre (UWCC) are going to visit some people who used to come to the bus. We’re looking forward to a road trip and seeing some of the most beautiful, funny, intelligent people we’ve met (and eating some of the most delicious food!). But we’ll also be doing check ups for people who have decided to claim asylum in France, and people who are waiting for the British Home Office. We’ll be working with Info CAO, Help Refugees and L’Auberge, who continue to work from Calais making sure that as many people as possible have access to information, social support, food, and education. As well as holding to account the French and British government who continue to fail to take responsibility for their actions and the capacity of their power. In the days following the eviction, the police in Calais arrested, detained, and pepper sprayed anyone who wasn’t white. Regardless of whether they had French papers or not. Walk with a non-white person and you’ll be followed, stopped and searched. We were told they had quotas of how many people they had to arrest per day. I saw a post on Facebook that felt entirely appropriate: “If you’ve ever said you’d fight in Dumbledore’s army; If you’d follow the Mockingjay; If you’d fight back against the Empire – now’s the time.”
*This boy was registered and take to a CAMOIE, for unaccompanied minors in France. He is waiting to be processed by the Home Office and I am in contact with his brother in the UK.
What can we do?
Having read this, why not write to your MP or the Home Secretary Amber Rudd about this? You can do so here.
Please consider making a donation to Safe Passage (a programme powered by Citizens UK, which is working to establish safe legal routes for unaccompanied refugee children in Calais).