The Calais Jungle is now all but rubble and mud. More than 10,000 refugees who inhabited the camp are dispersed across France. Many of them will be embarking on their new journey to claim asylum and start a new life in France, whilst some will have to face the bitter reality of returning to where they fled from. Amongst these thousands there are still many vulnerable lone children.
The looming demolition of the camp created an urgency that led to hundreds of children finally making it to safety here in the UK, thanks to welcome steps taken by the British government.
But for those of us who were in Calais during the demolition, we saw a different picture. And now, for the thousands of children who are waiting in children’s centres across France, their anguish lives on.
The French authorities hailed the eviction as a moment of success. “Mission accomplished,” they said. “The Jungle camp is finally cleared!” Well, let me tell you what success looked like.
I saw a 17-year-old boy with a broken leg forced to hobble up the road to register, then turned away without so much as a second glance as registration was closed. He was turned away and given no alternative for a place to sleep.
I sat with a terrified boy from Afghanistan. Everyone he knew in the camp had gone, and without a space in the container camp for children, he was being asked to sleep alone in the “Jungle”—a prospect which totally overwhelmed him as he sat with his head in his hands.
Let me tell you about another boy, who started queuing at 4am and then fainted. Or a boy who attempted to register on four occasions, and who returned to his shelter to find all his things had been stolen while he queued.
This doesn’t cover the many children we know who had to be treated for crush injuries from the chaotic queues to register. Or the children for whom we couldn’t find a safe place to sleep and who were taken in by one of the community mosques in the “Jungle”—only to watch that go up in flames (thankfully with no-one inside).
And we’re still counting the children who have run far away from the camp during its chaotic demolition—unable to register or worried that they would be put on buses to other parts of France, even further away from family members in the UK. Or the children who may now run from the children’s centres in France as they wait anxiously to understand the next steps.
These are children who were so close to finding sanctuary, but have ultimately given up hope of this process ever providing them with safety and will now continue to face grave risks alone in Europe.
We may never know how many children have been lost.
That is what “success” looked like in the “Jungle” camp.
Time and time again, children have been forgotten in this refugee crisis.
Last year 10,000 children went missing in Europe: they arrived on the shores of the Mediterranean and disappeared. Currently there are over 2,500 unaccompanied children in Greece, dwarfing the number of places in children’s centres, who now face a winter alone. In Italy, the number of children arriving has more than doubled on last year. Progress to get these children out of danger has been painfully slow.
So whilst we must celebrate the arrival of some children to the UK. It’s important we understand the cost of a process which failed to prioritise the protection of children. Not so that we can criticise politicians and the police, but so we can make sure that this doesn’t happen again.
Children are always the most vulnerable in a crisis; our first instinct and response must always be to protect them.
Dot Sang is Government Relations Advisor at Save the Children.
Competing interests: None declared.