As Calais Refugee Camp Is Cleared, Fear for Children Grows

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As Calais Refugee Camp Is Cleared, Fear for Children Grows

Rights groups on the ground harshly criticize UK and French governments for ignoring unaccompanied minors as chaotic clearing of "Jungle" camp begins

Children in the "Jungle" refugee camp walk toward a clearinghouse, where buses wait to transport them to reception centers throughout France.

Children in the "Jungle" refugee camp walk toward a clearinghouse, where buses wait to transport them to reception centers throughout France. (Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

After violent clashes over the weekend between migrants and police in the "Jungle" refugee camp in Calais, France, clearing of the infamously crowded site is finally underway.

"I am so worried for these children. They trust us adults here and yet we don't have the answers."
—Michael McHugh,
Youth Refugee Service volunteer
But rights groups and children's advocates warn that the U.K. and French governments' treatment of unaccompanied minors as the camp is cleared is "gobsmackingly inappropriate," as one volunteer on the ground put it to the Guardian, with children as young as eight expected to "herd" themselves alone to large warehouses, where they will then be sorted and transported to reception centers throughout France.

Many of those children are eligible for resettlement in the U.K., yet are being ignored by the government and remain in limbo, rights groups say. With no support offered to them during the clearing process, the groups fear that children are likely to fall through the cracks.

Indeed, France has a poor track record on this issue, rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted Friday.

"During the last demolition, 129 children went missing," HRW children's rights associate Helene Griffiths wrote. "Today, French police estimate 900 unaccompanied children live in the camp, while some nongovernment groups estimate there could be 1,300 to 1,600."

One recent census by the French nonprofit L'auberge des migrants international also found that over half of those children had been living in the "Jungle" for over three months.

"No one would claim that the camp is a good place for these children," Griffiths adds. "Conditions are grim. It's getting cold and rainy. Children live in tents and flimsy shelters, and have access to very few services or information about their options. Nongovernmental organizations provide some legal services, as well as food, clothing, and safe spaces for children to hang out for a few hours. But children remain at risk of sexual exploitation, violence, and trafficking."

On Monday, 60 buses are being dispatched to transport about 3,000 people from the camp to reception centers throughout France, where they will have the option to apply for asylum. This will be repeated on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the camp's demolition starting Tuesday, according to the Guardian.

Volunteers on the ground report, however, that children are suffering from the lack of support during the often chaotic and crowded clearing process.

As Michael McHugh, "a volunteer who has worked in the camp for seven months with Refugee Youth Service," told the Guardian:

There's has been a very rapid attempt by the French and UK governments to do their homework on the back of the bus. They seem to be moving the kids because of the demolition and fixing the timetable and scale operation around that and not the children.

The question should be 'when can we demolish the site' and the answer should be 'once we have the children cleared'—not the other way round.

There's a rush and France has fixed the deadline and everything is slotted round that. I am so worried for these children. They trust us adults here and yet we don't have the answers. What is going to happen to them.

The U.K.-based nonprofit Help Refugees added in a statement Monday that officials with the British Home Office "have NOT been allowed to register children today. As such, the most vulnerable group, the under 13's (who would qualify [for sanctuary] under the Alf Dubs amendment) are being forced to remain in the Calais camp itself amidst all the confusion and chaos."

The group continues:

Our latest census shows there are 49 unaccompanied children in the Calais camp who are 13 years old or under. All are eligible under the Dubs amendment for resettlement in the UK.

[...] This chaotic set up is extremely distressing and confusing for the lone minors, the youngest of which is 8 years old (according to our last census). The younger children are struggling to understand where they are supposed to go, and how they are supposed to get there.

As the massive evacuations began to wind down for the day, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn released a video statement calling on the U.K. to honor the Dubs amendment and resettle vulnerable young children.

"It must happen, and it must happen now," Corbyn said. "Otherwise those children will be homeless, will have no support whatsoever, and will become the victims of some of the most criminal gangs across Europe."

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