If demolition goes ahead, charities fear they will lose contact with hundreds of children living in the Calais refugee camp
When Green peer Jenny Jones and I were last in the refugee camp at Calais known as ‘the Jungle’, we visited a café whose interior belied the bleak, muddy, ramshackle roads of the camp
It was lined with rugs, it was warm, there were comfortable couches and, if the air of desperation outside was never far away and many of the users sported bandages from razor wire cuts and other injuries, it was a little haven of relative peace and comfort amid desperation and fear.
Last week, Jenny and I returned. Outside was even more bleak, with snow on the ground. Although there were now no inhabited tents, as there had been in November, the wooden shacks, lined with whatever materials the occupants had been able to find, were not structures anyone would want to sleep in through bleak mid-winter.
The café too had changed – stripped down to its bare walls, with only a few wonky chairs left. The chai was still as sweet, but the mood was not.
Its owner was understandably despondent. For the café’s structure, and anything he left in it, faces demolition, his small, precarious business likely to soon fall under the weight of the French state.
Nearby, the women’s and children’s centre was thronged, but the volunteers — acting as joint referees and suppliers of essentials, from shoes to warm clothes to baby bottles — only shake their heads and say ‘don’t know’ to questions about its future.
For today, a court in Lille will decide whether to allow the state to go ahead with the planned demolition of more than half of the area of this makeshift shanty settlement, home to about 3,000 people, including, a census by the charity Help Refugees found, about 400 children aged ten to 17.
About 300 of these children are unaccompanied. In many cases charities are working on their claims for the right to live in the UK, by reason of close relatives already granted.
If demolition is allowed to go ahead today, the charities fear that they’ll lose contact with the children. This will greatly increase the likelihood of children risking their lives to reach Britain, as a 15-year-old Afghan boy called Masud did earlier this year.
Along with many others I attended his memorial service. Masud’s was a totally unnecessary death, and one that has to be laid at the feet of the British government that has failed to provide a legal mechanism for children who have the right to be in Britain to get to Britain.
The volunteers also fear what will become of the children without any provision of a safe haven: the children’s centre and other public facilities are also threatened by the demolition plan. That’s why a group of British artists, including Jude Law and Sir Tom Stoppard, travelled to Calais to appeal for the southern part of the camp to be saved.
A rough kind of order has formed at the camp in the ten weeks between our two visits. The volunteers — many of them British — have formed an impressive organisation that meets the desperate needs in Calais, and at the camp at Dunkirk where conditions are said to be even worse.
The volunteers have prepared and planned as best they can for the risk of demolition and the resulting chaos. They have prepared grab bags that the refugees can use to ensure they don’t lose vital paperwork or other essentials, and are ready to replace lost items of clothing or other gear.
But with the loss of established and known distribution points if the demolition goes ahead, the likely outcome will be chaos.
That’s an indictment of the French, and British, governments. For many of the refugees claim good legal grounds for being allowed into Britain, yet there’s no way here for them to apply.
In social media discussions, many have asked why any parent or carer would have sent children as young as 12 into the deadly, dangerous refugee chain from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Discussions with volunteers make it clear that these are not cases of neglect: for some families, they had only enough money to pay the smugglers to take one member and chose to give a child that chance of survival and safety.
In some cases, it was the child who was at risk of being forced into military or rebel service or even suicide bombing. In others, remaining adults had to stay to care for others, or were simply unable to escape themselves. Sometimes, parents or carers have died along the way, or been separated from the children.
We can hope that the French judge today will act with compassion and order the demolition permanently halted. But that’s only an interim solution.
No one should be living in the circumstances the refugees find themselves in at Calais and Dunkirk. The children need to be rescued — urgently.
And all of the refugees have to be given a legal route to appropriate resettlement; this will include many in Britain. Then we need to ensure that Calais doesn’t fill up again if its current inhabitants are resettled. That will require a far broader solution across Europe, with every country taking in its fair share of refugees.
Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.