Over the last year I have spent a lot of time teaching children in the camps at Calais and Dunkirk. I have worked with several hundred small, vulnerable young people who were quite obviously genuine children in need. At times they have been cold, hungry, lonely and very often they have been terrified. They live in squalor which would shame a Victorian slum.
It is almost one year to the day when I visited the camp for the first time, and so many stories have left an indelible mark on me.
I remember clearly one of the first young boys I met. His parents had drowned in the Mediterranean. He wasn’t even a teenager and yet he was struggling to care for an even younger brother. He was a frightened, tearful little boy, far from home with no idea what to do.
I remember the teenage girl in tears because someone had tried to push her into the back of a lorry on the previous evening. She said that the lorry had boxes of guns in it. She was absolutely terrified. She fled into the night and ended up sleeping under a hedge because she was too scared to go back to the refugee camp. Several of her friends had already gone missing and there were very real fears that they might have ended up being trafficked and sold into sex slavery. As she sat talking about the incident the next day she was inconsolable, as she realised what a narrow escape she might have just had.
Then there was the young girl who said that she had been offered a cut price deal by the smugglers. The normal rate for being smuggled across the channel was about 8000 Euros at that point in time. But she had been offered a passage in a lorry for just 1000 Euros. She was ecstatic about her good fortune. We asked her to think about why vicious smugglers would suddenly want to do charitable deeds for a young girl like her. Gradually it dawned on her that the offer was probably a confidence trick, and that the smugglers were trying to get her in the lorry so that they could take her away and sell her to someone else for far more money.
Then there were the girls who would tell us that their friends had been smuggled in lorries, but had had to put up with hours of sexual assault in the lorries as part of the price for being smuggled.
It was a very real dilemma for these school-age girls. Do they stay in a camp where they were living in endless misery and fear. Or do they take the chance to get out of the camp, when that could involve suffering sexually as part of the deal? The very fact that they would debate and discuss such matters shows how desperate they were.
I remember a sixteen year old boy whose single parent father lived in the UK and had a UK passport, but he was unable to get his son into the country. He used to come over every weekend to be with his son for the weekend, but then he had to return to the UK during the week otherwise he would lose his job. During the week the boy was on his own. It dragged on for about 4 months before the paperwork could be sorted out and the son reunited with his father in the UK. During that time his son would often cry himself to sleep at night, terrified as he listened to rival gangs of smugglers threatening each other with knives outside his tent. Avoiding the smugglers and traffickers is a particular and constant hazard for the children. On the one hand there is a risk of kidnapping and being sold into slavery. On the other hand the criminals like to keep the children around and use them to front their activities. If the children are at the forefront of a criminal activity when the police turn up, then it is the children who get arrested and taken away, not the smugglers. So picking on young defenceless little children in the camps and getting them to front their crimes was a way of life for the criminals around the camps.
I remember one young boy who was asked by criminals to open and close the doors of lorries that they were smuggling people in. He tried to say ‘no.’ He was so badly beaten up that he couldn’t walk the next day. He also has a cracked tooth which he will carry as a permanent reminder of the price of his integrity.
I remember another young boy who used to hide in the rubbish every night, so that the smugglers couldn’t find him. This poor boy used to burrow down into the bins, where the rats used to congregate. At times there were very large numbers of rats and some of them were the size of cats. Unpleasant though it was to have rats all over him, this child reckoned it was better than being targeted by the smugglers.
It is a well known fact that sometimes there is gunfire in the camps at night. There was a lot more waving of guns in people’s faces and threatening them with guns which went unreported. It has been reported in the media that people were stabbed and even died. But there were considerably more threats and intimidation with knives which has gone unreported.
Child victims were often too terrified to speak out. The smugglers used to be quite brazen in their threats. They made it absolutely clear that they could make people disappear. As one child reported the words of a smuggler: ‘the Channel is very deep.’
Other children were made to feel that the reach of the gangs was so broad and that they could kill the children as easily in France or in England. Understandably the children spent periods of time absolutely terrified.
On more than one occasion we turned a blind eye to children breaking into our school facilities and sleeping under desks so that smugglers couldn’t find them. On more than one occasion we turned up in the morning to find children with cuts and bruises caused by assaults. At one point we were getting through an entire first aid kit each week, because there were just so many cuts and injuries to patch up.
We used to watch children disappearing all of the time. I remember a group of teenage girls who all talked of their hopes for professional careers one day. They were bright, vivacious teenagers who should have been thinking about friends and socialising. Instead their thoughts revolved around how to evade the bad traffickers and how to find a good smuggler who could help them get out of the camp.
I remember one very young girl who was in a very poor state of mental health. She was refusing to come out of her tent or talk to anyone. The other children told us that she has ‘the sadness sickness’. Over a period of 3 months we coaxed her back to being able to interact with other children. It was very slow work and we had just witnessed her first smile at school. And then she too disappeared.
One of her friends wanted to become a teacher so that she could come back and help us teach other children in the camps. Her father was living in a major UK city, with a UK passport, but she still spent 6 months living rough in the camp. Sadly, she too disappeared one night before the paperwork could be sorted out for her to be reunited with her father.
All in all we used to watch about 50 children a month go missing. This was not necessarily all due to criminal activity. Some of the children would go missing because they had smuggled themselves out of the camp into a safe country. The risks which they took were appalling. A group of boys talked of standing in a milk lorry up to their shoulders in milk. They risked drowning at any moment in their 15 hour trip. Others clung onto the bottoms of lorries. Some were buried under dead chickens in lorries. Some hid in deep freeze vehicles with insufficient air. The media has reported on more than one occasion, stories of the deaths which children succumbed to.
Of course we used to try to report missing children and engage official organisations, but to no avail. It wasn’t even just missing children which was met with disinterest. I remember trying to report a bomb and getting no where. I had watched some people create a bomb out of gas canisters. They piled lots of wood around it and poured accelerant all over it. I went straight to a group of police and told them that there was a bomb. I even pointed out to them where it was. Their response was that I should tell the fire brigade. So I told the fire brigade. I explained where the bomb was, what it consisted of and that I was worried that people could get hurt or killed. Their response was that I should tell the police.
I then went back to the Police and told them that I had told the fire brigade, but that they weren’t interested and that there was still a serious danger of people getting hurt. The police shrugged and turned back to their conversation. All we could do was try and make sure that there were no children near where we thought that the explosives were located. A short while later there was an explosion and a small fire ball. An area of tents about 20 metre in diameter was burned down.
When we couldn’t even get official action to deal with explosions and fire risks, it should be no surprise that missing children was not of interest to officialdom.
Although these recollections arise from working with children in the camps in France, we are now working with children in camps in Greece and already the stories are starting to have the same familiar ring. Once again we are seeing and hearing awful living conditions, threats and fear.
The reality is that whether the children are in France, Greece, or other places; the prospects for an unaccompanied asylum seeking child is one of fear, discomfort and fraught with peril. In amongst the national stories inciting people to cynicism and disbelief, please let us not lose sight of the individual stories and sorrows of so many, including vulnerable children, and let us ask ourselves what we can do.
Edlumino Team Note :
To the many colleagues and friends in the camps of Calais and Northern France, be safe. Our best wishes are with you all.
Dr Rory Fox is the CEO of Edlumino Education Aid. He is an educationalist and humanitarian with over 20 years experience in education.