The French authorities have informed us that they will be demolishing the Southern part of Calais camp at the beginning of February. This will lead to a large reduction in the number of children in the camp and it will mean that the other programmes and facilities for children will have more than enough capacity for the number of children remaining in the camp. As this is the case and as there is such an enormous need for more educational provision at Dunkirk, we feel that it is a better use of resources to withdraw from Calais and focus on the children at Dunkirk camp.
The politics of the impending closure at Calais has become particularly noticeable. We are hearing claims that there are more than 250 unaccompanied minors settled in the area which is planned for closure and clearance. We ourselves work in that area and are aware of 12 unaccompanied minors. There may well be a few more who we are not aware of, but the figure of 250 seems extraordinarily high. One of the things which we have learned quickly is that numbers in refugee camps have a political life of their own, and they flex in different directions according to different agendas. Even the concept of a ‘child’ seems very flexible. People we have seen and been introduced to as ‘adults’ will suddenly start claiming to be ‘unaccompanied minors’ when there is expediency in doing so. It is disappointing to see some of the claims which are being made. The truth of the situation is bad enough as it is. There should be no need to exaggerate and repeat claims which anyone working in the camp should be able to see for themselves are dubious, at best.
At Dunkirk we have progressed from benches to tents. We have worked through a few tents rather quickly, as we have been using tents which are no longer fit for families to live in. This means that they have tears and bits missing. We have a couple of families in the camp helping us to patch and fix problems, but the winds are very strong and can suddenly cause considerable damage. By the end of the month we had bits of three different tents overlapping each other to try and cover holes, as well as branches from trees replacing snapped poles.
We have also had a lot of problems with rats this month. We see very few rats in the Calais camp, but they are absolutely everywhere in the Dunkirk camp. One of the children mischievously suggested to us that it is no coincidence that there is an absence of rats in the Calais camp and that there are so many eating outlets in the camp… That is a train of thought which we prefer not to pursue.
The rats have been chewing our reading books again. We wish we could identify what it is about the books which makes them so appealing as rat fodder. One teacher tried spraying them with perfume in case there was a smell attracting the rats. Sadly the perfume seems not to have worked. If anything we have had an increase in rat activity.
When we can identify rat nibbling we try to cut around the chew marks and do what we can to clean up the books. Rats can carry some appalling diseases and the last thing we would want to do is have children picking up diseases from books. But then the rats are everywhere throughout the camp. The children see them in their tents and they constantly swarm around bits of food waste which are all over the camp.
We are increasingly worried about the physical conditions in the Dunkirk camp. There is going to be a very serious outbreak of something unpleasant soon, unless firm action is taken to deal with the conditions. We understand that one of the local French charities has notified the local authority that they will take matters to court if there is not an immediate improvement.