LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The fate of up to 1,000 children living without families in the “Jungle” migrant camp that is set for demolition within days remains uncertain with some seeking smugglers to take them to Britain, according to residents and charity groups.
The filthy, ramshackle camp has become a symbol of Europe’s struggle to respond to an influx of migrants fleeing war and poverty and is home to more than 6,000 people dreaming of coming to Britain, just 21 miles (33 km) across the English Channel.
An estimated 1,000 unaccompanied children are currently living in the Jungle of which around 180 have been identified as having family ties to Britain.
Afghan teenager Nasir said many of the unaccompanied children were fearful of what would happen to them when the camp closes which has spurred many to seek out smugglers who are charging up to 3,000 pounds ($3,661) for passage to Britain.
“An agent asked me for 3,000 pounds to put me in a refrigerated lorry and get me to the UK in two days but I don’t have money,” Nasir, 16, who did not give his last name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Calais.
“Not only me, but every one in the camp is really worried ... They say the camp will be shut on Monday.”
Britain’s anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland has warned that children were turning to smuggling gangs rather than official routes to claim asylum or to join relatives in Britain as he called for ministers to do more to help lone youngsters.
Despite a group of charities asking a court to halt the closure, French asylum chief Pascal Brice said on Thursday plans to dismantle the camp will go ahead to “take people out of the slums”.
The French government has undertaken to resettle the migrants from the Jungle to small reception centres throughout the country and wants to close the camp by the end of the month.
“Calais is over, it’s finished,” said Brice, the director of Ofpra, the agency in charge of handling asylum requests in France, referring to the makeshift camp.
“What is at stake is for this message to get across and for people to realise there’s no point in going there.”
Uncertainty about exactly when the camp might close, fuelled by a lack of information from the authorities, has heightened tensions among all the camp’s residents.
“No one knows what’s going on. There’s been no official information. That’s the crux of the whole problem,” said Kirstin Shirling, working on the Refugee Info Bus, which was set up to dispense information to migrants and refugees in the camp.
The British volunteer is concerned the demolition of the camp, which shelters migrants mainly from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea and Syria, will be quick and volunteers will not be allowed on site once it begins.
Britain had been accused of dragging its heels on helping move unaccompanied children from the Jungle and the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF urged the government to speed up the transfer of children as the camp closes.
On Monday, Britain’s home secretary (interior minister) Amber Rudd said the UK would honour a commitment to take in migrant children from the camp and urged Paris to help speed up the process.
Under European Union rules, asylum seekers must make a claim in the first country they reach but unaccompanied children can have their applications examined in another country if, for example, they have relatives there.
But many children, like Nasir, are unaware that they may qualify to have their asylum claim heard in Britain.
The issue came to light last month following reports that a 14-year-old Afghan boy – said to have a legal right to travel to Britain – was killed in a hit-and-run accident as he tried to climb onto the roof of a lorry near Calais.
“I have my uncle in the UK, but I don’t know whether they will take me,” said Nasir, who has tried unsuccessfully several times to get to Britain. “I will keep trying myself until they force us to leave the camp.”
Rudd said more than 80 unaccompanied children have been accepted for transfer this year under this rule and called on France to come up with a list of those who are also eligible.
The Home Office said in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation it would send two teams of officials to Calais to work alongside French officials to speed up work on the list and to identify and prioritise children who could come to Britain.