CALAIS, France (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Volunteers in the “Jungle” migrant camp near the French port of Calais were frantically trying on Friday to identify children with a chance of gaining asylum in Britain as the countdown to the camp’s demolition began.
The first busload of lone child migrants arrived in Britain on Monday from the camp as the UK government started to act on its commitment to take in unaccompanied migrant children before the camp is destroyed.
France has said it will soon demolish the squalid, ramshackle camp housing up to 10,000 people escaping war or poverty mainly in Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea and Syria.
Small and shy, Denay, a 12-year-old boy from Eritrea, arrived in the Jungle six weeks ago - one of an estimated 1,000 unaccompanied children living in the camp.
He fled the Horn of Africa country at the start of the year with a group of friends who left to avoid the compulsory military service that can stretch on for decades.
He said in Libya he was kidnapped and held hostage by militias for four months until his family paid a ransom of $5,000 (4099 pound) - before ending up in France.
Children in the Jungle have two legal routes into Britain. One is under European Union rules that allow for children to be reunited with relatives already in the UK.
The other is under the so-called Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act which allows the most at-risk child refugees in Italy, Greece and France to be taken to the UK for sanctuary.
Young and vulnerable, Denay could qualify to reach Britain under the Dubs amendment, said campaigners at the camp.
The boy’s face is pockmarked - irritated by the pepper spray which he says the French police have used to stop him and others from trying to board a truck to England.
“You never find your chance,” Denay said about his nightly attempts to cross the Channel. “I’ve tried lots of times. It comes down to luck.”
The legal route which could give Denay refuge in Britain was introduced by Alf Dubs, an opposition politician who came to Britain before the outbreak of World War Two as a Kindertransport child refugee.
His amendment aims to help children most at risk of falling prey to trafficking and exploitation - including young children and girls.
At the camp, around a dozen teenage Eritrean girls were ushered back into the guarded women and children’s section on the edge of the Jungle.
“They’re safest there,” a volunteer helper said.
But on Thursday, five months after the Dubs amendment was passed, British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the government of dragging its feet with regard to 212 children who he said qualified for entry to Britain under the provisions.
“With the imminent closure of the Calais camp, it is imperative that the office of the prime minister intervenes as a matter of urgency to ensure that this process is priority,” Corbyn said in a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May.
The pressure group Citizens UK, which works in the Jungle, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation not one child had arrived in Britain under the Dubs amendment.
Rosa Curling, a lawyer representing Citizens UK, said the group was ready to launch legal proceedings against the government over the delay, describing it as “outrageous”.
The Home Office (interior ministry) has said a team would go to France in the “coming weeks” specifically to “identify and prioritise the children who will be brought to the UK under the terms of the Dubs amendment”.
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.
A survey by the Refugee Rights Data Project - an organisation run by researchers with the aim of providing accurate data on displaced people in Europe - found nearly 60 percent of respondents living in the camp said they will stay in Calais or sleep in the streets if the camp is closed.
Almost 70 percent of children said those were their plans too.
Groups working with migrant children fear they could be trafficked or face other abuse.
Back in the Jungle, Denay says he hates his tent the most, and that if he went to England he would be happy.
Standing next to him was 17-year-old Efrem, another Eritrean. “The priority is the children,” he said, looking at his friend.
Editing by Katie Nguyen and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories