A young migrant pulls a trolley in a muddy field at a camp of makeshift shelters for migrants and asylum-seekers from Iraq, Kurdistan, Iran and Syria, called the Grande Synthe jungle, near Calais, France. © Yves Herman / Reuters
Dozens of unaccompanied refugee children stranded in the French port town of Calais are giving up on ever reaching Britain, despite severe shortages of shelter and aid in the makeshift camp.
According to the largest charity helping refugee children in the region, France Terre d’Asile, up to 35 unescorted minors have been turned away every day for the past three months because there are no beds for them in the emergency shelters.
And since July, almost 95 percent of children who have come to the charity’s accommodation in the town of Saint Omer, a half-hour drive from Calais, seem to want to stay in France rather than travel onwards to the UK. Last year, only 15 percent of the roughly 1,500 registered refugee children traveling unaccompanied said the same.
“We do feel powerless,” the shelter’s director, Jean-Francois Roger, told the Guardian.
“It is very hard psychologically for my colleagues who have to turn them away. It is difficult to explain to them why there are no places.
“It will be worse when it gets colder, when there is water up to your knees in the camp.”
Every time a child is sent away France Terre d’Asile calls in the social services, but they too are stretched to breaking point. Many end up sleeping in tents back at the camp.
Roger and his colleagues have been demanding more emergency beds from local authorities, but the political situation in France is not seen as being sympathetic towards refugees. The far-right Front National has an ever-bigger influence in the area.
“A few things have happened that have persuaded children to stay,” Roger told the Guardian.
“Since July, and the Brexit vote, the migrants are wondering what will happen to them if they turn up in Britain. We are not sure it is connected to Brexit, but there is a fear of what kind of welcome foreigners will have there now.”
In previous years, most of the children staying with Roger’s organization would return to Calais after a five-day break and attempt to cross the English Channel once more. But heightened security and the British-sponsored building of a four-meter high wall around the camp have made the children’s journey far more dangerous.
“It is getting harder and harder to cross the frontier,” Roger added.
“There is a bigger police presence, there are more checks, the barrier is bigger. It was always dangerous, but it is much more dangerous now for the children, and so they are forced to take much greater risks. It is also more dangerous in the camp in Calais itself. You have 10,000 people in a confined space and tensions are getting worse, and the children are more vulnerable.”
Charities have also been actively discouraging children from attempting the illegal crossing, and are instead advising them to request asylum in France, where the process is often easier and swifter to complete.
The groups of unaccompanied children arriving in Calais are growing, with a census by the Help Refugees charity revealing almost 1,200 minors reached the camp in the last month. The youngest of them was just eight years old, and a staggering 87 percent of the children were alone.