The operation to dismantle a sprawling refugee camp in Northern France descended into chaos Thursday morning, less than 12 hours after the French authorities released a statement saying the clearance had been completed ahead of schedule. As nearly 5,000 residents left their makeshift homes in the Calais camp known as the “Jungle” and traveled to reception centers across the country, it became clear that many were still in limbo, raising concerns that some of the 1,200 children who had been living in the camp would be more vulnerable.
The charity Help Refugees has stated that about 300 children were turned away this week when they tried to register for accommodation centers, and aid workers say that many children have been sleeping outside in the days since the camp was torn down, with some even returning to the ruined site. On Thursday, a spokesperson for Save the Children told VICE News that kids were sleeping under bridges and on the side of the road, making them extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
The demolition of the camp is broadly seen as a positive move that brings an end to deteriorating conditions and rising levels of violence and exploitation for those living at the site, mostly from the Middle East and North Africa fleeing persecution and poverty. But the chaotic processing system has left many uncertain about when they will be free to move on. Monin, a 17-year-old boy from Afghanistan, told VICE News he was waiting to be registered so he could be reunited with his aunt and sister in London, but he had no idea how long the process would take. “I’m happy the camp is closed,” he said. “This is no place for a human; the Jungle is terrible.”
A spokesperson for the charity Safe Passage UK said: “It’s concerning that it has come to demolition before [the safety of unaccompanied minors] was addressed in Calais. There needs to be a long-term solution to the issue of unaccompanied minors in Europe.” She added, “The system is broken.”
The concern for unaccompanied children slipping through cracks in the system is well founded. A UNICEF report from June this year stated that many refugee children who reach Europe are at real risk of sexual abuse, forced labor, and human trafficking.
Many children leaving the camp in Calais hope to reunite with their families in the U.K. Almost 200 have already arrived, and the British Home Secretary has pledged to take in “several hundred” more, including those unaccompanied minors especially at risk.
VICE News spoke to a 16-year-old boy from Ethiopia preparing to leave the camp on Monday. He had been living in the Jungle for six months, after spending three months traveling through North Africa and Europe. He was hopeful that his journey was finally coming to an end. “In the Jungle, we are not getting enough food, one meal a day. I don’t have enough clothes. It’s not just me. It’s the same for lots of people. This is no life. I’m looking forward to getting education. Having my identity back. A life with my family in the U.K.”