French police during the Calais "jungle" evictions of March, 2016 (Photo: Amirah Breen, via)
Last Monday, French authorities began to dismantle the Calais "jungle". Bulldozers and armed officers moved in, clearing the settlement, while buses drew up to take refugees to temporary shelters in Normandy, Brittany and elsewhere in France.
The tents, makeshift restaurants, temporary libraries and places of worship that made up the camp have all been dismantled, leaving only a secure section of steel containers, which currently house the remaining unaccompanied children. Demolition is almost complete, with the final children expected to be off the site by the end of this week.
Most of the refugees in Calais were seeking a way into the UK. In September of 2015, David Cameron announced that Britain would aim to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. So far, only 2,800 have been taken in, and MPs are concerned the UK will never meet this target.
"I never stop being shocked," says Clare Moseley, the founder of Care 4 Calais, a charity she and several UK volunteers set up in the summer of 2015. "I'm not a lawyer, but I think the UK is sharking its responsibility to refugees dreadfully. The Calais camp represents a complete failure by the UK to help people who are silently begging for help. We have failed."
Clare is still in Calais, assisting the remaining unaccompanied children. She says that because refugees tended to comply with authorities on Monday, the camp cleared quicker than expected and resources were overstretched. It made things for the remaining children in the camp even more difficult. "There were children with nowhere to sleep and nowhere to go, because if they weren't registered they weren't able to access the container camp – there were a couple of nights where we witnessed people sleeping outside on the streets. Children were being sent back to the camp while it was on fire; it was horrible. The container facility that they had put in place for the children got full because there were many more minors than they'd anticipated. It meant they ran out of space for the children, so the process closed while there were still a lot of unregistered children. That was the crux of the problem, really – working out who was a child and who wasn't a child, and the fact that so many people registered and they didn't really know what to do about it."
Clare will remain in Calais for the moment, but soon she will begin following up with refugees. "For the next four to eight weeks we will be concentrating on gathering information about the centres people have gone to, because there is a massive variation," she explains. "Some of the refugees we've been in contact with are very happy, but others are not at all. We will be trying to visit and take surveys. I think we expect things to change a bit. After the February demolitions, people started drifting back to Calais a couple of months later, and I imagine it will be the same [this time]."
For the small number of refugees who are being allowed into the UK, there is still a long journey ahead. Paul Hook is the advocacy manager at British charity Refugee Action. Earlier in the year they worked with 40 refugee children who entered the UK from the Calais camp, all of whom had family in the UK. "We supported them, literally from arrival," he starts. "Our caseworkers met them at Saint Pancras and we worked with them for several months. We're still working with them – providing support on a whole range of areas to help them both with the legal aspect of their asylum case, but just as importantly, to help them make sure they are safe and secure here in Britain."
On their arrival into the UK, Paul warns that the refugees are likely to be extremely traumatised. "We witnessed visible relief at them being here and being reunited with a family member," he says. "That said, they were aware and anxious about media scrutiny of their arrival. These are severely traumatised children. They've been through unimaginable experiences, both in terms of fleeing the violence and conflict in their country of origin and what they've experienced in Calais."
The 200 children Britain has pledged to resettle don't necessarily have a family member in the UK. In many cases they have been accepted under the Dubs Amendment, in which Britain agreed to take in a number of unaccompanied child refugees at risk. Priority will be given to children at high risk of sexual exploitation and those under 12.
Once a refugee has arrived in the United Kingdom they are eligible to apply for asylum, and the government is now processing the majority of cases within six months from the point of the claim being made. "Some will take longer," says Paul, "and crucially not all of those decisions on asylum claims will be correct. On average, around 38 percent of all claims for asylum are granted at the initial decision stage; but there's a high proportion that are rejected and successfully appealed because the wrong decision has been made. When you factor in these successful appeals, it's closer to 50 percent of all asylum claims resulting in the individual being granted refugee status.
"There's been some really positive and heartwarming stories that we've witnessed and that we've helped bring about. There are challenges as well. For example, one of the young people we helped to bring over was due to join his older brother, but on arrival we learnt that his brother had recently been made homeless and was living in a homeless shelter and actually wasn't in a position to care for him at all. We worked with the local authority in question and the young person was taken in to local authority care, which is the best outcome in those circumstances – we're still working with the child in question, and with his brother, and the authorities, to support them."
Not everyone gets the help they need, though, and the wait for services and asylum can be life-threatening. "We see a terrifyingly large proportion of people who are forced into poverty and/or homelessness, and into unsafe situations, over the course of this process," warns Paul. "We repeatedly call on the government both to improve the asylum process itself and to improve the situation that asylum seekers are required to live in during the process."
After such horror and uncertainty, in their home countries and in Calais, most of these young people just want to try and live a normal life. But instead they are forced to navigate the complex legal frameworks for asylum – often without the ability to speak English, or with parental support. The dismantling of the Calais camp may have finally spurred some action from authorities in Britain and France, but the road to asylum is still incredibly long.
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