Britain’s shame as Child refugees at Calais plunged into despair by plan to close camp

Mark Townsend

The Observer


1st. October 2016

Charities claim that self-harm and mental health problems have soared and attack Home Office’s failure to rehouse children

Incidents of self-harm and depression among children in the Calais refugee camp are increasing as the mental health of unaccompanied minors deteriorates while the site awaits demolition.
Charities, volunteers and aid agencies say they were witnessing psychological collapse among many of the site’s child refugees after President François Hollande confirmed last week that the huge refugee camp in northern France would be shut down.
One senior official from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned that some child refugees had threatened to harm themselves in protest if the camp was destroyed. Aid workers also said other unaccompanied minors, many of whom are eligible to claim asylum in the UK, had talked about killing themselves, such was their despair over the camp’s future.

Abdul Afzali, who works for the charity Refugee Youth Service and looks after unaccompanied minors inside the Calais camp, said: “Some are burning themselves with cigarettes, one arm then the other. Others have told me that they want to jump in front of a lorry and give up. Unfortunately most have developed serious depression.”
At least 1,000 unaccompanied minors are currently inside the camp, with the British and French authorities yet to develop a strategy to rehouse the vast majority of them once the site is destroyed later this year.
The approach of the Home Office is under increasing scrutiny. Despite a commitment in May to take thousands of child refugees from across Europe, it has admitted that not a single unaccompanied minor has been accepted. A group of Tory MPs is understood to have written to the prime minister, Theresa May, to register their concern.
Under a separate agreement designed to reunite child refugees with families living in the UK, only around 20 have been resettled since May and, of these, charities say it is they who have paid all the relocation costs involved. The Home Office says it is committed to resettling “vulnerable children”.
Within the Calais camp itself, Liz Clegg, who runs the site’s unofficial women and children’s centre, said that from her observations as many as 80% of the site’s unaccompanied minors exhibited mental health issues that would be flagged up as serious in an institution where normal child protection safeguards existed.
“They would be flagged up as ‘at risk’, some would be placed on suicide watch. There is self-harming, repetitive behaviour: many of them are stuck in a loop. We have nine-year-olds who are barely hanging on,” said Clegg.
Grégoire Bonhomme of MSF, which has created a safe space for child refugees within the camp, said that children had threatened to hurt themselves when the camp was demolished. “Some said they will harm themselves because they will be dismayed at this situation. It is creating a lot of tension.”
However, Bonhomme also said that there was also a refusal among a cohort of child refugees to believe that the camp, which currently has a record population of more than 10,000, would be demolished. He said: “Many of them say: ‘It won’t happen, no one will arrest us, and if we want to go we’ll find a way [to the UK].’”

Yemani, (above right) 15, from Eritrea, has been in the Calais camp for three months and is hoping to be reunited with his aunt, who lives in London.
Alexander Simmons, a volunteer for charity Care4Calais, confirmed it was monitoring “quite critical mental health issues” among a number of child refugees in the camp and that the longer they spent in the camp the more vulnerable they became.
Simmons also lamented the fact there was no record of the extent of the problem. The camp is not officially recognised by the authorities and no official mental health assessments have been conducted among its children.
Mary Jones, who runs Jungle Books for the camp’s child refugees, revealed that she had repeatedly seen how new arrivals gradually went from initial optimism to a depressed state ; some youngsters lay in bed for days. Simmons said that on Thursday an Afghan boy was taken from the camp to hospital after spending 48 hours lying in bed, unable to move.
On Saturday the charity Unicef became the latest organisation to criticise the Home Office over its approach to unaccompanied child refugees, demanding the UK accelerate the transfer of vulnerable youngsters from Calais. Lily Caprani, Unicef UK’s deputy executive director, said it was pushing for the children in the camp to be placed in appropriate accommodation before any demolition began and for them to have access to care and legal support to process their asylum and family reunion claims.
“The children in Calais need to know they will be safe before the bulldozers arrive,” said Caprani.
Charities estimate there are more than 400 unaccompanied children inside the camp who are eligible to come to Britain, but say the Home Office has not sufficiently tried to identify the exact number. More than four months after the UK government announced that it would accept child refugees from across Europe, the charities point out, no official process appears to have even been put in place to facilitate their transfer.
Josie Naughton, co-founder of the charity Help Refugees, said: “Currently no plan is in place as to how they will be protected and taken care of once the camp is demolished. We ask that the British and French authorities immediately put plans in place.”
Idrissa has been in the camp since February and is hoping to be reunited with his uncle in Birmingham. After leaving Darfur last year he has lost contact with his entire family and has no idea where they are, or even if they are alive: “I have tried calling but I have no idea what has happened to them.” The teenager’s only ambition is to reach the UK. Waiting in the Calais camp has been a grim and depressing experience. “There is too much violence here, we feel afraid,” he says, gesturing to a group of unaccompanied youngsters nearby.
Yemani has been in the Calais camp for three months and is hoping to be reunited with his aunt, who lives in London. He is travelling alone and says that life inside the camp scares him: “There is too much fighting, people hitting each other. Bigger people than me hit me.” The teenager also says that the French police terrify him, pointing to a used tear gas canister lying in the dirt outside a tent where some of the unaccompanied minors gather.
“They hit us, and fire at us,” he says, rubbing his eyes to mimic the pain.
Fadl arrived in the Calais camp four weeks ago, the end of a journey from close to the Darfur border via Libya, across the Mediterranean and through Italy. His aim is to reach London and find a job as a mechanic. He says that he is petrified of the camp, especially at night, and had sought the protection of Sudanese elders to keep him safe. “There are big problems here, people fighting, coming to the tents and scaring us,” he said. He thanked the charities for providing sustenance and said he was “extremely grateful” for their kindness.
A member of the persecuted Oromo people, Mubarek arrived in Calais three months ago and says that his family are counting on him making it to the UK. Like many unaccompanied minors, he felt unsafe inside the camp. “It is dangerous, also the police come in and scare us, if they try and shut the camp they will be very bad,” he said. Mubarek said that his journey from northern Ethiopia was fraught, articulating the chaos of Libya by raising his hands and waving them frantically:“I try not to think about it.”

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