Political News

In Calais' refugee slum, teenagers dream of Britain

Posted October 16

— Inside the Kids Cafe, a ramshackle refuge in a sprawling migrant slum in Calais, a mobile phone rings.

Afghan teenager Wasaal takes the call. A friend of his has managed to hide inside a truck and hopes he will soon be on the other side of the English Channel.

"The problem is that he does not have GPS on his mobile. He does not know if the truck is moving in the right direction," the 14-year-old said.

In fact, few in this muddy, violent camp in the northern French city know where they are going, but dreams abound of a life in Britain, just 21 miles (33 kilometers) across the sea.

The French government has announced plans to shut down the camp that has become a demoralizing symbol of Europe's migrant crisis by the end of the year. That means 6,000 to 10,000 migrants will need to be relocated, including up to 1,300 minors, according to different estimates from charities operating in the camp.

Many refugee children in Calais claim to have family ties in the U.K. and don't even consider building their future in France. Jonny Willis, a volunteer from the French refugee and youth service, says the camp's appalling living conditions and poor hygiene have been a strong deterrent.

"They went through a terrible experience here," said Willis. "They have been treated so badly by police. This camp lacks basic services, in addition there is no security."

Wasaal himself has stopped trying to sneak onto trucks to Britain. Instead he's had his fingerprints taken as part of his request for asylum.

"I tried it more than 10 times over the past seven months," he said. "But I'm not doing it anymore. I'm in the process of being reunited with my uncle and cousins. I don't how long it will take, it's for the Home Office to decide."

Britain's Home Office says small groups of refugee children have been coming in a weekly basis for the last few months and hundreds are now expected to cross the Channel legally before the Calais camp is destroyed.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that Britain's commitment to take in migrant children from Calais must be urgently fulfilled.

"It's very important that this children issue is handled with the greatest spirit of solidarity and humanity," Ayrault said Sunday in London on the sidelines of a meeting on Syria.

Inside the Kids Cafe, a place where teenagers can relax and enjoy a free meal, Wasaal and a dozen of other boys are listening to music while playing pool. The sofas are worn out, but a poster of a red British double-decker bus reminds everyone that London is just a few miles away.

After a perilous three-month journey across countries including Syria, Turkey, and Serbia, Wasaal can't wait for his British dream to come true.

"Here I'm just wasting my time," the teenager said in fluent English. "We are too busy dealing with daily life problems. We can't think properly."

"I left because my family was in danger," said the boy, who fled Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan where Taliban are conducting repeated raids. Wasaal has lost touch with his parents, who also fled the violence. His hopes are simple: receiving a proper education in a safe environment.

"I just dream to be in a place where there will be no one to harm me. Back in Afghanistan, I had very good results in two different subjects, physics and mathematics. I want to be an engineer," he said.

Aid groups agree the Calais slum must be shut down, but are urging authorities to take their time. The refugee youth service has handed mobile phones to hundreds of children and collected information to make sure they won't go missing when the camp is dismantled. When the southern part of the camp was destroyed in April, 129 children vanished.

"We should do everything to ensure that minors don't disappear," Genevieve Avenard, the French government's children rights watchdog, said during a recent visit. "They are in danger of being exploited. We also need time to give these children their confidence back, so they can set up a project for their future life."

Mahmud, 16, already knows what he wants to be — a business accountant.

The Afghan teenager, whose parents were killed when he was a boy, hopes he will be transferred to Birmingham, where his uncle has already been in touch with British authorities. In the meantime, he's bored of wandering around the camp without a plan. At night, he sleeps in Container No. 51, one of the heated white containers holding up to 1,500 people.

Mahmud is also wary of the frequent violence in the camp.

"There are too many fighting here. I really don't like that," said the diminutive boy, wearing only a pair of flip flops on a cold afternoon.

Tensions have been growing amid the looming uncertainty. It's only a matter of weeks before all the Calais migrants will be deported, transferred to England or relocated to more than 160 centers around France. One British charity has warned of possible suicide attempts from desperate migrants.

But new migrants are still arriving.

On Thursday at the Calais-Frethun train station, a young boy in jeans and sneakers stepped out of the express train from Paris. He was immediately arrested by two French police officers.

"We checked his ID, he's a 17-year-old from Somalia," one police officer said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity. "He wants to go to England. Every day, it's the same story. They keep on coming."


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