At 7.30am on 22 September, a day after the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, French riot police moved into a plot of land on the outskirts of the port city of Calais where some 270 migrants and asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, had been camping in squalid shanties built with bits of plywood, cardboard and plastic.
Bulldozers razed the notorious makeshift camp, nicknamed 'The Jungle' by local people, and its residents were transferred to different detention centres and young people’s homes throughout France. About half of the people detained during the raid were children under 18, some as young as 11. French courts released all of the minors, and most of the adults, just a few hours or, at most, days after the raid.
In the weeks since the dismantlement of the Jungle and the scattering of its population, many Afghans have returned to Calais and are now sleeping rough, under bridges or in derelict buildings, keeping one step ahead of police raids aimed at stopping them from building another Jungle.
I recently accompanied a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) team which speaks to undocumented migrants, providing them with information about the asylum system in France and how to apply for refugee status. Although France receives more asylum applications than any other country in Europe, including the United Kingdom, very few Afghans apply for asylum here, preferring instead to go to the UK where there is a sizeable Afghan community.
Border controls in Calais are tight, however, and it is difficult for somebody without the required documents to slip through undetected. Attempts to hide in the undercarriage of a lorry or to stow away in a cargo container often end tragically. Last month, employees at the port of Calais opened the trailer of a Slovenian truck bound for the UK and found inside the body of a 25-year-old Indian man who had tried to hide there.
Last week, with a frosty wind blowing off the English Channel, Calais was bitterly cold. In an industrial zone close to the ferry terminal, local charities were distributing food to some 150 migrants and asylum seekers of various nationalities. Some Afghan teenagers had improvised a couple of drums with a few empty old cans and were dancing around and singing. Some local French boys and girls had come to join them.
A colleague and I approached a wiry, serious-looking 14-year-old boy who was watching the dancing. He was from Jalalabad and spoke very good English. He was with two younger cousins, aged 11 and 13. They asked me not to use their names for fear that they would be sent back if they ever made it across to the UK.
“After they closed the Jungle,” the oldest of the three boys told me, “we had to sleep under a bridge for a while. Now we are living in the house of somebody who works for a charity that helps migrants.” The boys were in good spirits. Some local people had given them new winter clothes and even cheap digital watches. I asked the boy who spoke English why he had left Afghanistan. “Some people wanted to harm me,” he said. “My family sent me away because they feared I would be kidnapped.”
His family had paid people smugglers a lot of money to take him and his cousins out of Afghanistan and through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France. “It took us four months,” he said. ”We hid in trucks and had a guide to take us across the mountains between Iran and Turkey. We walked for ten hours. It was very steep and dangerous.”
From Turkey they crossed into Greece, like thousands of other undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. Every year, hundreds drown in the dangerous Aegean waters after their boats sink or ruthless smugglers throw them overboard to evade coast guard police. Only four weeks ago, eight Afghans, five women and three children, drowned near the Greek island of Mytilini when their wooden vessel capsized in strong gale force winds.
“I met him in a detention centre in Greece,” the boy who spoke English said, pointing to a broad-chested Afghan teenager standing next to him. “We stayed there 20 days. The Greek guards released us because we were so young. But he stayed three months. He is sixteen”. The burly teenager smiled proudly, accepting the younger boy’s tacit acknowledgement of his toughness.
In recent months, UNHCR has criticised the appalling conditions in which migrants and asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors, are kept in Greece. Last month, UNHCR called for the immediate closure of the detention centre of Pagani on the island of Lesbos, and for an enquiry on alleged acts of brutality committed by the guards. The UNHCR representative in Greece described conditions in this centre as “inhuman”.
I asked the 14-year-old boy if he wanted to stay in France. “No,” he said, “I speak English, not French. I want to go to England and study to be a doctor, like my father.” A colleague asked if he had spoken with his family since he had left Afghanistan. “I spoke to my parents last week”, he replied. “I cried. When they asked me why I was crying I said that I wasn’t crying but shivering because of the cold. I said that because I didn’t want them to know I was suffering.”
There are no official figures for the number of unaccompanied children arriving in Europe from other continents, but the Separated Children in Europe Programme, run jointly by UNHCR and the International Save the Children Alliance, estimates that there could be as many as 100,000 minors in this situation. Most of them are 16- or 17-year-old boys but there are also a number of girls and younger children. Many of them come from countries at war such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, but relatively few claim asylum. This is worrying because children who do not apply for refugee status are never officially registered or assisted and don’t have access to child protection services. These children lead a marginal existence and are at grave risk of exploitation.
Although a number of safeguards do exist in the asylum systems of European countries, many children are not claiming protection, either because they are afraid of being sent back to their home nation, or because of a lack of information and help when filing a claim in a language they do not understand. UNHCR advocates the implementation of a common European approach, through legislative action and practical cooperation between EU countries. This approach should include access to qualified guardians; adequate and fair age determination procedures and adequate reception facilities. In such an environment, it would be possible to determine the best solution for each individual child and to ensure that their best interests are the primary concern.
Until such a system is put into place, vulnerable children will continue to live by the law of 'The Jungle' in the streets and squares of European cities such as Calais, Paris, Rome and Athens.
William Spindler is the spokesman in Paris for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).