Alone in Calais, hundreds of migrant children battle daily violence and bitter cold

Calais children
7 min read
04 February, 2022
Hundreds of isolated children are stranded in Calais, trying to cross to England. Lacking access to rights, many live in dire conditions, on the streets and in makeshift camps around the city.

The first time Ali* set foot outside the village of his birth was also the last. He was fourteen when his mother urged him to leave his home in northern Cameroon, marred by rampant insecurity. By the age of sixteen, he had lived in Turkey and in Greece and crossed most of Europe on his own. A passer’s advice led him to Calais, “the highway to England”, where he hoped to cross the sea. Eventually, he decided to end his journey on the shores of France, where he hopes to find the protection, go to school and become a mechanic.

"Other migrants affectionately call them 'bambinos' – the Italian word for ‘child’ – but their childhood is long gone"

Ali’s story echoes that of thousands of children strewn along the migratory routes of Europe. Hundreds of them are gathered on the coast around Calais, at the border between France and the United Kingdom, which has long been a magnet for migrants and refugees. Other migrants affectionately call them “bambinos” – the Italian word for ‘child’ – but their childhood is long gone.

Like the others, most sleep on the streets and in makeshift camps, living in conditions that charity workers who spoke to The New Arab described as “the great tragedy of northern France.”

Calais migrants tents
Many are struggling to survive under difficult conditions as the cold weather hits in Calais [Getty]

Accessing rights

Although there are no official figures, at least 250 children were counted in Calais in August 2020 alone, some as young as eleven. Many are here to reunite with family on the other side of the Channel, but the difficult legal procedures for reunification – which can take several months on average – pushes most to try crossing by their own means, huddled in a small boat or hidden in a truck.

“They live in makeshift camps, relatively out of sight... All that they see of France are the camps and the evictions, so their relationship with public authorities is often complex, distrustful”

“Identifying them is extremely difficult,” Amélie Gatoux, a Project and Advocacy manager at ECPAT France, an organisation specialising in child protection issues, told The New Arab. “They live in makeshift camps, relatively out of sight,” she highlighted. “All that they see of France are the camps and the evictions, so their relationship with public authorities is often complex, distrustful.”

France has ratified the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and enshrined children’s right to a safe shelter. By law, all isolated migrants under the age of eighteen must be protected by social services, and cannot be expelled from the country. But many still believe their stay in France is illegal.

“There is a huge information gap affecting these minors, who are between the age of 12 and 18. Most don’t know about the child protection services, about their rights or the state’s duty of care towards them,” Pauline Joyau, Coordinator at Utopia 56 Calais, an organisation providing emergency help to migrants, told The New Arab.

To access their rights, minors must first be recognised as under eighteen by French authorities, a process that can take months. Often, the alleged minors don’t have identity documents, or what they do have are dismissed as fakes. In such cases, social services rely on interviews or, exceptionally, on bone tests, which are hardly reliable.  

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When Ali turned to the child protection services in Calais, he was immediately taken to a shelter for minors. But five days later, he was informed that his status as a minor was not recognised and was asked to leave.

“When they told me that, I was broken,” Ali said. With nowhere to go, he ended up on the streets again. “There were a lot of us at the shelter, so I thought they were doing this because they had too many people already.” Luckily, he quickly met workers from a local charity, who told him he could appeal the social services’ decision and offered to host him in the meantime.

Albeit temporary, this home is all he has: “I lost my mother, I lost my father. I have no one left but the people who are hosting me,” Ali added. “My life is now suspended to the decision of the judge.”

“I lost my mother, I lost my father. I have no one left but the people who are hosting me... My life is now suspended to the decision of the judge”

Sleeping rough

Organisations like Utopia 56, who work to find emergency housing solutions, say that many minors sleep outside due to the lack of space in shelters. “Every night we meet teenagers asking to be sheltered, and every night some requests are rejected,” Joyau stressed. “Once there were fourteen minors in need and only three beds.” In such cases, the teenagers have to make the heartbreaking choice among themselves.

Local authorities run different types of emergency shelters for single adults, for families and for isolated minors, but people in need clearly outnumber beds.

A number of people, including children, were rescued off the French port city of Calais on May 16, 2020
French police say they rescued a number of people, including children, off the French port city of Calais on May 16, 2020 [Getty]

The main housing option for minors is a shelter known as “St-Omer”, on the outskirts of Calais, a longer-term resting place for migrants who want to stay in France. Since there are no other options, many children who just want to spend a few nights inside ask to be taken there, meaning the shelter is always full. With limited means, charities are trying to fill the gap by opening their own private shelters or asking volunteers to host children.

The scarcity of beds is likely due to a lack of resources and the exceptionally high numbers of minors. Child protective services spend about 50,000 euros per child annually on average.

The New Arab contacted the child protection services responsible for Calais’ youth shelter but did not receive a reply by the time of publishing.

"Once there were fourteen minors in need and only three beds.” In such cases, the teenagers have to make the heartbreaking choice among themselves

Institutional violence

At the entrance of one of the makeshift camps stands a strange Christmas tree, its branches decorated with empty teargas canisters. The tree pays tribute to the violence of police evictions.

Every two days, the police visit the camps to dismantle them, often leading to violence – some members of the police have been caught on video lacerating tents and pepper-spraying sleeping migrants. They seize anything that people don’t carry away – tents, phones, sleeping bags.

Winter Calais
Out of sight, children are more vulnerable to abuse by adults and criminal networks, including the threat of sexual exploitation [Getty]

Some of the evictions conclude with the arrival of buses, on which camp-dwellers are pressured to board. They are driven to shelters in other parts of France but most will return within a few days, still intent to cross.

The camps have been evicted over 960 times in 2019 alone, as part of a policy meant to prevent the formation of uncontrollably large settlements like the “Jungle”, which hosted 10,000 migrants at its peak. French authorities dismantled the Jungle in 2017, saying it had become a hotspot for trafficking and abuse, but smaller camps immediately appeared.

Some public figures in France have repeatedly expressed the idea that providing decent living conditions to the migrants would “attract” more of them to Calais. In the spirit of reversing this “attraction”, the city doesn’t provide water or collect trash in the camps, which are home to around 2,000 migrants and refugees. Most of the camps have no portable toilets, none have showers. Charities try to fill the gap, distributing drinking water, firewood, sleeping bags or tents, despite obstruction by local authorities, who have banned food distributions in certain areas and blocked road accesses to the camps.

Charities have warned that these policies only make migrants, and children in particular, more vulnerable. Out of sight, children are more vulnerable to abuse by adults and criminal networks, including the threat of sexual exploitation. An investigation by cross-border journalism collective Lost in Europe revealed that over 18,000 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020 – equivalent to nearly 17 children a day.

“There’s a real paradox here: On the one hand, child protection actors are trying to put things in place, and in parallel, these efforts are being completely undermined by repressive policies,” Gatoux said. “The more evictions and police harassment there are, the more scared and invisible the children become and the harder it is to protect them.”

*Ali requested that his name be changed.

Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.

Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais