In Calais’ refugee slum, teens dream of Bri­tain

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

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 14year-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 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.

Ter­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence

Many refugee chil­dren in Calais claim to have fam­ily ties in the UK 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.

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.

‘Dan­ger of be­ing ex­ploited’

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. — AP

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