This week we saw the closure of the Calais 'Jungle'. Below is an account of the week from co-founder Jonny Willis.
Unlearned Lessons The Inevitable Last week was tough. Without a doubt the hardest in my time in the Calais Jungle. But I guess in reality I had been preparing myself for this since I first stepped foot here.
I co-founded the Refugee Youth Service always knowing it was a means to an end, hoping that there would be some solution found that would help people in the camp and would mean we wouldn’t have to be here.
But what I saw throughout last week was systematic failure to protect the most vulnerable here – the children who are on their own. Systematic Failure We knew when they told us it would take three days that this was far-fetched.
But we were given so many assurances that children would be prioritized, and we had to believe this and try to help the process work. But after day one, when hundreds of children were still outside of the designated container camp for children, we knew that panic would start to set in as the diggers began to turn up.
By Tuesday the atmosphere had changed dramatically. It was clear children were confused, the registration process to get into the container camp for children was chaotic. No one had accurate information on what children were supposed to do.
Tuesday: Child robbed, his tent set ablaze. 15 year old Mohammad from Eritrea had queued all day before being turned away at 1pm when registration closed 7 hours early. Whilst he had been waiting in line someone went to his tent and stole everything he owned. He was left with only with the clothes he was wearing. As temperatures began to drop I knew he would have no warm clothes and no bedding to get through the night.
But then to add to his troubles, later his tent, his home, was set ablaze, leaving him with nothing. Mohammad joked about what had happened which is disturbing for many reasons, especially because it showed how normal these incidences had become for him.
But mainly it was painful because it showed the trust that he placed in our volunteer organisation to find him somewhere to sleep; a job that lied outside of our capabilities. Wednesday: Crying and all alone. Wednesday came and fires raged through the camp destroying around 70% of the structures. We found 13 year old Eli hiding behind the one of the vans that was distributing food on the edge of the camp, amongst the chaos.
Eli had his head in his hands; he was shaking and crying. He was totally alone and also had nowhere to sleep that night. We kept Eli with us, along with several of the other younger children as we attempted to make contact with the relevant authorities to source accommodation.
It got dark and we still had not found beds for any of them. By 10pm we had to give up and call in blankets and roll-matts so that we could help these children make beds on the side of the road. Once again we were left feeling helpless, realising there was no more we could do.
Thursday: Nowhere to go. Then there was Thursday. The french declared the camp was cleared. We were promised that buses would come to take the remaining young, who had spent that night sleeping rough, to safe accommodation in France.
We were asked to bring the children away from the container camp and the Jungle to the camp's 'bridge entrance' and encourage them to get on buses, so we did. But no buses came. Instead we were herded down the street by police and made to wait for hours in the cold. In the end children and remaining adults went back to the camp to stay in a school that was still standing on the south side of the camp.
Today We are left with so many questions. Why was this forced into just 3 days? Why were children not removed before starting the demolition? Why was nothing learnt from the last demolition?
For now we continue to support the children who remain accommodated in the onsite container camp, and those sleeping rough outside it. Soon they will be bussed to other areas of France, or chosen to go to the UK, where we hope they are able to move past this horrific experience and on with their lives.