Thu | Jul 19, 2018

Young refugees dream of Britain

Published:Monday | October 17, 2016 | 12:00 AM


The French government has announced plans to shut down the Calais refugee camp that has become a demoralising 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 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."

An Afghan teenager named Wasaal has stopped trying to sneak on to 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 on 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. Wasaal has lost touch with his parents but his hopes are simple: receiving a proper education in a safe environment.

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.

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 centres around France. One British charity has warned of possible suicide attempts from desperate migrants. But new migrants are still arriving.