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Millions spent on a wall that could save the children of the Jungle

The construction of a wall at Calais is a cruel response when those trapped in the camp are risking death to reach the UK

Two million pounds - that is what the government is going to spend on building a wall to try and stop people from entering the UK from Calais. That is on top of the millions of pounds of UK public money that has already been spent on barbed wire fencing and border control over the past year.

Whilst the government is investing in this, aid is at an all-time low and food is running out in the unofficial refugee camp known commonly as "The Jungle". There simply isn’t enough to go around for the near-10,000 people living in a shantytown just a short trip away from the UK. Pretty much all of the food and aid in the camp is received as donations and distributed by volunteers. It’s strange to think that refugees get looked after so much better in countries that here in the UK could be called "underdeveloped".

It’s strange to think that refugees get looked after so much better in countries that here in the UK could be called "underdeveloped"

Since the death of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who was washed ashore after drowning trying to reach safety last year, thousands of everyday people have been travelling over to France from the UK to offer help and support to refugees.

The UK government seems to see no moral or ethical reason to get involved with the camp but instead prefers to spend money on building a 13ft-high wall as a response to the Calais crisis.

Volunteers step in

I have volunteered in the Jungle for over a year and, together with a group from Brighton, we set up a project that works directly with young people. Prior to this we ran medical services and a tea kitchen within the camp. When I first came to The Jungle there were no services working with the refugee children, which completely shocked me. A year on there is Refugee Youth Service, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), The Women and Children’s Bus and our service, the Hummingbird Project.

This infrastructure has come about due to the hard work and dedication of volunteers and the refugees who have set up these projects. Everyone is learning as we go, most with no background of working in a humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately, the big charities who have years of expertise in these areas and the backing of other larger organisations were nowhere in sight. 

What I have noticed about people who stay there a long time is that they gradually start to lose hope

There are nearly 1000 children and young people in the camp, most of who have come there on their own, with no family or elders to care for them. They live in tents, wooden shacks or in metal containers and most have come from places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. They have experienced war, fighting, brutality and bereavements before fleeing their home countries and starting their brave journeys to safety.

All have traveled great distances by any means possible but mostly by foot, boat and car. They may have come with friends but usually those friends are children as young as themselves and there isn’t anyone to look after them. They are pretty amazing kids - funny, resilient, clever and a pleasure to work with. Our service engages young people through art and that allows us to work with them on safety and child protection matters.

Most of the young people we work with try to get over to the UK by getting into lorries or trains. Almost all of them have never done this before and are unaware of how many have died doing the exact same thing. Month after month will pass and they will hear the horror stories of people suffocating in metal air tight containers, freezing to death in refrigerated lorries, being crushed by falling goods and being run over by vehicles due to tactics to slow them down or by frustrated, angry drivers.

A safe space for children

This is just a fraction of the risks that these children are facing every single night. There are brutal traffickers who demand money to even enter a lorry park so often they sneak past them or try to find ways of obtaining money to pay them. Then there is the risk of all kinds of exploitation, but in particular sexual exploitation.

Children from the Jungle at the Hummingbird Project "paint, play, sing and dance just like any other children." (Elaine Ortiz / Hummingbird Project))

When they arrive in our safe space they are sometimes exhausted, sometimes grateful for the calm environment we aim to create, other times they present as angry and upset. They paint, play, sing and dance just like any other children. They draw pictures of their homes, flags, flowers, lorries, cars and families. Most are longing to go back and would do so in a heartbeat if not for the continued threat to them and their families. They talk about their future, what they want to be when they grow up and their plans to educate themselves and live with their family members in the UK.

The close quarters and desperate circumstances have a tendency to make people feel like they are going mad

Most people do not stay longer than eight months in The Jungle. The close quarters and desperate circumstances have a tendency to make people feel like they are going mad, but some of the young people have been there longer.

What I have noticed about people who stay there a long time is that they gradually start to lose hope and hope is the very thing that is keeping people going. After around six months you can visibly see exhaustion and desperation setting in. Even with the very young it can seem as if they are aging before your eyes.

If I stay here I might as well be dead

Abdul (not his real name) a 14-year-old old I work with, has been here for a year. Over time I have noticed that his attempts to get over to the UK have become more and more dangerous. He has been trying to get into lorries for a year with no luck and, without money to give the traffickers, he puts himself at even more risk. He had plans to try and sneak past the traffickers into a coach park.

This resulted in three of his friends, also refugees, being hospitalised. He seemed pretty shook up by the experience when we saw him but he says he has nothing to lose. I sat him down to have a frank conversation, explaining how we are seriously concerned about him and that his actions are going to lead to him being killed. He understands, but he tells me “if I stay in the Jungle I might as well be dead”.

I was able to refer this boy to Citizens UK to be considered for the Dubs Amendment, the recent scheme introduced to give safe passage to unaccompanied children trapped in Calais. The Dubs Amendment, brought in by the Labour peer who came to Britain as part of the government-backed Kindertransport scheme before World War Two, means that Abdul could be considered for safe and legal entry to the UK due to how long he has been in Calais.

Slim hope

To date no one has come through on this scheme so I have no way of gauging whether he has a strong chance or not. I told Abdul this but said that it was worth a try. For the rest of the day Abdul was calm. I could see he had hope again. Maybe for now, while he waits to hear whether his case will be considered, he will not take his life into his own hands every night.

The UK seems to have forgotten that in the past we helped refugee children in large numbers

The UK seems to have forgotten that in the past we helped refugee children in large numbers. In fact we managed to rescue thousands of Jewish children during the war and brought them to the UK and to safety. Lord Alf Dubs was one of them; he is now a respected member of the House of Lords as well as an advocate for refugees and has contributed so much to our country. The rescue mission in 1938 never hindered our society and helping the children in Calais will not either.

If we can afford to spend £2 million build a wall, we can afford to invest in the future of children like Abdul.

- Elaine Ortiz has worked for many years in child protection for organisations such as the NSPCC Child Protection Helpline, in residential care and as a rape crisis (adult and child) worker at the St Mary’s Centre in Manchester. In June 2015 she set up the Hummingbird Project which works directly with refugees in camps in northern France and also in the UK.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Volunteers interact with the young refugees who they work with at the Hummingbird Safe Space in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, 2016 (Elaine Ortiz/ Hummingbird Project)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.