One of the organisations we support in the Calais refugee camp is Baloo’s Youth Centre. Baloo’s provides a safe place for boys aged 12 – 18 to relax, play and learn while they live in the camp. As the demolition in camp began, the team sent us this update on how it’s affecting their work.
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With the court case lost, the French Government began the demolition of the Southern Sector of the Jungle refugee camp on Monday 29th February. Originally stated that they would act in a humanitarian manner, the authorities have gone back on their word and through the use of force and intimidation have begun to forcibly evict thousands of people from their homes. This change in tactic has escalated tensions between the community and the police and has resulted in the widespread use of tear gas as well as rubber bullets and water cannons by the CRS (riot police) on those refusing to leave their homes. The unjustified force used by the riot police against those protesting the neglect of their human rights has culminated in a number of demonstrations such as Wednesday’s silent protest by six Iranian men who sewed their lips shut in an act of defiance (as seen below).
This increase in instability and violence combined with the growing concern of the number of fires in the camp is having an extremely detrimental affect on the mental wellbeing of the 12 – 18 year old boys. We have seen a sharp increase in behavioural challenges as the boys struggle to cope with life outside the Youth Centre’s walls. Erratic behaviour, fits of rage, detachment from peers and a sense of hopelessness are just some of the behavioural characteristics expressed by the unaccompanied minors, as the demolition gets ever closer to their homes. Therefore the importance of the Youth Centre becomes ever more apparent as we try to remain a refuge for these children, a place of calm where they can come and escape the reality of Jungle life. However, it is extremely difficult as the police and protests move closer to our base and shatter this sense of stability we try and promote, as was the case on Monday where we had to close the Centre’s door with the boys inside because tear gas was coming into the building. No child should ever endure what these boys are going through, and yet they remain as stoic ever; brave, little boys putting on a hardened image but whose sad and tired eyes reveal the full extent of the damage taken. On Tuesday, I witnessed two of the boys battling a house fire whilst adults looked on. Their futile attempt to contain the flames mixed with their desperate tenacity to help was heart breaking to watch.
With the evictions underway, the boys repeatedly ask us: “Is the Jungle finished?” One of our missions this week has therefore been to inform them of their options outside of the Southern Sector. Our research of viable solutions to their situation has come back both infuriating and demoralising as the full extent of the neglect of unaccompanied minors has become apparent. Whilst solutions have been put in place for families and adults, unaccompanied minors are left in a state of limbo. It is common for an unaccompanied minor to travel with around three or four adults who look after them (generally friends from home but not family). The options put forward by the French state for these children forces the group to split and this is where the problem lies. It is unrealistic for a child to leave their protective group and so due to the lack of practical solutions put forward, we fear that many of the unaccompanied minors will go ‘under the radar’ and disperse around northern France and other European countries. The lack of child protection measures in other camps demonstrates the danger for these children as their living conditions will deteriorate and they can become more easily exploited. We at Baloo’s are both disgusted and appalled at the lack of practical solutions put forward by the French state for these boys and it embarrasses us that we have to resort to handing out mobile phones and credit so we can at least track these boys when they disappear yet remain unable to properly help. We have been desperately scrambling to collect information on other organisations around northern France that protect children in the event that they call and we can refer them onwards. Far from ideal this is the reality we have been faced with and it is only thanks to the donations of Help Refugees, Refugee Aid and Save the Children that this last-ditch method to protect the unaccompanied minors has come about.
As previously stated, we have continued to operate this week in an effort to sustain the sense of normalcy for the boys. Although sports and education have been badly affected by what has occurred, two activities have been extremely successful. On Saturday 27th February, Play4Calais came to the Youth Centre with a pop-up cinema. The first of its kind for Baloo’s, by putting on a film for two hours it enabled the boys to escape reality for those fleeting moments and forget about the chaos and uncertainty in the camp (as seen in the pictures below).
Another extremely successful activity was a photography project put on by Rachel, a Jungle Books volunteer, and funded by the Charlotte Miller Art Project. It allowed the boys to show the camp through their eyes and we plan to print their pictures and start a collage in the Centre soon. As seen below the pictures are both harrowing and poignant, all the more so because they’re taken through the eyes of a child.
Abdullah, aged 16
Taken by Azime, aged 14
Taken by Sohail, aged 13
The future is looking bleak. We are doing our utmost to find a feasible solution to the crisis we are faced with but worry that the answer is not there. In the near future the police will advance and the houses will go and we fear that with this destruction, the children will slip through the net and disappear to be lost from safety.
We would not be able to do our work without your support and kindness. Many of the refugees we help are fleeing the conflict zones of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Others are trying to escape political oppression in countries like Eritrea. All are human beings like us. As well as providing immediate physical assistance, we want to help refugees maintain their dignity.
Please click through if you would like to find out more about our work in Calais, Dunkirk, Lesvos, Samos, Idomeni and other locations. If you would like to know how you can help refugees, please check out our Get Involved section where you can find out how to fundraise for us and how to make a donation. Thank you!