23 October 2017

Africa: As Winter Looms, Migrant Children Sleep Rough in Northern France

Calais/Grande-Synthe, France — Every morning before the sun rises, when the frosty air is still and quiet, Afghan migrant Nabi waits for the screeches of trucks bound for Britain in the northern French town of Calais, hoping to jump onboard undetected.

The 13-year-old is at the final leg of his gruelling one year journey alone from Afghanistan, and he needs to make it count, for the sake of his parents who have spent thousands to get him this far.

"My father and mother told me to go to England," said the small child, the youngest of four.

"If I go to England, good life, good school, I would be happy," Nabi said, as he plays with a fidget spinner toy while volunteers around him distribute thick coats and waterproof shoes in an industrial district.

For those who have escaped poverty or war in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Calais provides them with a base from which to try to cross illegally to Britain, the destination of choice for those who speak English or have family or friends in the UK.

But like many migrants in northern France, Nabi must spend another night in the cold, damp forest where he has been sleeping for the past two months, and try again tomorrow.

Although the "Jungle" camp was demolished one year ago, a squalid shanty town that housed thousands, charities and authorities estimate about 700 migrants have returned to the area and are sleeping rough in parks or forests.

A further 1,000 migrants, including women and families, are thought to be scattered across the region.

"It's very difficult. I sleep in the jungle. But when police come and spray us (with teargas), we have to move," said Nabi, who is wrapped in a puffy navy coat and scarf.

"It's cold. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes Afghan and African fighting. Here it's danger life," the boy added.

"FROZEN TO DEATH"

With winter looming, freezing temperatures could have devastating consequences for migrants who have no shelter or tents, said Annie Gavrilescu from charity Help Refugees, which distributes blankets and clothing in the area.

"The most terrifying thing right now is we're going to walk into the woods one day and find somebody frozen to death," she said.

Several migrants the Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to said they slept in surrounding forests in sleeping bags given to them by charities.

Charities and migrants said local police would slash tents and forcibly evict migrants in the dead of night using teargas and dogs to prevent a new "jungle" from forming.

"Now the 'Jungle' has been cleared, the situation is even worse," said Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, a charity that also provides blankets and clothing to migrants.

"When we had the camp, we at least had some basic sanitation and the people were living in tents and shelters. Now they are sleeping rough. It's a really horrible situation," she said.

A spokesman for the French government in the Pas-de-Calais region declined to comment on the allegations of police heavy-handedness and the living conditions of migrants.

France's Interior Minister Gerard Collomb in August said he requested an in-depth investigation of police work carried out in the area, following accusations of police abuse by global watchdog Human Rights Watch earlier this year.

A local court in June ordered authorities to provide drinking water, toilets and showers to migrants and to allow charities to hand out meals. At the same time, it upheld government decisions to deploy extra riot police and not to build a new reception centre.

Migrants in nearby Grand-Synthe, where a large blaze in April ravaged an unofficial camp and left hundreds homeless, said they feared for the worst as temperatures drop.

"I'm sleeping there in jungle, very cold at night. I don't like it. I want to go to school," said 13-year-old Kurdish migrant Ahmad Omar, who left northern Iraq with his family of six over a year ago.

Though he has two uncles in Britain, Ahmad said his family has been living in the forest for four months as they wait to get to the UK legally.

Ahmad's father, Omar Mohamad, who is standing next to him, said he lies awake at night to protect his four children and wife as they try to sleep.

"For me, I can stay here. But (I hope the UK will) accept my wife and my children," said Mohamad.

 - Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Additional reporting by Shanshan Chen @autumn33, Editing by Ros Russell

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