Yesterday I met Salim. He was kicking some rocks around in the middle of the forest near his temporary migrant camp in Dunkirk, France. Around him, all that was left of what had been his home for the last two weeks was an extinguished fireplace, a can of beans thrown on the floor, empty bottles of water, and clothes hanging to dry on trees.
On Tuesday morning, French riot police had surrounded the camps, evicted the 700 people living there and made some arrests. Scared, Salim ran away with other dispossessed people, deeper into the woods. All he had in the world...a few beans he'd been cooking for his breakfast trampled into the earth. His only shelter from the sun, the flies, the dirt and the wind...a tent...gone who knows where?
Salim is only 14. He’s from Iraq. A country scared by decades of war.
He’s one of the unaccompanied minors that live in the informal settlements of Dunkirk. There are many small settlements in the area: empty corners of land among the trees where people pitch their tents and cook food together. Salim's settlement had been there for months before the eviction.
When I met him with the rest of Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde) team, we’d gone to the camp to assess the situation and health needs. That morning, the state-run camp of Grande-Synthe had been evicted. We’d heard some of the asylum seekers might have escaped the eviction (which meant being moved to far away parts of France) by joining a makeshift camp in the forest.
We were not prepared for what we saw. The people living in the forest had been cleared out too. A man told us about the violence used against them forcing them to abandon their camp. Salim and these other young men, fifteen in all, were afraid that the police might come back. They had run out of water and food but were too scared that the police would reappear to venture beyond the edge of the forest. Charities would be distributing food later that evening. But these frightened people didn't want to risk it. It took a lot of persuasion for us to reassure them and make sure they’d have basic provisions to see them through the night.
We took Salim with us. As a child, he’s entitled to special protection. We contacted another charity to make sure he’d be safe and cared for. But what if yesterday he had refused to tell us his age? Often, children like Salim are nervous of strangers, too afraid to speak.
According to international law, people on the move should enjoy the fundamental rights afforded to all persons regardless of their legal status in a state (see the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Human Rights Committee, The Position of Aliens Under the Covenant).
If we truly believe in the duty to eliminate discrimination, then legal status should not matter in relation to human rights. But this is often not translated into practice.
The situation in the camps of Dunkirk and Calais is so dire, and so far removed from what international human right norms deem acceptable, that the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants said in 2018:
“Migrants, regardless of their status, are entitled to human rights without discrimination, including access to adequate housing, education, healthcare, water and sanitation as well as access to justice and medicines. By depriving them of their rights or making access increasingly difficult, France is violating its international human rights norms.”
Doctors of the World is an international medical charity. We work to ensure that everyone has access to healthcare by providing care, bearing witness, and supporting social change. We have been in this area of France supporting people on the move for years, and what we are seeing is incredibly concerning.
The evictions we witnessed yesterday in the camps of Dunkirk are just an example of what our patients face every day. In the informal settlements of Calais, young men are regularly displaced by the police, their belongings are taken (often including their tents and phones) and people have reported instances of physical violence and arrests. This constant displacement is also without purpose: people are simply moved a bit further away, and if they are taken to the centres in other areas of France, they will often face risks and dangers to be able to come back to the forests and settlements in Dunkirk to try once more to cross the Channel.
Long walks in the forests and highways, nights sleeping outside without shelter, little food and water mean we regularly see patients with damaged feet, bruises and cuts from barbed wire, skin conditions, fevers and chest infections. The stress and lack of medicines means that pre-existing conditions often will go untreated and worsen. Yesterday, we met a man from Iran who kept repeating the name of his medicine to us. He suffered from heart palpitations and was feeling sick. He knew what medicine would have helped but didn’t know how to get a hold of it.
We help the people stuck here see a doctor and access the medicines they need, together with informing them about their right to go to a hospital and access care for free. However, the prolonged life in camps and the looming danger of the police at every corner means that many of them are just too afraid to go to the hospital if they need it, and too desperate and depressed to seek care.
Being constantly moved, losing your tent, lack of privacy, always hiding, having nothing to look forward to but a desperate journey to the UK means that many of our patients are struggling with their mental health. They are exhausted, stressed, frustrated and tired, and often they have pre-existing trauma from what they faced back in their home country which drove them here in the first place. Our volunteer doctors and nurses try to support them through counselling. We run psychosocial activities to further help them. However, the reality they wake up to every day does little to comfort them.
The people in Calais and Dunkirk often ask about Brexit. They have families and communities in the UK they want to be reunited with. Some are their parents, children, and loved ones; others are their neighbours and relatives. Each of these women, men and children have a history, a life, and a desire to move on – to reach a safe place where they can restart their lives.
The UK government must do more to guarantee safe and legal routes for people seeking asylum in the UK. Humanitarian needs must always be the highest priority, and more must be done to support people in these desperate circumstances.
Britain has a proud history of providing safety to those in need. We shouldn't turn our backs on boys like Salim.