“They are kids, so they are always playing. Like children in the UK play mums and dads or doctors and nurses, our children will re-enact boat crossings, getting patted down by the police, going to food distributions, meeting smugglers. Because one of the way parents safeguard their children is to present attempted border crossings as an adventure.”
In a nature reserve near Dunkirk, Caia Fallowfield runs a play project for migrant children who live among the trees with no running water or toilets. These are the children who vanish overnight off the French coast and reappear on the front pages of British newspapers, being pulled out of dinghies in Dover, often cold, wet and frightened.
“When you see them in the photos, it’s a relief. They haven’t drowned, they might now get to go to school. You see the impact here of them being out of school. They have speech delays, they have no fine motor skills.”
The older children suffer most, she says. “They are conscious of what they are missing out on. They know what it is to sleep in a bed and feel safe.”
This week as Boris Johnson and Priti Patel promised to make the Channel crossings “unviable”, more families arrived each day in Dunkirk. Parents came carrying babies or pushing toddlers in buggies, older children stepping in to translate.
Last year Project Play worked with around 1,300 children in northern France, most of them trying to reach the UK. Turnover is faster now and children do not stay as long. With the number of lorry journeys through the tunnel down owing to coronavirus lockdown measures, more than 4,000 people have made it to Britain by sea this year.
Last weekend, as volunteers from the Refugee Women’s Centre walked through the nature reserve looking for people who might need help, a family stepped out of the trees.
Father, mother and grandmother, they had three children with them aged two to seven. They had arrived on a lorry from Romania and the father was desperate to find somewhere for them to sleep.
He explained that the family had been in Romania for several months after leaving Iraqi Kurdistan. The majority of families here are Kurdish, from Iraq or Iran, and many have been refused asylum elsewhere in Europe. Across the EU last year only around 40% of Iraqi asylum claims were successful, compared to 90% of Syrian claims.
The father pulled his smiling seven-year-old forward and asked him to open his mouth. The boy grinned with a row of rotting, blackened teeth. “We had no access to any healthcare or a dentist in Romania. We were in a tiny room, five of us in 5 by 3 metres, no school or healthcare for eight months,” he said.
He wants to be near the Channel in case he can cross. “If we make it to the UK, my children can go to school. And I’d rather spend years here than get sent back to Iraq.”
Though it is hard to grasp at first sight why any family would sleep in a wood rather than apply for asylum in France, the families and the charities who support them say the official accommodation centres are dirty, frightening and inappropriate for vulnerable families.
Armed police try to get families on to buses, tearing up tents. After a certain number of days families must apply to stay in France, and many do not want to do that.
One father told Fallowfield: “If the French would give us even basic support, I would go to the accommodation centre for my children’s sake. But they treat us like animals.”
Like other families here, he sees trying to reach the UK as his only option. “I have destroyed my life for my children to have a better future. I don’t want my kids to grow up where someone can brainwash them and make them kill for a living. Islamic State came to our country and that’s why I have come to this shit place. It’s the hardest job in the world being a parent.”
The numbers here are a fraction of all the children seeking protection across Europe. In Greece, 25,000 under-18s arrived last year, most with their families. Unicef say there is a desperate need for more safe routes to resettlement.
Every night those families in France who can, try to cross the Channel. On Thursday morning a group of around 80 people got into a boat. The Guardian spoke by phone to a Turkish academic who was with them.
“We didn’t want to get in this boat but the smugglers forced us. It was terrifying, we only got a short way from shore and a wash hit us. One child went overboard but we got them back. We screamed for help but nobody came,” he said.
The families made it back to shore where they walked, without shoes and dripping wet, until a charity found them and took them back to find them somewhere to sleep.
Lira (not her real name) said that would end her attempts to cross the Channel by boat. “I will never do this again. I will have to find another way.”
The children had already recovered from the trauma, she said. “They are children, so they are cheerful again.”