Each night, in one of the makeshift chipboard tea rooms of the “Jungle” camp, Liz Clegg buys dinner for a group of children. Since arriving in July, straight from the Glastonbury festival, with a truck full of salvaged camping equipment, she has become a central figure in the camp – not least as a surrogate mother to its many-hundred unaccompanied children.
After a French court this week approved government plans to clear a part of the camp that includes the women and children’s centre that she runs, Clegg expressed deep concern about where these children will go next.
Housed in a large tent with an outdoor playground made from wooden crates, the women and children’s centre offers a sanctuary in a camp where 80 per cent of the population is male. As the centre’s founder, Clegg has found herself caring for the 400 to 500 children – some as young as 10 – who live at the camp after arriving with no adult guardian.
Since the demolition of roughly half the camp was proposed a fortnight ago, she and other volunteers have campaigned to have the clearance postponed until there is adequate alternative provision for these children.
“Otherwise,” she says. “We’ll lose them.”
Clegg, 50, said she has heard many reports of children setting off from reception centres across the Continent every day with no clear plan of where they are headed. “They arrive, think ‘this is not what I expected’ and leave to who knows where.” With the bulldozers waiting to move in, Clegg fears a similar fate awaits the unaccompanied children of Calais.
“The kids come out with all sorts of rubbish,” she says. “They’ll say they’ve heard that going to Norway is the best bet, and they’re going to head there and you think ‘you don’t even know where that is’.”
Clegg strikes a distinctive figure in the camp. She wears an Afghan coat, smokes roll-up cigarettes and has a slight West Country accent. Unlike most other volunteers, she lives in a shack alongside the refugees. In her seven months there, every day has provided new challenges. Speaking on 26 February, she said she had two hours’ sleep the night before. She had been up all night with a “very distressed child”.
As a former firefighter, she holds a second position as the camp’s unofficial fire service. After tending to the child in the early hours of 26 February, she was called out to help extinguish two fires. It is a crucial role: the camp’s huts are flammable and packed closely together, while the emergency services are often slow to respond to calls from the camp.
This indifference to the inhabitants’ hardship is not new to Clegg. A traveller since the age of 15, she is well-primed to survive with the Jungle’s basic amenities and is deeply aware of society’s need to marginalise certain groups. “I’m always conscious that the Gypsies and Roma across Europe have been treated like this for 500 years and are still treated as if they are less than human,” she says. “It is shocking that people have accepted that for years.”
Since The Independent first reported on the plight of the camp’s unaccompanied children last week, a head count put their number at 423. Some are orphans and others have been sent with people traffickers from war-torn home countries by families wishing a better life for them. They arrive at the windswept refugee camp beside the motorway in northern France with harrowing tales to tell.
“The stories of their journeys are sickening,” says Clegg. “Being locked below deck on the boats and nearly drowning. Being separated from their families or losing family members. Being trapped in lorries were people have died next to them. Being beaten by traffickers because they want to go to the toilet or they’re hungry. It’s an endless series of abuse.”
These experiences have left a great many, if not all, of the children for whom Clegg cares with stress-related behavioural issues. “It manifests on all sorts of levels. We see it in anxiety. The children will display erratic behaviour, going from very needy to aggressive to tearful.”
Clegg and her fellow volunteers do their best to deal with these issues. “But we don’t attempt therapy,” she says. “We’re not qualified.” For that, there is just one psychiatrist on site, affiliated to Médecins sans Frontières.
“We deal with these children’s everyday needs: food, clothes and shelter. But obviously we are also there to pick up the pieces when they crumble.”
Life in the camp also takes a toll on the children’s physical well-being. They often return from their night-time excursions attempting to board trucks or trains bound for the UK rain-drenched and frozen. Their wooden huts provide poor shelter from the elements and, with no way to dry themselves, they will often get into bed still in their wet clothes. Chest infections and pneumonia are common and Clegg has spent nights in the local hospital by children’s bedsides.
“I don’t think anyone else could do what she’s done,” says her daughter, Inca Sorrell, 23, who works alongside Clegg in the camp. “When we started the dinners in the Afghani tea rooms, the children were out of control. They wouldn’t sit down and have dinner. Now, she’s got them sitting down nicely to have a meal, sharing with each other, and clearing the table at the end in return for a cup of chai.”
Describing her mother’s work, Inca adds: “She feeds them, and clothes them, and helps them find accommodation. But really, she’s doing that so that they come back and she can keep an eye on them.”
With characteristic flintiness, Clegg is adamant that the past seven months have had no ill effect on her life.
“To talk about any sacrifices I’ve made is a bit sick, isn’t it?,” she says. “I’m not interested in that. I have a passport, I have choices. There is nothing that I’ve sacrificed, because I have those two things. Simple as that.”