Toddlers and babies are sleeping rough in northern France, volunteers say, amid warnings that scores of destitute refugee families have returned or arrived in the area since the demolition of the “Jungle” camp last year.
Photographs provided to The Independent by charities working on the ground in Dunkirk show babies less than a year old sleeping and crawling around in the woodland of one of a number of unofficial camps that have sprung up in the region.
Around 20 infants are said to be in the camp, which reportedly accommodates between 300 and 500 people, many of them whole families including grandparents and pregnant mothers.
Most were former residents of the the Jungle camp in Calais and the Grande-Synthe camp in Dunkirk, both of which have been demolished in the past nine months.
The unofficial camp photographed, which is said to have grown considerably in recent months, is dismantled by police on a weekly basis to prevent it becoming more permanent – a process which sometimes sees children get hurt, according to volunteers.
In one case a three-year-old was reportedly seen with bruised face – allegedly caused by a baton while on another occasion, a mother was said to have told police that her baby was sleeping in a tent, only for officers to proceed to pepper spray the occupants.
Volunteers said there were between 40 and 50 young children in the camp, which contains no proper toilets and relies on donations from volunteers for tents, food and adequate clothing.
Heather Young, a volunteer with Paris Refugee Ground Support who was in the camp photographed earlier this week, said she saw “dozens” of babies and toddlers living in the woodland along with their families.
“There are dozens of young children, around 20 babies and toddlers, sleeping rough. There are also pregnant women and grandparents sleeping in tents,” she told The Independent.
“It’s horrific, unbearable. How anyone can live in woods pregnant? How do you have a one-month-old baby in a tent? How do you manage that?”
Paris Refugee Ground Support’s Ms Young, who has been working with refugees in France since last year, said the families in the unofficial camps tended to be the same ones “again and again”, although there is also a number of new arrivals.
Following the fire in the Grande-Synthe camp in April, families were temporarily held in local sports halls, and then bussed out to accommodation centres across France.
Many have since returned to the region with hopes of getting to the UK following a “hostile” reception from French authorities, volunteers said.
Isis Mera, founder of grassroots organisation Help4Refugee Children, who took the photographs, said the refugees had become “much more visible” in Calais and Dunkirk in the past few months.
She said “abuse and antagonism” by authorities towards refugees across France was driving them back to the northern region to pursue dangerous journeys to the UK.
Ms Mera added that one family living in the woodland – a husband and wife with an eight-month-old daughter – are intent on reaching the UK illegally after being “abused racially” in France.
They had been moved to an accommodation centre after the demolition of the Jungle where the mother and baby had to share a bathroom with men. There, Ms Mera said, they received abuse and antagonism from local people. For this reason, they decided to return.
Ms Young added that while previously, following the demolition of the two main camps, refugees had remained largely “hidden”, the numbers are now growing so quickly that people are becoming far more visible.
“Some remain hidden in the unofficial camps, but others are just sitting in the road. There are so many people now. How can you remain constantly hidden?” she said
“Unless the French and British authorities find a viable solution, this will just continue and get worse again. These people are resilient. They’re used to it now. It’s horrific that you get used to that.”
Tess, a volunteer fof charity Calais Action, who has recently visited several of the unofficial camps, said: “The UK and French authorities' strategy for tackling refugee homelessness is demonstrably failing, with rising numbers of people now living rough in Calais, Paris and Dunkirk.
"We cannot allow politicians to brush the problem under the carpet and pretend that they have it under control, or that the problem no longer exists.”
It comes as a report by charity Help Refuges seen exclusively by The Independent reveals that due to the current policies implemented by the French authorities that result in an unwelcoming environment in Calais, children face significant risk to their health and safety.
These risks are exacerbated by a lack of shelter, food insecurity, lack of personal hygiene, lack of safety and a lack of community, social security and a sense of normality – the report warns that children are being failed by both the French and UK authorities.
When approached for comment, a spokesperson for the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region told The Independent: “In the context of child welfare, shelter is systematically offered to minors in connection with the organisation France Terre d'Asile.”
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