As the light again began to stream through the windows of the bus, one word above the rest was audible from the boys who sat quietly in nervous anticipation: “England?”
14 boys, mostly Afghans and Syrians, had arrived.
They are the first of the unaccompanied children living in Calais the Home Office has agreed to transfer to the UK.
The next week should see many more bus journeys like this one: many more packets of crisps and cheese sandwiches consumed; more vulnerable children glimpsing the British Isles for the first time.
I’m travelling on the bus with the children as part of the British Red Cross team, making sure the journey is as smooth as it can be.
Our trained volunteers are giving the boys emotional support, as well as providing some snacks for them – all children, no matter where they are from, seem to love crisps.
The Red Cross has been calling for some time for the Home Office to speed up the process of bringing unaccompanied children from Calais to the UK.
We are working throughout this transfer process: from the legal cases of these children in Calais, to arranging services designed to help them and their families with the transition to life in the UK.
Here in the UK, the Red Cross already works with many young refugees, helping them access education and providing them with opportunities to learn about life in the UK.
Life in the camp
At first, I’m struck by how quiet the bus is. But then, these boys have endured a great deal of trauma before this day, living through ordeals that few British adults could even imagine.
Some of the boys who sat closer tell us about their time in the camp. They’d all been there for a number of months and said conditions there were really tough.
They talked about the difficulty in getting enough water for a shower, sleeping in tents, the rats. They had been through a lot together and you could see they had become close friends.
As their confidence with us grew, they were all preoccupied with the details of their arrival – when would we get there? Where was it we were going? Would their families be there to greet them?
I watched as one of the boys looked out of the window of the Home Office reception centre in Croydon trying to spot his sister. Only a couple of hours earlier he had shown a picture of her to me on the bus. He was on the verge of tears, desperate to see her face again.
We must not forget that these boys are children. In many ways they’re so similar British teenagers: at first apprehensive with strangers like me, but for the most part open, despite their experiences.
Most of them are just 14, 15 or 16 years old. They all have the legal right to come here and live with their families in the UK.
Leaving the reception centre, I am so proud to be part of the team that offered them the care and protection they are all deserve. The Red Cross will be there for all the transfers from Calais, helping the children adapt to their new safe lives in the UK.
- No place for children: read the report
- Red Cross supports refugee children on journey from Calais to UK
This blog was written by Vanessa Cowan, our refugee family reunion operations manager.
Photo by Tom Pilston / British Red Cross.