Makeshift school in refugee camps shuts as pupils get places in French schools

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A makeshift school operated in the refugee camps in northern France by an English former headteacher is closing its doors, after a deal was struck to allow the children to attend French schools instead.

Rory Fox and his team plan to move on to Greece to open a similar school in the camps near Thessaloniki. He also hopes to raise funds to provide education for Yazidi girls in refugee camps in northern Iraq.

In the UK, Fox is lobbying British authorities to open a boarding school for unaccompanied child refugees as an emergency response to a crisis in which 88,000 lone migrant children are estimated to be at risk in Europe.

There is, however, widespread opposition. “Everyone agrees foster care is right for these children,” said Fox, “but we don’t have enough foster carers.

“It’s all very well for the politicians to be sitting back and saying we want foster care, but we want these children out of danger. We are holding out for the perfect solution while children are being physically and sexually abused.”

Fox and a team of volunteer teachers from England have been working in the camps in northern France since last October to give the hundreds of refugee children stranded in the fields of Calais and Dunkirk the chance to continue their education as they and their families wait to find a home.

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>A child learning in the makeshift school.





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A child learning in the makeshift school. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

On Friday, the school at La Linière camp in Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk will hold its final classes for the mainly Kurdish children from northern Iraq living there.

Fox and his colleagues, who have set up an emergency education charity called Edlumino, will then pack up the small school library, pens and pencils and piles of coloured exercise books to take to their next project.

Many of the 100 or so children who remain in the camp have been visiting local French schools with their parents and volunteers to prepare them for attending lessons when term starts in September.

“I’m personally going to be sad to see them go,” said Ginny Parry, an Edlumino volunteer and former secondary school teacher. “But it’s the right thing. I’m proud that we’ve been able to make such a significant difference, but we are just a stop gap.”

Edlumino has been negotiating the transition with the mayor of Grande-Synthe, Damien Carême, who took the lead in the building of La Linière, the first refugee camp in France to meet international humanitarian standards.

Fox said many of the children were positive about the move into French schools and enjoyed their visits, but children making the most of the last few days of camp school seemed reluctant when the Guardian visited on Wednesday.

“My mummy says ‘no go to French school’,” said one serious-faced boy as he concentrated on a subtraction sum.

“No go to France,” echoed another little girl, when asked if she wanted to go to French school. “French no good. English,” she said beaming before going back to the letters of the alphabet.

According to Fox, the children’s views have been shaped by their families’ experience of camp life, and sometimes hostile encounters with French police. In addition, many of the families are set on getting to the UK and are unwilling to engage with the French authorities, but Fox is hopeful that attitudes are shifting.

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Some of the children are sceptical about moving to French schools.





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Some of the children are sceptical about moving to French schools. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

The camp where the latest incarnation of the refugee school has been based opened in March. Instead of the muddy tents and insanitary conditions of the main camp at Calais, the refugees are housed in small wooden cabins. There is a laundry, regular access to medical support and telephone points where people can charge phones.

On Wednesday morning, the French police were in the camp, knocking on doors and carrying out the weekly count. Two thousand refugees moved in when it opened, but numbers have gone down considerably. It is much more orderly than the unofficial camps around the ports of northern France, but many of the refugees are clearly intent on crossing the Channel.

“Sometimes the children are up all night, trying to get on to lorries to England,” said Fox. “We meet children walking down the road in the morning, sometimes limping on the way back. We often have to patch them up.”

He said the youngest have come to school smelling of alcohol, which they are given so they can be put quietly on to lorries. People traffickers are a constant presence in the camps; the children even play at being smugglers, said Fox. “You go to UK – €10,000,” they joke.

Fox said: “It’s getting more and more unpleasant. I’ve never seen the level of fear, violence and intimidation that I’m seeing now. We are teachers. We can’t solve all the problems of the world.”

Fox believes the refugee children will be safer in mainstream French schools, but the population of the camps is fluid with families disappearing as others arrive, and how many children decide to go to French school remains to be seen.

Edlumino hopes to raise £140,000 to pay to run a school in Greece for a year with three full-time, salaried teachers. Fox meanwhile will travel to northern Iraq in September to draw up a feasibility study for a school serving the camps near Dohuk, where many of the Yazidi girls who have fled Isis are living.

“There are just hundreds of thousands of children stuck in these camps. It just seems to be a bottomless pit of need. It’s actually scary,” said Fox.

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