CALAIS, France: Standing between them and the end of a death-defying journey on the run from war, poverty and persecution was a single tantalizing turnstile.
As French authorities prepare to raze the Calais “Jungle” migrant camp, dozens of youths hoping to be whisked away from the camp to a new life in Britain jostled Thursday for a place in an unruly queue outside a British registration point for unaccompanied minors.
Shoulders hunched against the cold and drizzle, they crowded around volunteers from two charities helping to select children for the green light to join relatives in Britain days before the bulldozers move in.
“I wouldn’t advise lying about your age to the UK government. People over 18 have no chance,” an aid worker from the Refugee Youth Service told the nearly exclusively male group of mainly Afghans, Eritreans and Sudanese.
“Three months in Jungle, no sleep, no food. Please!” implored Nadim, a 14-year-old Afghan with acne-studded cheeks and his date of birth scrawled on his right hand.
Mohammed, a lanky 17-year-old from The Gambia who wants to go to university, clutched a piece of paper with the address and number of a brother living in Britain that he hoped would be his ticket out.
“If I stay in France they will say there is no problem in my country and that I can’t get asylum. Luckily I have family in Britain,” he said.
Most of those waiting at the gate for their interview with British officials were unaware of the tabloid headlines across the Channel voicing outrage over the “hulking males” seen among a group of minors who arrived in Britain earlier in the week.
The headlines – which led a Conservative MP to call for dental checks to prove the migrants’ ages – have put pressure on Britain to, literally, sort the men from the boys.
Few have passports or other papers to attest to their age.
“There is absolutely no way of being sure,” fumed Christian Salome of l’Auberge des Migrants, one of the biggest charities working in the Jungle, while insisting that only “a few who were a little older” than 18 had slipped through.
‘I could have lied’
For 17-year-old Shahram from Kabul, who has no family across the Channel but a friend in Britain who offered to sponsor him, “in this world if you’re honest you won’t be successful.”
“I could have lied and said he (his friend) was my brother or my uncle but it’s not in my nature,” said the sparky teen wearing muddy flipflops and a khaki-colored baseball cap.
His disappointment was compounded by the prospect of being separated from Nassir, a childhood friend who had followed him to Calais and now looked set to be reunited with a brother who drives a taxi in London’s East End while he remained behind.
Teasing his friend about his “disloyalty,” Shahram said he was considering moving to another part of the coast to make another stab at smuggling across the Channel in a passing truck.
“The illegal way is also giving good results,” he said.
Pressed by France to accomplish its “moral duty” to the hundreds of children with dreams of Britain who have found themselves trapped in the Jungle over the past two years, London has in the past week fast-tracked a scheme allowing minors to be united with family with Britain.
Fifty-two minors had arrived in Britain by Thursday, compared with just 83 in the six months to September, according to the France Terre d’Asile charity.
By Thursday evening, around 320 minors had been interviewed by British officials. But adults, including those with British links, were left out in the cold.
Mustafa Azizi, a 23-year-old Afghan with a trim beard who said he had worked as an interpreter for the British army in Helmand province in 2011 and 2012, was among them.
Azizi has no family in Britain. He is also too old to be considered for a separate — but, to the frustration of aid workers, little-used — British asylum program for unaccompanied child refugees who do not have relatives in Britain.
In flawless English, Azizi, who suffered a leg injury in a roadside bomb attack that has left him with recurring knee pain, related his two years spent trying to reach Europe, working in Iran and Turkey along the way to pay his way.
“It’s really unfair because I served the UK government. They have to help me,” he said.