Logo UNICEF Innocenti
Office of Research-Innocenti
menu icon

Child’s Play: A Journey into The Jungle Shines a Light on the Lives of Migrant Children

05 Mar 2019
Child’s Play: A Journey into The Jungle Shines a Light on the Lives of Migrant Children

By Kathleen Sullivan

The lights dimmed and the theatre hushed. Spotlights swirled in the dark from one person popping up out of the darkness to the next as a late-night emergency meeting of refugees unfolded in front of us. I was at the Playhouse Theatre in London and then I was transported somewhere else.Set in a reimagined version of the ‘Afghan Café’, there we were, suddenly in the middle of The Jungle of Calais.

The stage, set with a platform wrapping around tables, chairs, pillows, and posters, resembled a cozy yet provisional slum restaurant – I could almost swear I smelled spices matching the colours of the scene. Audience members sipped and nibbled as one character, and then another, jumped onto the stage in front of their tables. I sat perched above in the gallery looking down at the performance, listening as the actors – some of whom were actual migrants re-enacting versions of their experiences – shared incredible stories of hardship and hope from the border-town slum village that came to be called The Jungle. ‘The Jungle’, which ended its West End run in London after I saw it in November, was picked up for a sold-out U.S. run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York and will begin performances at San Francisco's Curran from March 2019.

Months after my viewing, I’m still ruminating, lingering on the powerful stories told, and also, what we can learn from them. The play is a fictional portrayal and amalgamation of the realities of the men, women, and – notably – children who came to live at the edge of Calais in the so-called makeshift migrant city, which self-assembled and then was abruptly demolished in 2016. After surviving harrowing journeys from Africa and the Middle East, these asylum seekers made a home in The Jungle, as a stopgap, in limbo – hoping to make the final leap to the U.K., but many found themselves stuck there at the border.

Little ‘Amal’ is a young girl in the play – she is an unaccompanied minor, often wandering about, on her own, clutching a ragged stuffed animal, or holding the hand of an aid worker, ‘Paula’, who takes her under her wing when she can. She has no parents, no healthcare, no education. Her story – that of child migrants – stuck with me. I watched as they celebrated her birthday with what little they had. She didn’t know her actual birthdate – since running from a war-torn country meant there were no official records – many celebrated their birthdays on January 1.



Throughout the play, Paula is often the character taking care of Amal and also the one championing child rights – fighting to protect the children of The Jungle. She looks after Amal and cries out in anger that the International Convention of the Rights of the Child has been blatantly ignored in the context of migrant children. She is angry that the U.K. fails to live up to its commitment to reunite migrants with existing family members in the U.K, and even when it does, the children often have no support when they get there.

As a new mother, I couldn’t hold back tears as, halfway through the play, images of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy whose corpse washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach, lit up screens installed around the theatre. In the play, that viral news came to change the course of the conversation about the camp in Calais and on migration globally – as everyone finally asked: what about the children?Mirzal, 16, arrived in Calais alone in 2015

The play starts and ends with the funeral of a young boy killed on a nearby roadway – a demonstration of the looming threat of life at the camp, and especially the dangers for migrant children. In the play, Paula notes that of 400+ children at the camp, about three quarters of them are unaccompanied. While the Calais Jungle became a cohesive, vibrant community, it wasn’t enough to protect the people and children who lived there, and there wasn’t a reliable system to help get them out.

“Jumpers” – I learned – referred to migrants who would attempt to jump onto a truck going from Calais to the U.K. – It was incredibly risky and often children would lie about their age and then end up getting punished unfairly as adults for jumping – with no way to prove their age, or worse – would die in the act itself. Only a year ago a 15-year-old was crushed to death by a refrigeration truck – and this isn’t the only such story. At UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti, where I’m proud to work, new research findings have the potential to transform the lives of children around the world. Our research on children and migration helps to fill in the gaps on why children migrate, the unknown threats and realities of children on the move, and how we can better protect child migrants.

Like the play, 2017’s Best of UNICEF Research-winning report – Neither Safe Nor Sound: Unaccompanied children on the Coastline of the English Channel and the North Sea, available in English and its original French – dared to ask ‘What is the experience of unaccompanied children in France’s migrant camps?’The sociological study, undertaken by Trajectoires on behalf of UNICEF France, sought to understand and document the risks migrant children are exposed to throughout their migration journey and during their stay in camps.  The report made ten key recommendations to help protect child migrants and decrease their vulnerability:


  1. Create a place of ‘protection’ within sites, secure and specific to unaccompanied children.
  2. Guarantee all children equal access to information and various services through regular contact with professionals speaking the children’s languages and through the use of age-appropriate information.
  3. Support and coordinate those working on the region’s sites with the aim of implementing uniformity of practices and information distributed, enabling access to all children, including those within the smaller camps.
  4. Introduce regular training on child protection for the organizational workers, police forces, administrators and volunteers to help them identify situations involving human trafficking and provide guidance to unaccompanied children.
  5. Refer back to the legal framework for the protection of children, which includes the importance of reporting to Public Prosecutor’s departments, and of reporting unsettling information, which will allow the departmental councils to become empowered in their mission to care for children in danger.
  6. Report all evacuations if there are no adapted arrangements for the reception and guidance of unaccompanied children, to prevent a trend of dispersal and the breaking of the bonds that children and young people may have formed with social workers or other trusted adults.
  7. Ensure that the French and United Kingdom governments dedicate sufficient resources to the family reunification process, thereby significantly reducing the duration of this process to a maximum of three months.
  8. Ensure that children have received reliable information regarding the family reunification procedure under the Dublin Regulation, including the criteria on which decisions will be based.
  9. Guarantee access to high-quality legal assistance for unaccompanied children, so that their request for family reunification in the United Kingdom can be submitted as quickly as possible.
  10. Publish practical advice on how to handle family reunification cases under Dublin III, including clarification of responsibilities and processes in the assessment of the unaccompanied children’s families in the United Kingdom, ahead of transfers.

 Two plus years since the demolition of The Jungle, we are still learning the same lessons. While a mandate to prevent the creation of a new ongoing camp continues, hundreds, if not thousands, of migrants and children still occupy the border-town area, and raids persist against a looming Brexit to clear out new camps and prevent illegal crossings into the U.K. In many ways, nothing has changed, and what’s worse is that the journey and the hardship doesn’t end when they reach their destination. Once they get there, then what? The existing systems in place to support migrant children are letting children down. Mental health of these child migrants is seldom considered and last year alone, at least three teenage refugees who arrived in Britain from the migrant camp in Calais killed themselves.

Research conducted by UNICEF has identified not only the experience children face while on their journey, but also the difficulties they face as refugees, lost in systems that don’t adequately meet their needs.UNICEF Innocenti’s recent report Protected On Paper? An Analysis of Nordic Country Responses to Asylum-Seeking Children goes further to analyze to what extent the rights of asylum-seeking children are respected and protected in Nordic countries, with specific recommendations for these country contexts as well as broader recommendations on how to strengthen and extend legal, policy and practice frameworks to ensure the full protection of child asylum seekers’ rights and entitlements. Even after they have arrived at their final destination, the struggle for many – especially for vulnerable children – to successfully integrate and enjoy a childhood, continues.



Listen to our podcast: The Role of Research on Migration: Insights on Migrants’ Experiences with Bina D'Costa

Read more: Child-related Concerns and Migration Decisions: Evidence from the Gallup World PollA Child's Crisis: Why the Refugee and Migrant Crisis Should Matter to Us All


Kathleen Sullivan was a communication specialist and acting Chief of Communication at UNICEF Innocenti from 2017-2022. She is passionate about finding narratives that drive change. Follow Kathleen @ksulli on Twitter, and for more updates from UNICEF Innocenti, follow @UNICEFInnocenti.