We must make clear that these children are welcome here, writes Green Party co-leader
It is nothing short of a national scandal that less than 50 miles from the coast of Britain, the world’s fifth largest economy, there is a refugee crisis. A national shame that the government has hoped get away with ignoring it. A national disgrace that the government’s primary ‘solution’ has not been to fast track help, but to build an expensive wall.
And as if that wasn’t enough now we have a Parliamentarian, David Davies, seeking to create yet more barriers for those already traumatised by persecution and war, by calling for children to undergo unethical and inappropriate dental checks to confirm their age. He should apologise. As a country we can be so much better than this.
There are an estimated 10,000 refugees in the camp, each with their own powerful story of how they have left the homes that they loved because of conflict. At least 1,000 are unaccompanied children who have also lost of left behind family members.
To label these children ‘vulnerable’ is an understatement. They are at daily risk. When I visited two weeks ago I heard accounts of child rape, attacks by right wing gangs, of abductions, trafficking and even of violence against children by the French authorities themselves.
The children are understandably desperate to find safety. But as their asylum applications drag on for months they are psychologically worn down. Some begin to self-harm, others give up, but many resort to increasingly desperate measures to reunite with their relatives in the UK. For some, this has ended in their own death.
Their stories are devastating. I met 13-year-old boy who arrived in Calais alone after escaping the Taliban in Afghanistan. He wants to reach the UK simply because he has family here.
As I watched youngsters in the camp play cricket and football, I was reminded that these are children — just like mine, just like any other child. But they are being robbed of their childhood.
The majority of the camp is made up of those fleeing conflict zones like Afghanistan and Sudan. Many are suffering post-traumatic stress. They are regularly tear gassed by the police, who are otherwise stationed at the camp’s borders. For adults and children alike it is clear that they have no other options. This is their last hope. But they have been not just let down but abandoned by those who could, and should, help.
Instead of Government, it has been volunteers, horrified by the situation, who have been moved to act. They are providing vital services from food, to clothing and tents. I met with one such group, Care4Calais, who walked me through their ticketing system which is used to distribute supplies.
It is striking that there is no presence of British officials and it is clear that very little processing is taking place. Calls for a ‘hot spot’ to process British claims on French soil have been largely ignored. Instead, asylum claims have been left to volunteer led groups such as Citizens UK, who continue to challenge the Home Office about their failure to bring vulnerable people to the UK.
Whilst the French authorities have announced that they will demolish the camp, both the British and French authorities have been reluctant to set out a coherent plan – beyond the bulldozing of limited infrastructure like a small youth centre, a safe space where children can learn French and English and places to eat. These will all be destroyed alongside the wooden huts and tents where refugees shelter. Stoked by fear, tensions in the camp are rising, as residents know from bitter experience what it will mean when another wave of evictions takes place in the next two weeks.
Demolitions without addressing the underlying problems make no sense. History has shown that they are ineffective and dangerous. During the last demolitions, over 100 children went missing. The camp has since expanded from 3,000 to 10,000. In the chaos, refugees were separated from their few possessions and key documents needed for asylum applications.
Children are already leaving the camp out of fear and there is a high chance that, when the entire camp is demolished, many more will simply disappear or be left in the hands of traffickers. Many will scatter into even more dangerous ‘satellite camps’, making it difficult for volunteers to provide vital support.
While it is welcome news that a handful of unaccompanied children from the refugee camp in Calais are finally arriving in the UK, this is a critical moment and the government’s response is still far too slow in the context of such a high level of need. In reaching this point, it is unacceptable that refugees have had to undergo months of unnecessary trauma and delay.
And now some of these most vulnerable children have arrived in Britain to be met by despicable front pages making unfounded suggestions they are not children at all. These youngsters have been through horrific trauma.
Today let’s make this clear: they are welcome here.
If the French and British authorities are serious about providing safety for refugees, they should work with organisations providing services on the ground and urgently implement safe and legal routes of access to the UK. It should be unthinkable that demolitions would take place until this happens.
Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green PartySign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.