Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Caring for Calais

There are currently 608 unaccompanied children living in the refugee camp just three miles outside the centre of Calais. 308 of them have the legal right to live in the United Kingdom.

Medical volunteers have reported increasing numbers of young boys, aged between 14 and 16, presenting injuries consistent with rape. In at least four cases the children required surgery.

There are no child protection laws in place because neither the French or British governments are prepared to take responsibility for the crisis. And the camp is now also running out of food.

Back in May 2016, the government passed an amendment to their Immigration Bill proposed by Labour peer Alf Dubs. Dubs, who was himself a child refugee from Czechoslovakia brought to Britain on the pre-war Kindertransport, successfully added an amendment to allow 3,000 child refugees from Europe to enter Britain and start school, calling access to education ‘a matter of fundamental human rights’. Lord Dubs also added, ‘what amazed me and helped to get this thing through – apart from the effort from NGOs – was public support.’

According to a report published by Amnesty International ‘more than three quarters of the British public would accept refugees in their neighbourhood or home’ and ‘70 per cent of British people think the UK government should do more to help those fleeing war and persecution’.

Moreover, hundreds of British volunteers arrive in Calais every day. Some stay for months, some weeks and some quickly drop off supplies of food, clothes and equipment collected from back in the UK before returning home to fill up again. François Guennoc, who works with l’Auberge des Migrants, one of the charities set up to deal with the humanitarian crisis in the camp, said he was impressed at the response from Britain. ‘We have between 40–120 volunteers every day – 90% from Britain. I think it is a way of saying they are not happy with the government’s refugee policy.’

Given that the vast majority of people in the UK think we should be doing more to help, why has our government failed to resettle a single child under the Dubs amendment?

In fact, earlier this year the government actually spent over £100,000 in legal fees to try and prevent young refugees from being reunited with their families in Britain.

Stella Creasy MP for Walthamstow is due to table an amendment to the child welfare bill which will give young refugees protection under British safeguarding rules. It could mean ‘there would be a panel responsible for each child, with an assigned guardian, to make decisions on their future welfare, health and education’. Creasy is hoping that, in the absence of any proper process currently, the amendment will allow children in the camp to be assessed effectively and those eligible for resettlement under the Dubs amendment to be given assistance quickly.

Sadly, the dire situation in Calais is being repeated at camps in Idomeni, Athens, Samos, Alexandria, Chios, and Gazientep, Turkey. The official response has been minimal. The UK has so far resettled 1,602 people under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme (VPR) but the United Nations Refugee Agency recently put the number of Syrian refugees alone at 13.5 million. The total number of forcibly displaced people worldwide is currently at 65.3 million.

It is clear that there is an urgent need for the international community to collectively take responsibility for a still growing global refugee crisis. That requires rich countries – like the UK – to step up, show leadership and share responsibility with others. In Calais for example, the French and British government’s refusal to take responsibility is not only creating major child protection issues, it is also preventing larger more established charities from providing desperately needed assistance. The government’s recent announcement that work is due to start on ‘a big, new wall’ costing £1.9 million and aimed at stopping refugees from entering the UK will do little to help the ever-increasing humanitarian crisis.

While much more needs to be done over the longer term to bring pressure to bear on human rights abusing regimes, and to end conflicts that are currently getting worse in places like Syria and South Sudan, in the short term there needs to be a greater willingness among the rich to share responsibility with the poor for providing a place of safety for those fleeing persecution and conflict. Especially unaccompanied minors who desperately need our help.

Back to back international summits due to be held in September should provide an opportunity for our prime minister to join other world leaders in taking responsibility. The government also needs to take action under the Dubs amendment and resettle the children who have the right to be here. And it needs to shelve the ludicrous plan to build a wall and instead focus resources on tackling the worsening humanitarian crisis in the camps. More needs to be done now and as the British public have proven, actions speak louder than words.

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Rachel Finnegan is campaigns assistant for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights. She tweets at @RachFinnegan

The Labour Campaign for Human Rights, Amnesty International and the Refugee Council are hosting a joint fringe event on the refugee crisis at the Labour party conference with guest speakers Keir Starmer MP, Thangam Debbonaire MP, Richard Howitt MP, and representatives from Amnesty International, the Refugee Council, and MSF.

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Rachel Finnegan

is campaigns assistant for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

1 comment

  • I am equally appalled at the disgraceful, heartless response of our government to this crisis. Those vulnerable young people – who have a right to be admitted to this country – should be welcomed without further delay!

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