Shortly before Christmas, British and French Red Cross volunteers carried out a joint operation in Northern France, distributing around 1,300 bags of aid to people in five camps, including Grande Synthe near Dunkirk.
Conditions there are shocking. At the end of last year the camp's population was increasing substantially each week, inhabited by people from Iraq and Syria, including a large number of families with children. We were told the locations of the camps and the number of people were largely dictated by smugglers.
As the light ebbed and the cold set in, it was heart-breaking to see young children in such dangerous conditions. The site had been prepared for construction prior to the encampments, so it had quickly turned to a boggy field. Kids played on piles of rock or in muddy clearings near dirty water. There was little sanitation. We spoke to many families that day as they huddled around small fires for warmth, mums and dads doing their best to smile for their children.
Following our first distribution, and work from Médecins Sans Frontières to create a new camp to meet minimum humanitarian standards, a number of politicians have visited, including most recently Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition. All have been appalled by the conditions. Understandably there was much focus from the French and UK Governments on the situation in Calais last summer - but unfortunately the situation in Grande Synthe seemed to go unnoticed. Things can't go on like this - where young families fleeing war are abandoned in a field for the winter. We need action from both the UK and French Governments, starting with humanitarian assistance.
There is a very recent precedent for this. In August the home secretary, Theresa May, signed a Calais agreement with her French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve which said "in the face of a migratory phenomenon without precedent, and with a substantial humanitarian element, the United Kingdom and French governments are unified in their response". It went further in highlighting their joint concern around "health and sanitation challenges, alongside the risk of trafficking and other crime affecting the most vulnerable". These concerns are valid, but there was no sign of any action on them in Grande Synthe. In particular we remain concerned at the threat to children from trafficking.
What should happen? I am certain politicians of all parties would agree that young families should not be left to live like those currently in the camp at Grande Synthe. In supporting the work of MSF and others, we hope both the UK and French Governments will assess the humanitarian need at the camps and provide assistance. There can be no suggestion that these conditions act as some form of 'deterrent' to further arrivals. People are not leaving everything behind on the promise of a camp that meets basic humanitarian needs, they are forced to leave, often for their lives. They are trying to protect their children and to have a future.
Many people we spoke to in Grande Synthe and elsewhere in Northern France had family in the UK. In some instances better application of the EU's Dublin Regulation as it stands could help reunite them - as a recent legal action has proved. But in other cases the rules are restrictive and can't help. We met adults with no other family trying to reunite with brothers in the UK, for example. As the UK Government considers what more it can do to respond to the refugee crisis, and in helping the French Government manage people stuck in Northern France, offering to process asylum claims from people with close family in the UK would be a good start.Suggest a correction