Today (18th Jan) a multi-faith memorial service was held in London to remember the 30 refugees who died trying to cross from northern France to seek safety in the UK over the last year. The latest victim, Masud, a 15 year old Afghan, lost his life trying to join his family living in the UK. The ceremony today called for the UK government to offer safe routes for those who have a legal right to claim asylum in the UK and asked 'How many more children will die trying to seek safety in the UK?' The answer to this question can only be decided by our government.
Having spent time in Calais I have witnessed the outstanding and superhuman efforts and charity of others who devote themselves to improving the situation as best they can. But it seems there comes a point where charity can only go so far and what is needed is a political solution to save the lives of people trapped in northern France. I am convinced that this point has been reached.
The situation is this. Thousands of humans fleeing untold, misery, deprivation, war, persecution and death are stranded in conditions with appalling sanitation; a perpetual threat of disease or illness (norovirus, scabies, diarrhoea through chronic malnutrition, respiratory infection); food and shelter supplies struggling to keep up; maltreatment, beatings and tear gas from the police and violence from far-right groups.
On top of this, we are now firmly in the icy grip of winter and a risk that people may freeze. Strong winds and rain batter the camp destroying tents, ruining clothes, blankets and sleeping bags which become drenched and float in stagnant pools of water. The camp in Dunkirk has become ankle deep in mud.
Each time I go to Calais I notice more and more families and small children are in the camp, some unaccompanied. Children will play in any situation, blissfully unaware. Part of you hopes that they will not grow old enough to realise the desperate situation they are in. I have wondered when my first memory was, and at what age someone has their first memory. I have thought 'what if your first memory was in the camp?' Imagine how impactful that could be on the rest of your life even if you managed to escape to safety which at the moment seems unlikely.
There is a significant risk of death if anyone tries to flee this appalling situation to the UK and people are being left to fester where any dreams and aspirations of a marginally better life are actively denied. This situation is morally unjustifiable. I would say that this is a moral outrage.
I take the view that the UK government is in part directly responsible for the situation. If it is the case that the government has, instead of sending humanitarian aid, invested millions of pounds in more security, police, higher fences thereby increasing the risk to any who wish to come to the UK, then this contributes to the suffering and death. If the government refuses to provide a safe passage then this leaves no other option but for people to wallow in the appalling conditions or risk the lethal crossing. If the government ignores the plights of any refugee in Europe and in fact demonises such refugees then it would be the case that the UK government has actively contributed to the plights and misery of those in this appalling situation. This too would be a moral outrage.
Some may take the view that this is not the UK's problem. Yet it could be said that this is not some terrible disaster in a far-off land which we could (in my view, unjustifiably) ignore. This is a humanitarian crisis on our doorstep which is actively worsened by the actions and inactions of the UK government. Even if you hold the view that it is a terrible situation but it's not our business to solve the world's problems you may agree with me that it would be wrong to actively contribute to those problems and worsen the lives of thousands of people. If so then you might favour the government changing its policy.
In my view the UK has a moral responsibility to do more the help. It is unjustified that the government completely ignores the plights of any refugee in Europe, meets calls for help with hostility and only commits to settle a minimal and inadequate amount of refugees. Personally I am sick of apologising to the people I meet stuck in Calais on behalf of my government's neglect and antagonism towards them. It's a terrible feeling when you really want to help someone but are unable to do so. This happened when I was asked by a Syrian family if I could help them get to the UK. It pained me to explain that I could not. But the UK can and should offer them hope.
There is a simple and small solution to this problem and that is to provide safe routes and take in refugees with legitimate claims to asylum from the camps and to fulfil the campaign to re-settle 3000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe. This small step would make a vast difference to the lives and aspirations of those in desperate need of help.
I am convinced that the UK government must change its stance towards those stuck in northern France in order to save lives. The extraordinary efforts of the volunteers and activists there can only treat the problem and not solve it. Of course charity and donations are essential, yet the solution is a political one and one that is sorely needed and morally required. This would prevent further deaths such as those mourned at the memorial service today.