I remember the faces of the hundreds of unaccompanied children who lived in the unofficial camp in Calais. They had experienced unimaginable trauma, survived the most dangerous journeys, and were then left to sleep in tents and wooden shelters on an industrial wasteland in the cold rain of Calais. The youngest I met was just eight years old.
I was just one of the thousands of ordinary people who came to help. When I arrived in Calais, I expected to see larger NGOs and governments in action trying to help these vulnerable children. What I saw were people living in squalor with no food, no shelter, and no support.
I was part of a group of friends that set up the charity Help Refugees. We began working in the so-called Jungle in August 2015 helping to provide the very basics to keep people alive. We relied on the goodwill of thousands of everyday people, every day. Students, builders, artists, doctors, teachers, chefs, psychologists, and lawyers all chipped in. Now we’re asking for your support to help the most vulnerable children in Europe today.
Our work in Calais highlighted the need for safe and legal routes to sanctuary, particularly for vulnerable children. With major international charities and both the French and British governments conspicuously absent, children were pushed into the hands of smugglers. They tried escape – often with tragic, and sometimes fatal, consequences.
The clashes in Calais last Thursday tragically show the true extent of the suffering these criminal gangs can cause, pitting communities against each other for gain, while displaced men, women and children in Calais are barely surviving in the most inhumane conditions.
Last week’s clashes have received much more media attention than the degrading conditions in Calais or violence and hostility perpetrated by state actors. Only two weeks ago, a 16-year old boy lost one of his eyes during the violent clearance of tents by over 40 riot police officers. It was reported that he was hit in the face by a rubber bullet or tear gas canister. He is still in a critical state in hospital.
We began to campaign with our dear friend Lord Alf Dubs, a former child refugee himself, to protect children from facing this kind of violence and abuse. We wanted the government to transfer some of lone children in France, Greece and Italy to the UK and do our part in what is the biggest refugee crisis since WW2. The public outpouring of support for the Dubs Amendment was phenomenal – yet the same could not be said for the government.
An initial proposal to resettle 3000 children, less than five per constituency, was narrowly voted down in the House of Commons. A watered-down version passed in April 2016. This time round it was up to the government to speak with local councils and work out how many unaccompanied children the UK could resettle. In the six months that followed, not a single child was brought to the UK.
Help Refugees Ltd., with support from the British public, began litigation against the Home Office’s implementation (or lack thereof) of the Dubs Amendment in October 2016. We have achieved incredible results, including the first transfer of unaccompanied children (those under 12 and at risk of exploitation) from Calais during the demolition of the camp. But the scheme then ground to a halt, and in February 2017, Amber Rudd announced that the scheme would be capped at just 350 children.
Our litigation challenged the consultation on which this was based, and forced the government to concede that it had ‘missed’ 130 offered places. We continued the case and said that the now 480 figure was not an accurate reflection of true capacity. Just last week, we were granted permission to appeal this decision and launched a crowdfunding campaign to help us raise the costs to continue the fight for these children.
The crisis these children are facing is still as desperate now as it was when the Amendment was passed. In two years, less than half the Dubs places have been filled. In Greece, the waiting list of lone children seeking shelter stands at more than double the official capacity. In Calais, approximately 200 children are sleeping without shelter: the French police, partly funded by British taxpayers, regularly seize their possessions or spray them with tear gas. In Italy, over 15,000 lone children arrived last year, to a state that is overburdened and under-resourced.
Every moment that these places are left unfilled puts a child’s life at risk. We have the chance to hold the Home Office to account, for the promises that they made both to the public and to unaccompanied children. Our collective voice has achieved incredible things so far – please help us and donate to our Crowdjustice campaign. Every single child’s life is precious and we all have a responsibility to protect them.