In October 2016, I travelled on two occasions to the Refugee Camp in Calais, known as the 'Jungle' with my colleagues. The camp was due to be destroyed imminently in a collaborative effort between the French and British governments. This destruction left thousands of asylum seekers who dreamed of seeking refuge in the United Kingdom homeless and in limbo.
The number included an estimated 2000 children who had fled from persecution, trauma and war from countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Our business in the Jungle was to advise as many children as possible in order to assist them with a potential relocation to the United Kingdom under s67 of the Immigration Act 2016, also known as the 'Dubs Amendment'.
My memories of the Jungle are now eight months old and have been somewhat clouded by the harrowing stories of our clients as well as the hundreds of hours put into representing them since our visits.
Last week, however, these memories came flashing back. This saw the substantive hearing of the Help Refugees judicial review in the Administrative Court, which we attended as part of our hope to finally help our child clients achieve their dream of transfer to the United Kingdom; the promulgation of M, (a Child), R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for the Home Department, in which the President of the Upper Tribunal, Mr Justice McCloskey, granted the judicial review applications of 7 children who previously resided in the Jungle, reuniting them with their families in their United Kingdom; and, perhaps most pertinently, the premiere of journalist and professor Sue Clayton's harrowing documentary, 'Calais: A Case to Answer'.
The documentary represents the last eight months of Sue Clayton's life, in which she dedicated herself to reporting on the shocking events leading up to the closure of the Jungle and the aftermath. Clayton spent weeks in Calais meeting with children, taking the time to listen to them, helping them find legal representation; very much unlike the French and British authorities. After the destruction of the camp, Clayton spent time travelling around France, in an attempt to maintain contact with these children. They had initially been dispersed around the country to reception centres and when they finally fled these centres, dejected, they returned to make-shift camps close the Channel.
Clayton's documentary also covers the work of our team in the Jungle. Watching it, memories came flooding back:
I remember when we first walked into the Jungle and once word spread that we were lawyers here to help children come to the United Kingdom, we were surrounded by dozens of desperate children. I remember our frantic attempts to try to speak to and document every one of these children with limited numbers, time and the crowd ever increasing as we worked.
I remember the next day, when we returned to the Jungle and based ourselves in a small shed, which doubled as an art gallery, the work of child refugees surrounding us. I remember sitting in the corner of this shed in the dirt as the light faded, trying to maximise the sound of my phone which had an interpreter on the line.
I remember the feeling as I left the next day, the guilt as I returned to my comfortable life just a little over an hour away from such misery. I felt as if I was abandoning these children who badly needed someone to help them.
I remember the chaos and panic when I returned the next week, with the rumour mill in overdrive about the upcoming closure of the Jungle. I remember, despite this and the surge of gendarmes brandishing tear gas, that a cricket game was taking place on the outskirts of the jungle. A 12 year old child that I had met the previous week was wicket keeper, numb to the aggressive marching of riot police.
I remember seeing two friends of different nationalities embrace by the entrance to the Jungle, torn apart by its closure and going in different directions to continue their lives as stateless nomads, thousands of miles away from the homes to which they cannot return.
I remember as I left on Sunday evening, with the Jungle due to close the next day, wondering and worrying what would happen to the 2000 children who had been forced away from their homes. I felt that this job was far too big for a handful of lawyers or well-meaning charity groups. There was too much to do: it needed state intervention but in a decent, humane way.
I remember the first time I walked into the Home Office back in London, and the sound of joyous, excited children in the corridors, after they had been rescued from the Jungle. I remember the look of happiness on a Jewish Syrian child's face when he was told that he was being moved to a local area with a synagogue. I remember feeling that this would be one of many joyous days to come; it wasn't. There was no more joy for us.
I remember the chaotic day in which dozens of children called to tell us that they were being moved away from the Jungle and moved across all of France. I remember in the following days trying to track the children, preparing a map of France with dots of where all the children were.
I remember the publication of the Home Office policy for transfer of children, and the realisation that its arbitrary restrictions would mean that every single one of the children, who we were representing, would ultimately be refused transfer to the United Kingdom, and there may be nothing that we could do about it.
I remember visiting a child in Le Havre telling me that he had been choked by someone who was supposed to be protecting him. I remember those who ran the centre attempting to cover up what had happened to this traumatised child.
I remember the days in mid-December when child after child told us that they had been told they were not coming to the United Kingdom. I remember having to advise child after child that they should not flee from their centres and return to Calais as it was not safe there. I remember the Christmas break where I had to hope that these children would keep themselves safe and wouldn't hurt themselves.
I remember hearing the tragic news of a child who had died while waiting at one of the reception centres and, amidst the sheer pain of receiving such news, feeling relief once I knew it wasn't one of our children.
I remember visiting a child in Biscarosse, France. He had been told that his application had been refused as he was 16 years old and not 15 years old despite having undergone such unfathomable and inexplicable trauma in such a young life. I remember seeing how much weight he had lost since I last saw him. I remember how withdrawn he seemed despite our efforts to cheer him up. I remember how he had shaved 'UK' into the side of his head. To the UK's eternal shame, it was Ireland who ended up taking responsibility for this child. He tells me that he is doing fine in Dublin but wishes that he could be in the UK still.
I always think about all the children of the Jungle and where they are and whether they are safe. I always think about how we desperately wanted to help a handful of these children in need but the Home Office said no. I always think about whether we could have done something differently or whether we should have even attempted to try.
I wanted to write this article to give my story as a lawyer who tried his hardest to help the most vulnerable group in the world, unaccompanied asylum seeking children. It was difficult to write and the events of the past eight months have had a significant impact on me.
The main emotion that I feel is shame, shame that my country had the opportunity to make a difference to this vulnerable group, but instead lured them away from the Jungle under the false hope that they were being temporarily accommodated before being transferred to the United Kingdom. They brutally refused these children and left them in a far worse state than before, liable to trafficking and further exploitation and willing once again to risk their lives to make it to the United Kingdom.
I hope that many others have the opportunity to watch Sue Clayton's documentary and have a sense about the tragic story of The Jungle and what happened after its closure.
Sue Clayton's documentary, 'Calais: A Case to Answer' is currently screening throughout the country.
Our litigation, 'ZS v Secretary of State for the Home Department' remains outstanding and waiting for hearing in the Administrative Court.
Jamie Bell, the author, is a Trainee Solicitor in the Public Law and Immigration Department, he has significant experience dealing with vulnerable clients including those in detention, those suffering from complex psychological issues and victims of torture and trafficking. He has been particularly successful challenging the detention of vulnerable clients, leading to grants of out of hours' injunctions preventing their deportation.
This blog first appeared on the Duncan Lewis site, and can be read here