Imagine being your 14-year-old self again. Imagine being alone, frightened, sleeping rough. Imagine being hit by pepper spray from riot police.
Now look at your own children, your nephews and nieces, your friends’ children. Imagine them suffering the same abuse. Unimaginable? Not for hundreds of vulnerable young people who are just 20 miles from Dover, in Calais.
This week is the first anniversary of the bulldozing of the makeshift refugee camp in Calais that became known as the ‘jungle’. There was international outrage that such misery could be allowed to grow in a wealthy European nation. But precious little positive action was being taken by the authorities either side of the English Channel.
In the UK, ordinary people focussed their outrage on taking action. Safe Passage, a partnership created the previous year between lawyers, community organisers and faith leaders (including a number of my Rabbinic colleagues), was working hard to find a legal and safe way to help children be reunited with their families, here in the UK. The project focussed not only opening existing legal routes for unaccompanied young people, but also creating new ones. It worked.
In addition to opening a legal route to family reunion, Safe Passage worked with Lord Alf Dubs, whose amendment to the immigration bill paved the way to safe legal transfers for the most vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. The plight of such vulnerable young people is close to Lord Dubs’ heart. He arrived in Britain on a train from Prague in 1939 when he was just six years old. He was one of 10,000 Jewish and other children rescued by the Kindertransport in the two years before the outbreak of WWII.
Last autumn, 750 unaccompanied child refugees were granted safe and legal access to the UK, most of whom were reunited with their relatives. What a privilege it was to be able to welcome them. It was and still is a cause for celebration, but 12 months later, the news crews have moved on, we have a UK government greatly reduced in authority and the number of desperate people is growing again in the Calais area. Why? A year ago, it took just days to transfer a young person from Calais to their family in the UK. Now, it can take up to a year. Organisers on the ground, say already-vulnerable people are losing faith in the system. They’ve had their trust broken in their country of origin; it’s hard for them to trust authority, especially when they see nothing happening month after month. It’s an indication of how desperate they are that they would now risk their lives attempting dangerous routes to the UK. The human traffickers are moving in, ready to prey on these youngsters with false promises.
The government promised to resettle 480 children under the Dubs Amendment. That hasn’t happened, less than half of those places have been filled. At the very least, the government should keep its promise to fill these places, before winter arrives.
Those stories of violence against children are not just wild rumour. A recent report by Human Rights Watch, documented violence and human rights abuses perpetrated against children and adults in Calais since the demolition.
It said “riot police routinely use pepper spray on child and adult migrants while they are sleeping or in other circumstances in which they pose no threat; regularly spray or confiscate sleeping bags, blankets, and clothing; and sometimes use pepper spray on migrants’ food and water.”
Imagine these children are safe and loved, free from fear and abuse. It doesn’t take imagination, just action.