AFTER driving alongside an endless expanse of high fences with barbed wire, we stopped at the side of an abandoned field. A group of armed police officers was ready to question our intentions. We had arrived at the recently demolished Southern section of the Calais camp.
In the distance, stood the Northern camp. On one side of it tents and make-shift shelters littered the landscape; a shanty town in one of Western Europe’s richest countries. On the other side, white clinical containers were stacked upon each other; for the Eritrean and Sudanese men who queued patiently for that day’s hand-out, these were a reminder of structures used for persecution and torture.
As I battled with the reality that this was ‘home’ to these men, I saw a group of children run past. Help Refugees UK’s latest census reported that of the 4,946 refugees and forced migrants living in the Calais camp, 514 are children. Even more worrying is the report that since the destruction of the Southern camp, 129 out of 294 unaccompanied children have been unaccounted for.
Loading article content
During our 4-day visit, we spoke with countless people. Yet, it’s the thought of the children that will keep me awake at night. They represent a generation of young people stuck in limbo in camps across Europe.
We spoke with a young Afghan boy who stood outside the youth centre; one of the last remaining structures of the Southern camp. He had made the journey because it wasn’t safe for him to stay in Afghanistan. His experiences at home, followed by months of travel and living in fear and in limbo in Calais have effectively robbed him of his childhood.
In Calais, unaccompanied minors share bed space with adults they are not related to and face aggression from the police, with one report of tear gas being used for four consecutive hours.
I asked the young boy where he was from and what he would like to do in the future. He replied that he was from ‘the Jungle’ and simply shrugged his shoulders about the future.
Arriving in the newly relocated Grand-Synthe camp, we felt some hope. There was less mud, more order and semi-permanent eco-friendly structures offered waterproof, safer accommodation. However, these structures do not provide a cure for the desperation felt across the camp.
Sitting with a group of Kurdish men, we listened to one man who had lost his entire family in the Mediterranean.
As much as this man’s story disturbed me, it was baby Oscar who filled me with despair. Eleven months old and playing hide and seek with one of our delegation, it struck me that this young boy is yet to discover the grim reality of his future if European governments do not act. Oscar’s parents fled Kurdistan and in doing so, hoped for a better future. His father fought Daesh yet the West does not care to help them.
Oscar will be able to go to the camp nursery soon. Edlumino is run by volunteers, who among so many others provide the only humanitarian response to the crisis.
In the school, I met Sivan, a 16-year-old girl stuck in limbo. She is an unaccompanied minor; one of many girls who have made the perilous journey alone.
I would challenge anyone to call her an economic migrant. Sivan attends the school each day, diligently studying towards her GSCE’s.
Like Sivan, many of these refugees have family in the UK. The charity, Citizens UK, have identified at least 150 young people in Calais with a legal right to be reunited with families in the UK. Yet, only a handful of under-18s have been granted this right.
When the SNP group return to Westminster on Monday we will renew pressure on the UK Government to do more in response to this crisis and urge the Home Office to ensure that those with a legal right to join their families are granted that right.
Last year, the Scottish Government passed the Human Trafficking (Scotland) Act. This ensures that all children who arrive in Scotland alone and separated from their families have the right to an independent ‘Guardian’ to assist them; helping them with everything from their health and wellbeing to housing issues.
There is no doubt that similar provision is required in Calais and Grand-Synthe to help separated children and unaccompanied minors.
When we turn our backs on the boy from ‘the Jungle,’ Oscar, Sivan and the thousands of other children stuck in camps across Europe, we turn our back on humanity.
Joanna Cherry is the SNP spokesperson for Justice and Home Affairs