The slip road off the motorway brings you straight into the Jungle camp in Calais. Today I was met with a cloud of pungent blue, orifice attacking, smoke. I moved away, blindly hunting a clean tissue for myself and my travelling companions from Social Work First.
Once we were able, we wondered what had triggered such an aggressive attack from the CRS, the French riot police. The group of youths at the centre of the tear-gas attack seemed calm and passive still, even after the attack. There was no noise from them, either before or after the release of the gas. Why had they been targeted?
This is a question that receives a shrug of the shoulders. Who knows? It happens often enough. Sometimes, the gas is sprayed inches from the face, causing burns.
This level of unnecessary brutality is perhaps one reason it has been an uphill struggle to persuade people of the Jungle camp in Calais to seek asylum in France. Brutality is a reality for the residents of the Jungle, whether it be CRS administered brutality, or the passive brutality of indifference to their plight by the governments of France and the UK.
That the camp is a brutish environment cannot be hidden. In daylight, the residents conform to the civilities of the volunteers without whom they would be utterly destitute and whom they cannot thank enough. But at night, the camp is a different place. Nightly they walk miles to try their luck to make it to the UK, stoically accepting the methods of the CRS to deter them – razorwire, teargas, truncheons and dogs. By day their injuries are patched up by MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) and other volunteers.
During my stay there last week two people died. In the course of a night’s violence an Ethiopian was killed; another person died on the motorway – not the first to meet such a fate. There are those who say that fatalities on the motorway are caused by smugglers as it takes the authorities quite a while to clean up, giving them more time to get people into the stopped lorries. Who keeps a record of the fatalities? Who informs the relatives? Do the French government even know who is on their soil?
The number of unaccompanied children in the camp is almost impossible to gauge without a central registration point, but it is certainly more than the 157 last estimated by Citizens UK. The French government neglects its duty to safeguard children, whilst the UK government remains dilatory in its response to those seeking to be reunified with family in the UK.
This inaction was successfully challenged in January this year by a case brought to the Upper Tribunal by Citizens UK, Bhatt Murphy Solicitors and Doughty Street Chambers, which ruled that three children and a dependant adult should be immediately brought to the UK to rejoin family members already legally living here.
Their reasoning was that as the group had fulfilled the necessary paperwork and had already been in limbo for nine months waiting for the French authorities to issue a “take charge” notice to the Home Office, it was incumbent on the British Government to act and immediately bring the group to be reunited with their British family.
To its shame the British government lodged an immediate appeal against this decision – and this week the Court of Appeal overturned the ruling of the Upper Tribunal.
Although it is understood that the group at the centre of the case will be allowed to remain in Britain, the impact on those that remain in the camp and who are trapped by similar dysfunctional bureaucracy is cruel.
Not only that but how does the government reconcile its petty pursuance of this case with its subsequent obligations under the Immigration Act 2016, which commit it to allow unaccompanied asylum seeking children already in the EU to come to Britain – following the example of the Kindertransport scheme which brought 10,000 Jewish children to Britain to escape Hitler? Does the right hand know what the left is doing?
I hope this waste of tax-payers’ money to make a self-defeating point is a consequence of passing the baton from one government to another. Unless of course the government has no intention of meeting own target of bringing 20,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees and 3,000 unaccompanied children from camps in the region to Britain by 2020, nor of meeting its obligations under the Dubs’ amendment in the Immigration Act 2016 to give shelter to unaccompanied children already in the EU? Its record to date would suggest so.
There is very real fear amongst volunteer groups that, if the French go ahead with rumoured demolitions this autumn, increased numbers of very vulnerable children will be delivered into the hands of merciless traffickers. Memories surface of the last demolition in February, which left people traumatised – and almost 200 children missing.
Urgent action is needed by French and British governments to take seriously their obligations under international and national law to safeguard children – this must start by official representation in the camp to register existing residents and daily arrivals, and to put in place processes to assess each individual case. Surely it is a moral imperative to behave with human decency towards people seeking our protection as they flee from hideous terrors at home, until such time as they can begin the journey back home again?
Here are some facts behind the biggest movement of people we have seen since World War II. According to UNHCR, over 65 million people have been displaced worldwide, 86% of whom are living in developing countries, some in camps. Turkey is the biggest refugee hosting country with 2.5m Syrian refugees; Jordan hosts 600,000; Lebanon 1.2m. Pakistan hosts 1.6m Afghans. Many, many more are internally displaced, living in unimaginable conditions in their homeland.
By the end of 2015 the UK had resettled just 1062 vulnerable Syrian refugees.
Shas Sheehan is a Liberal Democrat Peer and a regular visitor to the Jungle camp in Calais.