Protesters demanding the government does more to help refugees, 15 October 2016. Photo: Shabbir Lakha Protesters demanding the government does more to help refugees, 15 October 2016. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

The government is not just being bureaucratic, it’s deliberately shirking its responsibilities, argues Shabbir Lakha

Demolition of the refugee camp in Calais is expected to begin on 24 October, leaving just a few days before the French riot police and bulldozers roll in. The French government has so far provided no information about contingency plans for the 10,000 refugees who are currently residing in the camp. As a result, refugees are growing more desperate and there are increased attempts to illegally cross the Channel every night, increased confrontations with French police and more tension within refugee communities inside the camp.

Recent reports have revealed that the French police have been confiscating mobile phones and shoes – yes, shoes – from refugees outside or in the outskirts of the camp, with the aim of hindering their ability to leave the camp either to the UK or other refugee settlements in France. This is an added dynamic to an already worrying picture when it comes to police brutality against refugees in France. Earlier this year, the Refugee Rights Data Project published findings that over 75% of the camp residents in Calais have been victim to police violence. During the last demolition of the south part of the camp, the violence towards refugees was severely ramped up with almost every refugee in the camp being subjected to beatings, teargas and pepper spray, and reportedly parts of the camp were intentionally set on fire to drive refugees out. Volunteers who are increasingly being refused entry into France anticipate similar treatment once the demolition is underway next week.

The British government’s neglect and refusal to take on its fair share of refugees has been consistent since the influx of refugees in Europe first became a “crisis” over a year ago. This attitude was epitomised by Theresa May’s recent speech at the UNGA High Level Summit on Refugees and Migrants where she used the opportunity to call for a global clampdown on “uncontrolled migration” instead of responding to criticism from humanitarian and human rights organisations that Britain is not doing enough. But what’s even more disturbing, is the seemingly intentional shirking of the limited commitments the British government actually has made towards protecting refugees. Particularly in the case of vulnerable and unaccompanied children.

For months, volunteer organisations have been documenting unaccompanied minors in the camp who are eligible to come to the UK. The latest list by Citizens UK identified 387 unaccompanied children who have the right to be in the UK under the Dublin III Regulations and the Dubs Amendment and was given to Amber Rudd over a month ago. In that same week, Bernard Cazeneuve, the French Minister of Interior, announced the demolition of the Calais camp. It took Amber Rudd a whole month – just a week before demolition was due to begin – to seek verification of the list of unaccompanied children with a right to be in the UK from French authorities.

The first group of these children, 14 of them, were brought to the UK on Monday and a further 13 on Tuesday and 12 today; but celebrations by volunteers and concerned individuals are on hold as it is still unclear how many more will be brought to the UK – and more importantly, in time. During the March demolition of the camp, 129 children went missing and 18 of the children eligible for asylum in the UK have gone missing in the last two months. These disturbing figures stand in the midst of a shocking 10,000 refugee children who have gone missing in Europe according to Interpol in January – the figure probably much higher now.

Citizens UK is now resorting to threats of legal action against the Home Office for its inaction and, in the words of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, “foot dragging” over refugees in Calais. Last month, a 14-year-old Afghan boy who had the right to be in the UK was killed trying to get onto a lorry because he gave up hope on the inept asylum process refugees have been subjected to.

After the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month, Jeremy Corbyn accused the Tories of “fanning the flames of xenophobia” at the proposal of forcing businesses to draw up and publish lists of foreign born workers. This statement is equally fitting to the government’s stance on refugees which has given rise to the rhetoric propagated by far right groups. The vitriolic abuse received by Lily Allen and Gary Lineker on Twitter because they advocated for unaccompanied child refugees to be brought to the UK is an unpleasant testament to this.

Despite a clear violation of ethical journalistic standards, the entire mainstream media published the names and photos of the unaccompanied minors who arrived in the UK on Monday, ignoring the very real threat to their safety. These pictures have since been scooped up by far-right individuals, led by Conservative MP David Davies, demanding dental checks to prove that the minors are actually under 18 because they apparently look older in the pictures. While it is a relief that the Home Office issued a statement today saying it would not do this, it is little consolation given its track record on the wider situation.

Jeremy Corbyn, along with a number of parliamentarians including Stella Creasy, Yvette Cooper and Lord Alf Dubs, made an impassioned appeal to the government to step up and fulfil its duty – and at least the commitments it has already made – in providing safe passage and sanctuary to refugees in Calais before the camp is demolished.

In the 1930s, Britain offered refuge to 10,000 Jewish Kindertransport children fleeing genocide and persecution in Europe, when most other countries refused. We must continue this humanitarian legacy and not turn our back on refugee children in Europe. I visited the camps earlier this year, I saw for myself what was going on there and I spoke to some of these unaccompanied children. They need our help.

At a demonstration at the Kindertransport statue outside Liverpool Street Station in London last week, a speaker pointed out that the Chamberlain government in the 1930s only agreed to help the 10,000 Jewish child refugees after immense public pressure, and so it is vital that today we do the same. The bureaucracy and confusion of the situation has made it difficult for campaigners and activists to know where pressure can be applied effectively, and so as it stands we need to do everything we can to contact and urge local Councillors, MPs and central government in every way possible over the next few weeks in a bid to protect as many vulnerable child refugees as possible.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

Tagged under: