We spent the evening in a car park in Calais, six volunteers and 15 teenagers, waiting to see if there was space for the minors in a night shelter. There aren’t enough spaces ― about 60 for around 100 children ― so we’d already had to leave a large number to sleep outside again. These are kids, remember. Sleeping rough. And we are grassroots, NGO volunteers, not government employees ― but without our support the majority of the kids would not have accessed the accommodation. And the accommodation isn’t even open every night. How can this be right?
The night was wet and windy. It often is in Calais. At about three in the morning, it was windy enough to blow open the door of the static caravan I live in ― one can only imagine what it must’ve been like for those teenagers outside. If only there were better resources to help look after them. But where would the money come from?
Funds for the “hostile environment”
This week we woke to the news that the UK is expected to give the French government an extra £44million to increase border security in the Calais region (bringing the total of British money spent on security and police in Calais to £150m in the past 15 months). This is cold news and it makes you rage. £44m for fences, walls, barbed wire and police, but not a penny to help vulnerable people. No money for the currently inadequate or absent provision of anti-trafficking and child safeguarding services, access to asylum information or processes, accommodation, food, water or sanitation.
Not only is there an absence of money to help vulnerable people, the money will be used to strengthen and perpetuate structures that will further degrade and hurt vulnerable people. Mr Macron says he can’t believe the police use excessive force in Calais. He asks for evidence of it (and threatens associations if they can’t produce it), but it is hard to know what evidence he would accept, given the number of reports that have already been made about police brutality. A fortifying of the French version of a “hostile environment” can only mean more pain, more sleepless, cold, wet nights, more mental health issues. In a place where these exist and basic human rights don’t, people are driven to take more life-threatening risks to escape.
Christmas was anything but merry. Two people in intensive care after accidents trying to escape Calais. One, hit by a train, has lost his legs. And three people have died. Three people in three weeks. One was 15 years old. His 13-year-old friend had to call for an ambulance.
This can only continue, if not increase, where a hostile environment becomes more hostile. More people will die.
Sceptical of improvements to asylum processes
Along with millions of pounds for increased security, there has been talk of speeding up asylum application procedures for people currently stuck in Calais. We would welcome this. Please do this! One more day that 10-year-old children are sleeping in the woods, unable to access legal and legitimate channels to their right to be safe with their families, is too long. This isn’t hypothetical. A 10-year-old will be sleeping in the woods tonight. This has already gone on for far too long.
Forgive us, though, if we are sceptical about any promises that might be made. In our opinion, the current Conservative government has been obstructive and reprehensible in its duty of care towards people it is supposed to help. The acceleration of processes for legal entry to the UK is welcomed – but it could not get much slower. Five children with legal rights to be in the UK have already died in the past two years. Their families were in the UK, but the process of reunification was so protracted, and the support for the kids while they waited was non-existent (outside of the little volunteers could provide), that the children felt forced to take life-threatening risks to try and get to some form of safety and stability, to try to be with their family. They died because the processes of the Conservative government’s “hostile environment” dragged on. This government’s red tape is red with blood.
Mrs May’s spokesperson has said that the Government is “determined” in its drive to find homes for unaccompanied minors. This seems a little rich, considering the lack of effort the Government has so far put into finding homes for unaccompanied minors.
Sadly, the Government is already distancing itself from suggestions that Mrs May agreed to accept more migrants. The Prime Minister’s spokesperson said that the her government is ready to find homes (but for how long?) for unaccompanied minors “when it is appropriate”. To us, this sounds a little too much like the Government’s “unspecified number” of children who would be taken to the UK under the Dubs amendment. 3,000 places were initially proposed in 2016. The Conservatives have now set a cap of 480. And yet nearly 300 places still remain unfilled. The legal routes already exist, but the UK Government is blocking them, reducing numbers, changing criteria for eligibility. “When it is appropriate” feels like another get-out clause. And all the while, kids sleep rough.
The French and UK governments certainly need to do more to help relieve the situation in Calais, but the millions of pounds spent on security and policing are a misuse of public funds that will exacerbate not solve the problems here, and the talk of speeding up asylum processes feels hollow and too limited. While we wait for real, helpful action to materialise, Help Refugees’ volunteers, and those of our partners, will continue to try to provide the support that two governments are failing to do. And while we wait for real, helpful action, a 10-year-old still sleeps rough, or worse.
Help Refugees has co-signed an open letter to President Macron and Prime Minister May. To support Help Refugees’ work in the Calais region, donate here or volunteer. We also encourage you to write to your politicians to advocate for refugees in Calais and further afield.