On Monday, I visited Calais and Dunkirk to meet refugees and the volunteers who work day and night to help them.
Less than 24 hours later, the UK government crushed an attempt to restart the Dubs scheme, the one chance these refugee children had of a secure family life, safe from war and persecution.
The UK has a proud history of helping refugees – the Kindertransport programme under which the UK took in 10,000 refugee children before World War II is just one example. The closest we have come to any kind of similar action is the now defunct Dubs scheme. Despite aspirations to take in at least 3,000 children under the scheme, we have given refuge to just 350. But this is a tiny fraction of the 30,000 unaccompanied children who arrived in Greece and Italy last year alone. It is the equivalent of every big local authority in the country taking in just two of these youngsters.
While the 287 MPs who voted down the proposal went home to sleep in their beds, volunteers in Calais were handing out 100 sleeping bags – and will do so every night – to ensure that refugees have more than just the clothes on their backs to protect them from the cold. Even having a sleeping bag is no assurance of a warm, restful night. During my visit, volunteers told us stories of police waking up children in the middle of the night, taking away their sleeping bags and burning them. I later met two boys who had their bedding forcefully taken and, as a result, spent the rest of the night running to keep warm.
The government keeps bleating on about costs and a limited capacity to support refugees, but the reality is the UK is pouring money into building walls in Calais (the Calais jungle wall alone cost £2m). Making it harder to cross borders does not reduce numbers of refugees. This money could do so much good, feeding and clothing refugees, giving them somewhere safe and warm to sleep, and reuniting them with their family members in the UK.
We also could be spending the money on improving services on the ground. The Dunkirk refugee camp is home to two shipping containers that were intended to be used solely as community kitchens but also now have 40 people sleeping in each of them. The number of hot meals handed out by volunteers in Calais is growing every night, despite the mayor’s attempts to crack down on food distribution. She has declared herself “personally opposed” to humanitarian efforts. This is the kind of person the UK government is colluding with.
The Dunkirk camp also has a children’s centre, which an average of 40 to 50 children visit each day. From the inside, it could be any classroom or nursery in the UK. Adorned with children’s artwork and abuzz with noise, it is a small haven from its bleak surroundings. One of the regular users of the centre is a five-year-old boy – when I met him, he was quietly doing a Fireman Sam jigsaw puzzle. Volunteers at the centre believe he is on the autistic spectrum but do not have the resources to get an accurate diagnosis. In the UK, his life could be so different.
It is clear the UK’s response in Calais has been ineffective, inhumane and counterproductive. For example, many of the young people who were taken to other centres around France following the demolition of the jungle camp have simply made their way back to Calais. Their applications for transfer to the UK were rejected by the Home Office and they have nowhere else to go.
Amber Rudd has claimed “fake news” is being spread about child refugee numbers. Yet, as I have seen for myself, it is anything but. That she needs to borrow rhetoric from Donald Trump highlights a desperation to spin the story and steer attention away from the government’s utter failure to help these children.
This government is on the wrong side of history and now is the time for action. Reinstating the Dubs scheme is the bare minimum. In addition, the Green Party is calling on the Home Secretary to widen the family reunification rules, so that family members fleeing war, torture and persecution can stay together.
I will never forget the two young girls I met just outside the children’s centre in Dunkirk, one of them wearing a grubby pink sheep onesie. These are the faces of the refugee crisis. My words will never be enough to convey their stories. I challenge Amber Rudd and any of the Conservative politicians who voted against the Dubs amendment to meet these children – smiling and hopeful despite their terrible circumstance – and bear witness to the devastating effects of UK policies. I do not believe any MP would be able to look them in the eye and still cast a vote to condemn them to a life of danger and uncertainty.