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An hour from Westminster, children are sleeping rough in the freezing woods

In Calais, children as young as nine are in limbo, dreaming of reunion with their families in Britain.

With the Christmas period a time for giving, many of us will have spared a thought and donated to charities helping those less fortunate than ourselves. Now that the decorations have been taken down, most of us have returned to our normal lives.

But the pain and suffering continues, often in the shadows. Many charities will tell you that January can be more challenging than December for those in need, as the weather bites and donations dry up. One group that sticks in my mind are the unaccompanied child refugees I met in Calais last September.

In my first few months as an MP, no event was as haunting as this visit to northern France, where more than a hundred lone children, who have a legal right to be in the UK, wait in limbo to be reconnected with family members.

Children as young as nine sleep rough in the forests and buildings surrounding the former unofficial camp known as “the Jungle”, living in fear of the authorities while dreaming of reunion with their families in Britain.

When the Jungle was bulldozed in October 2016, our government accepted 750 unaccompanied child refugees. In times of emergency, the process of reunification could take a matter of days. A year on, it takes eight to ten months for applications to be processed by UK and French authorities.

The conditions are harrowing; now far worse than they were before the Jungle was razed. With January upon us, there’s a real risk children will die from cold, hunger and preventable suffering. While this should mean an increase in the urgency of action by the government, this is not the case.

Debating the matter in Parliament three months ago, I was struck by a hard truth. I represent Plymouth, four hours from London by train. These unaccompanied kids are an hour by train from London. They’re closer to Parliament than the people I represent, but they may as well be a million miles away.

It will remain cold and damp for months. On 11 December, Safe Passage reported 12 young people asked for somewhere safe and warm to sleep, but emergency accommodation for minors in Calais was full – at 4°C, it was not cold enough for the local authority's “cold weather plan”. Their staff also report having to take children who are suffering from hypothermia to the local hospital.

As well as the cold, these minors face a real threat of violence, trafficking and exploitation. A recent report from Refugee rights Data project stated 93.6 per cent of child refugees in Calais have experienced police violence including tear gas, physical and verbal abuse. Many children have described having their shoes, tents, sleeping bags and blankets taken by police. UNICEF also reports that the number one fear of many of the young girls and boys is rape.

Poor conditions and lack of action from our government is spiralling into a set of desperate circumstances. Getting into Britain should not be more dangerous than fleeing war zones. Yet several children have already died trying to reach their family in the UK, despite having had the legal right to reunion. Delays, poor access to legal support and a lack of shelter lead children to risk their lives in the backs of lorries crossing the Channel. In doing so, there have been three deaths in the last thirty days. A week before Christmas, a 15-year-old Afghan boy lost his life in Calais trying to cross the border to the UK. The death could have been truly preventable, if legal routes had been more readily available.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, said in 2016: “our compassion does not stop at the border… Where those children have a relative in the UK or it is in their best interest to come to the UK, we are doing all we can to bring them over here.” It is legitimate to ask, if she is to stand true to these words, why are we leaving children who have a legal right to be in the UK out in the cold?

Britain has a proud history of welcoming refugees. Recent news that children from Greece have started to arrive in Britain under the Dubs Amendment gives us hope, but the numbers are far too small. To show ministers take this issue seriously, the government must extend the Dubs Amendment’s March deadline to enable more of the most vulnerable children to qualify. It must also work with the French authorities to provide accommodation centres for children while they access legal support for family reunion – the new Calais accommodation centre opened in April, but has only 20 beds.  

Let’s also not be party to the violence of French authorities. British taxpayers pay for additional policing in Calais. We cannot divorce ourselves from their actions as we pay their bills. Stories of the police's cruel treatment of children are commonplace and disturbing. I want to see a full investigation into the tactics used by French police to ensure British taxpayers’ money is not being used to fund human rights abuses towards children on our borders.

A new year should be an opportunity for a fresh start. There are none more deserving than the over a hundred unaccompanied children in Calais who need our thoughts, donations, our voice and our government to act. Let 2018 be the last that young children sleep rough in Calais, dreaming of being reunited with their families in Britain.

Luke Pollard is the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport. He visited Calais in September in a cross-party group organised by Safe Passage.

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge