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15 January 2018updated 26 Sep 2023 8:24am

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.

By Luke Pollard

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.

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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.

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