Angered by the injustice I witnessed volunteering with Care4Calais last week, I have written to my MP, Chi Onwurah, and asked her to demand the home secretary enable safe passage for unaccompanied child refugees.
Feeding people is not a crime. Ensuring people have food and water and basic shelter is to be human. That is not politics, that is humanity.
In the heatwave last week at an unofficial refugee camp not far from where we were in Calais, friends told us the local police had punctured their communal water tank. Cruelty.
On that day there were two crop fires on the outskirts of town. In 40-degree heat, hotter for some friends than their homelands, with limited shelter, unable to get a drink, this was torture.
These people, these human beings, could have died from dehydration. They had to wait 24 hours to get drinking water from Care4Calais volunteers.
Refugees not welcome
Camped in tents and rudimentary structures with no basic hygiene, no toilets or washing facilities, people fleeing persecution and torture are frequently moved on with often their possessions and cooking facilities taken. Running an endless gauntlet between the local police and criminal gangs, refugees are really not welcome in Calais.
There are no Ukrainian refugees camping rough here. French authorities deemed this area unsafe and moved their processing centre to Lille where they are provided with food, accommodation and an allowance whilst their UK applications are processed.
“That’s just not right,” said Tahir, a Sudanese who’d been studying medicine on a scholarship in Russia until the war started. He hopes to meet up with his sister in Middlesbrough. “You cannot say this refugee is different to that refugee. You cannot separate them.”
It is blatant racism: if you are seeking refuge and you are black and from Africa or the Middle East you are left to die or survive and if you are white and from a place proximal to Western Europe, you are supported to thrive.
Newcastle volunteers supporting Care4Calais
With comrades from Newcastle, in a trip delayed by the pandemic, we were taking our most recent fundraising (earlier funds all donated when Covid struck) and practical solidarity to Care4Calais in memory of our staunch socialist and humanitarian friend, Bernard Pidcock, father of Laura Pidcock.
At unofficial sites outside Dunkirk and Calais we helped provide service – drinks, barbering facilities, phone charging, crafts, English lessons, clothing repairs – to populations of 150–250 Sudanese, Afghani, Eritrean and Iranian refugees.
Tony Pierre said:
“Picking up litter, cleaning a space for people who have nothing, nothing, is humbling. There’s something about restoring dignity. I can give them that.”
Clare Moseley founder of Care4Calais said:
“We rely on fundraising to support the vital work we do, providing food parcels and essential services to international friends in difficult circumstances. Thank you so much to everyone who supports us.”
Harrowing and incomplete stories
Our group received stories of pimping at gunpoint, war, terror, death threats from family and authorities, persecution for sexuality and tales of survival, of navigating the camps and criminal gangs that operate in and around them. There were also stories of economic migration but most of what we heard was heartbreaking, of killing, of loss and of separation.
Having worked with ESOL students who had escaped Syria or passed through Calais, I had heard their stories and for some I had made referrals to agencies who support in healing trauma. I thought I had prepared myself for this visit and for what I might hear.
I had not readied myself for stories that were not complete, of my anticipation of endings and potential harm.
“My mother cries on the phone. She thinks this is dangerous.” Mohamad gestures with his head to take in the camp surrounds. He has internet access and I tell him he must WhatsApp her every day. He shrugs, his eyes not lifting from the ground.
Wearing trousers too short for him and an anorak he has yet to grow into, Mohamad is just a kid. A child. “I am 16 years, and don’t forget seven months, it’s important”.
A quiet lad, my colleagues would probably describe Mohamad as sensitive. His father paid traffickers for his passage from Iran when his life was threatened. This was the only way his family could keep him alive.
Mohamad has paid €980 to take a boat to the UK where he will claim asylum. He is due to sail the night after we meet. Can he swim?
More animated now, Mohamad says it’s fine. “Look … I take my coat off and put up here”. With an arm over his head he mimes treading water. “I don’t go to bottom”.
I feel numb. I don’t want him to do this. I fear how this journey might end. This boy has a name, a face and a family who love him. If he could make his asylum claim from outside the UK he need not risk his life on open water.
With an uncle waiting in Manchester, Mohamad is going to Glasgow University to read engineering. “I like Glasgow University. It is good for me. I can have good life”.
“I don’t want to go to Rwanda, that’s problem. I don’t want them to send me. That’s my life gone”.
Shame on the hostile environment. Shame on immigration rules that deny safe passage. People seeking refuge, people in need of asylum, are welcome here.
UPDATE 2.8.22: My fear was justified – Mohamad risked his life with traffickers on a small boat that got into trouble – but he is alive and well and in warm, safe accommodation in Hove near Brighton. Thank goodness for the coastguard and rescue services.
You can sign the petition to call on the government to provide safe passage to the UK for unaccompanied child refugees here.