Calais: The depths of disregard for refugee children
As our collective eyes have been drawn to the English Channel, recent weeks have seen refugees described as invaders, the Home Secretary seeking the deployment of the Royal Navy to turn back refugee boats, voyeuristic live broadcasts of said boats by news outlets, and 49% of people polled by Yougov reporting to have little or no sympathy for those crossing the channel. It would seem, perhaps surprisingly for a country so full of people intent on insisting that all lives matter only yesterday, that Britain has reacted to the plight of these refugees in a manner utterly devoid of basic human compassion.
Then, on Wednesday morning a Sudanese teenager was found on Sangatte Beach in Calais having drowned whilst trying to cross the channel. This is terrible and tragic, but it is not a surprise. It is the most recent example of the dire human cost of France and the UK’s disregard for the lives of refugees at the Franco-British border and particularly, the lives and rights of refugee children. I witnessed this first-hand four years ago in the Calais refugee camp as their disregard, neglect and the harms it caused precipitated the disappearance of over 709 refugee children - children much like the one found on Wednesday morning.
Few would countenance leaving children unsupervised for any length of time, and yet in the last days of the (problematically if not racistly named) Calais “Jungle” camp there lived over 1000 unaccompanied refugee children as such. Over a thousand children, less than 25 miles from Dover, lived amongst adults without adequate food, sanitation, leisure, education, and a complete absence of state child protection that left them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking.
Amongst so much more, I remember children left barefoot having had their shoes taken from them by the police, children burning exercise books from a volunteer-run school to fuel fires to keep warm, and workshops having to be delivered to children on what they should do when (not if) they are exposed to tear-gas. I remember children walking back into the camp in the morning exhausted and sometimes hurt having spent the entire night at the port trying escape this hell by trying to board (often moving) lorries.
In this hell they lived, despite that under its own legislation France is obliged to provide child protection until the child can be transferred e.g. to foster care or a children’s home, despite that many of these children had ongoing asylum cases in the UK, despite that many (an estimated 400 as of October 2016) were eligible for transfer to the UK under existing legislation.
The camp may no longer exist, but the current situation is no better for refugees, it is just less visible. Refugees continue to exist in Calais, but living in small makeshift camps in the woods and on the streets around the prefecture. Refugees living with little if any access to services, and subject to the human rights abuses and incidents of police brutality that have forever been features of the policing of refugees in Calais that include beatings ,the destruction of tents, and the tear gassing of blankets & sleeping bags . As they always have, these dire conditions only serve to increase desperation to cross the channel. This desperation could be felt when 16-year-old Ali recently told The Guardian, “one day I will just swim. If I die, that is OK.”
On 26th October 2016 after days of evictions from the Calais camp local prefect Fabienne Buccio declared to the media “mission accomplished”, that “there are no more migrants in the camp”. Yet, that very evening over 1000 children remained in the camp’s heart, housed in shipping containers as the rest of the camp was demolished around them. That very evening, those children not registered in time by local officials were condemned to sleep outdoors & unprotected in the shell of the camp, barred from the accommodation and ordered by police not to erect tents.
I remember one child, a Sudanese boy, inconsolable as he was passed a donated blanket ahead of his night in the cold. He cried as any child would, unable to understand why he was not with his mother and brother that were already in the UK, why he continued to suffer here. He cried so much he could barely speak, but what he did say through his tears, again and again, was “why not me?”
A week later, those children that had not already disappeared by the time French workers and UK Home Office officials arrived to transfer them were coached to care shelters around France. There was such hope in the children when the coaches arrived, hope that their ordeal was over. Little did they know that soon after their arrival at the shelters many of the Home Office officials would leave, that when the officials eventually would return that only a few children would be considered for transfer to the UK, and that many of them would be deliberately left in the dark by the Home Office about their cases. In the months to follow, 709 of these children would be reported missing by the care shelters.
It would be remiss not to highlight the centrality of racism to the mistreatment and lack of empathy towards refugees in France and the UK. Its presence in coverage & discourse is blinding, as it was on the ground in Calais. I remember how following unrest between groups of children how the CRS kettled only the darkest skinned ones. If you do doubt racism’s centrality I would ask you, if 709 white children went missing so close to the UK - many with links to family in the UK, do you think you would have heard about it before now, four years later? And if you still think not, answer me this, do you think anyone looked for these children?
As children in Calais endured all of the harms I speak of and more disappeared by the day, Britain fumed at the arrival of the few that were transported calling even for their teeth to be checked to ensure their ages were correct. Now, as more refugees attempt to cross and people die in the channel Britain fumes at their audacity to seek a better life. Now, as then, refugees suffer and this country shows them only contempt.
The issues around the Franco-British border predate that poor child’s death on Wednesday, they predate the disappearance of the 709 children and those that did not even make it to the shelters, and they predate the disappearance of the 129 children in the partial camp clearance a year prior. These issues have been ongoing for decades despite the fact solutions exist, as they always have, what does not is the political will to solve them. As Safe Passage’s Beth Gardiner-Smith stated frankly, “Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have the power right now to make sure today’s tragedy is never repeated”. But instead, responsibility is dishonestly diverted from failed asylum policy to channel smugglers - addressing a symptom, not the cause. As long as the UK refuses to create safe & legal routes for refugees to seek asylum in the UK from across the channel we will continue to see refugees risking their lives to cross it, and people die trying to do so.
The boy that drowned deserved better - as have all those that have suffered in Calais before him, children and adults alike. I don’t know if the boy that cried ever made it to his family, or whether he counts among the missing. But I would ask you the same question he asked me, why not him? Why not them?
Written by Eden Samuels-Coke
Update: Since I wrote this last week, the tragically deceased has been identified as Abdulfatah Hamdallah. If the callousness of the British public was not already evident to you, you can see it now in the playing down of the tragedy of his death because he is believed to be an adult rather than a child. But his life mattered no less for it having been longer, and as such I present what I wrote unamended. His life mattered, as has that of all those that found their way to Calais - children and adult alike.
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