There are 178 unaccompanied children stuck in Calais today
‘I have the name of every Syrian child in Calais here in this exercise book’. It was a bitterly cold January day in the refugee camp, commonly known as the Jungle, in Calais. I was sitting in the uninsulated wooden shelter – essentially a garden shed – of a man with a striking presence. A man called Ahmad (name changed).
A 35 year old Syrian father of four and trained accountant, Ahmad had unwittingly become the ‘shepherd’ of Syrian refugees in Calais. The door of his shelter was always open and inside he sat with a hat perched neatly on his head, folded carefully up over his ears, ready to listen to all who came to him. And they did, twenty-four hours a day.
Ahmad described how refugees walked four hours each way to the train station or to the lorry parks to try to stow themselves away and get to the UK. ‘Every week people die trying to get to the UK, there is no hope left’, he said. ‘We trust no one, especially the governments who leave us here in this hell. We live in a jungle; we are not humans to the outside world, we are animals’.
The irony is, and remains, that it needn’t be this way. Under an existing EU migration policy, EU states have a legal obligation to reunite refugees with their families. A simple but powerful policy designed to give refugees who have lost everything the dignity and security of family life.
If anyone stood a chance at legally challenging this deadly inaction by EU states, they needed first to bridge the chasm between refugees and the state apparatus they feared. A bridge that hinged on trust.
So in October last year Ahmad took a leap of faith and agreed to work with a nuclear team of campaigners and lawyers seeking to turn the tide on the UK’s apparent refusal to reunite refugees with their loved ones. Ahmad started by creating a ledger of the names of every Syrian who came and went from Calais.
With Ahmad on their side, the legal teams in France and the UK were able to start building the legal cases of the most vulnerable refugees: initially just three of the hundreds of children with family in the UK who up until that point had been too fearful to engage in the legal family reunion process.
It was in that first week in January that I entered the chaos of Calais – five days later we were standing in the windy Calais Frethun train station as Ahmad wept tears of joy waving goodbye to the first of his many charges. It was that week that a landmark court ruling in the UK declared the UK’s inaction ‘intolerable’ and granted the first three boys from Ahmad’s list permission to travel to the UK legally to be with their brothers and claim asylum in the UK.
The door was open, a little bit at least. So we set about using Ahmad’s list and, child by child, referring them to the lawyers. This was painstaking work. Children disappear all the time in Calais – in March a swathe of the camp was violently demolished by the police and 129 children disappeared. Meanwhile the family reunification system we were trying to navigate the children through changed every week. New forms, different appointments, varying time between steps.
Days turned to weeks which turned to months, and I witnessed the Jungle weigh heavily on the faces and spirits of children. Faces became scarred by police beatings, eyes swelled from repeated tear-gassing. The hope that we’d been given by the court case back in January was waning.
Slowly the hard graft of the lawyers and campaigners back in the UK began to crank the cogs of bureaucracy into action. Children began arriving in the UK legally via an operational reunification process in April.
And then in May this year came an unprecedented governmental shift. Cameron’s government committed to roll out the reunion process that we’d proved was possible between France, Greece and Italy and the UK – supposedly removing the need for thousands of pro bono legal hours and the likes of Ahmad keeping registers of children.
But as the summer draws to a close the system is still moving at a snail’s pace and there are 178 unaccompanied children stuck in Calais today, unable to reach their loved ones in the UK. A year since Aylan Kurdi’s body was washed up on the beach in Turkey, we need Theresa May’s new government to step up and stick to this commitment. It needs to honour the leap of faith taken by a quizzical Syrian man who spent nine months in a shelter in Calais counting his fellow people, and believing that nothing is impossible.
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