A year ago today the demolition of the infamous Calais “Jungle” started under the watchful eyes of international media, Governments on both sides of the English Channel, refugees and volunteers alike. As I stood and watched hundreds of children walking through the burnt ruins of the camp, the local authorities declared it “mission accomplished”, completely on their own and more vulnerable than ever.
The land where the camp housing over 10,000 refugees once stood is now razed to the ground, empty and unrecognisable. The French authorities’ plan to wipe the “Jungle” from their memory affects the 800 refugees still in Calais, as they are pushed to sleep and hide in the woods, “out of sight, out of mind”. Of them, around 100 unaccompanied minors – some as young as nine years old – sleep in the forest. No shelters, or caravans, or even tents. The police use tear gas to wake them, they confiscate and destroy even their sleeping bags and blankets on average three times a week. More often than not, refugees in Calais just sleep in the open on the cold, hard ground.
Scabies, trenchfoot, chemical burns, chicken pox and tuberculosis plague everyone here. The French Defender of Human Rights recently declared the situation as inhumane; Doctors of the World declared it a health crisis; and The United Nations denounced the sanitation measures. Exploitative networks have an open market of vulnerable people to prey on with promises and hope, while aid workers have no one to speak to when they recognise potential signs of abuse. The only response to this from British authorities has been to fund fences, walls, tear gas and riot police, costing the taxpayers millions.
We are now facing a harsh winter where refugees in Northern France are more exposed than ever before, terrified that we will wake up to the same tragic news we got from Greece and Serbia last winter, when several people died of the cold. While Governments have done their best to sweep this shameful state under the carpet, donations have plummeted and sometimes the warehouse looks so bare our hearts break.
Over the last two years, we have mourned and buried more refugees at the border than I can remember. And yet I remember like it was yesterday, the exact moment when I heard of a number of deaths. Masud. Mohammed. Raheemullah. Samrawit. Mahibullah. After every single one of these children died I kept telling myself “This has to be the last time. Things will change, this cannot happen in vain”.
Yet here we are, a year on since 13 year old Mahibullah died – his death was not reported as it was swept up in the attention on the Jungle being demolished. As with all the others, he was trying to reach family in the UK. He tried the only legal route that worked at the time under Dublin III family reunification. And like the others, he waited too long while our Home Office dragged its feet. He gave up, he desperately attempted the crossing by himself, and died. A few days after his death, his uncle received a phone call from the UNHCR to say their reunification case had been accepted.
One year on, still only 200 children were safely transferred to Britain under the Dubs Amendment, originally meant to transfer up to 3,000. What was meant to be part of a proud British tradition of giving sanctuary is now failing miserably. While we wait on the decision in the Help Refugees judicial review against the UK Government over their handling and closure of the Dubs Amendment, children like Mahibullah are still here, still waiting.
They are here, in front of our house, knocking at our door, asking for shelter and we are not answering. Instead, they have the underside of a lorry, the train tracks, the wet sleeping bag for a bed, the tear gas for a morning alarm, or the trafficker who will take them whether they want to or not. They are right here in front of us and still we are not answering.
To support the work of Help Refugees, and help them deal with the crisis in Calais this winter, you can donate here.