After two hours walking through the camp in , meeting refugee children who have crossed Europe alone, Alf Dubs is exhausted and feeling uncharacteristically despondent. “It is awful. I will have nightmares, and this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says.
Lord Dubs, the Labour peer who earlier this year masterminded a political coup forcing the government to promise to give sanctuary to some unaccompanied child refugees, usually comes across as an upbeat figure, not inclined to wallow in despair. Today he seems momentarily overwhelmed by the horrific situation facing about living here in second-hand camping tents and flimsy wooden shacks. Given the amount of energy he has dedicated to trying to help them, and the complete absence of any progress to date, he has every reason to feel depressed.
“It is a disgrace. A piece of legislation was passed with enormous public support, and the government has done nothing discernible about it,” he says. As a former child refugee himself, brought to Britain from Czechoslovakia on one of the Kindertransport trains in 1939, his sense of is particularly acute.
After his intervention shamed Cameron’s government into a U-turn, securing a commitment that Britain would give homes to some of the believed to be travelling through Europe, his amendment to the Immigration Act was widely celebrated as a rare sign of the government’s humanity. Four months later, none of the qualifying children have arrived in the UK. Worse still, Dubs is dismayed to find, during a meeting with French officials, that there is no system in place for identifying and registering the children in order to see who might be eligible.
His feelings of disappointment are nothing compared with those felt by the hundreds of children, some as young as eight, living here without parents or close relatives, many of whom have been stranded here, just a few hundred metres from Calais town centre and only 30 miles from England, since the end of last year.
Ahead of his visit, volunteers ask some of the youngest children, potentially eligible for help under the “Dubs” amendment, to meet him to help explain the urgency of the situation. Two cousins from , aged nine and 10, who left home more than a year ago and who have been in Calais for 10 months, were due to meet him. After months of trying to survive alone, attempting nightly to smuggle themselves into lorries to try to join an uncle in Britain, they are entirely crushed by their experiences and now mainly speak in reluctant monosyllables, occasionally offering a full sentence.
The younger boy says (through a translator) that he had recently been hit on the knee with a rubber bullet fired by French police. His older cousin says they have tried more than 20 times in the past month to climb on to trucks. They look more unwell and more fragile than a month ago when I met them, their clothes grimier, and new scabs visible on the face of the younger boy.
“I lost my mind here. I don’t remember anything I’ve been doing,” the older boy says. Pushed by the translator to say something else, he adds: “We ran away from war, and no one here has helped us ... Now the weather is getting colder.” But he is not inclined to say much and tells the translator: “They ask too many questions, and they aren’t doing anything.”
Another eight-year-old boy from Afghanistan, also left to fend for himself after the older relative he was travelling with succeeded in getting to England, is close to tears, and crouches on the sandy path, playing with stones and poking at the dirt with a stick. One of the volunteers who has worked with him says he feels suicidal.
Immigration minister James Brokenshire acknowledged: 'We have a moral duty to help'
“They need to leave the site now. They are on their own; they have been here through the winter and they are falling apart in front of us. There is no one here to put them to bed and sort their clothes. They are not functioning properly now. I can’t believe that nobody in authority is here sorting this out. The British government has promised to help; the French aren’t coping,” says , a volunteer from Devon who has spent much of the past year living on the camp, trying to make up for the absence of support from mainstream international agencies.
She and other volunteers have devoted a lot of energy to trying to persuade children to apply for asylum in the France, and hundreds already have, but sometimes children are resistant to logic persuasion when they know their parents have gone heavily into debt, trying to get them to the UK; often they are trying to reach relatives.
Visits from groups of politicians are always emotionally fraught because the children expect help to be forthcoming immediately, and find it hard to understand why nothing is done, Clegg says. She decides that these children are not up to speaking to Dubs, who is visiting alongside Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson, and the Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy.
Instead, Dubs has a private meeting in a wooden hut with three boys from Eritrea, aged between 13 and 16, who , the campaign group which has been lobbying for Britain to help unaccompanied children, believe have a good case for being transferred to safety in Britain. Their names, along with those of the cousins from Afghanistan, were on a believed to be eligible under the amendment presented by Dubs to the Home Office on Friday.
He leaves the meeting aware they need help urgently. “I felt a terrible sense of hopeless despair on their behalf. They are clearly frightened of violence from older people; they don’t feel safe,” he says. Outside the hut, crowds of people gather to find out what help is on offer. “This boy is 14, what about him?” one older camp residents shouts. “Can you meet my friend who is 12?” another asks.
The problem facing campaigners such as Dubs is immense, and he acknowledges that it is a struggle not to feel overcome by the weight of responsibility.
Fleetingly in May, it appeared that, regardless of political sensitivities around immigration, there was a consensus that something needed to done for the lone child refugees. With Save The Children estimating that there were 85,000 across Europe, politicians acknowledged that Britain had a responsibility to take its share of stranded children.
Originally, the government rejected Dubs’s amendment on the grounds that France, Greece and Italy are safe countries, until Dubs argued that there was a responsibility to share the burden between countries. The then immigration minister, James Brokenshire, acknowledged: “We have a moral duty to help.” Even the to help the children.
The impetus got lost in the Brexit referendum, amid a hardening of attitudes on immigration. Local authorities with stretched budgets have yet to offer enough spaces to accommodate more asylum-seeking children. The situation in Calais is volatile and complex, and there is no simple solution. With the camp population now more than 9,000 and rising – higher than it has ever been – alarm among local people is mounting. The roads around the town this week are being , truck drivers and residents, demanding that the government set a firm date for the camp to be cleared. The French government has said it will be gone by Christmas, but plans for the refugees are not clear. Attempts by some migrants to block the road at night and storm on to lorries have become , making the area dangerous for lorry drivers.
It’s not surprising they are doing everything to cross the Channel. I would be doing the same
Even if the “Dubs” amendment were being actively implemented, children need to have arrived in Europe before 31 March to be eligible, a clause inserted to prevent more parents from sending their children on a perilous journey to come to Britain. But somehow the numbers are rising. Volunteers attempting to register the new unaccompanied children arriving in Calais note that numbers have jumped by about 100 in the past month, with more children coming from , Ethiopia and Iraq, and greater numbers of unaccompanied girls.
New reports documenting the dangers of the camp are published every week; on Monday suggested that the Calais refugee children were risking their lives 2,000 times a week to reach Britain, trying to stow away in lorries or jump on trains.
The Home Office says it is in “active discussions” with the UNHCR and Italian, Greek and French governments to “speed up mechanisms to identify, assess and transfer refugee children to the UK where this is in their best interests.” But no children have come as a result of the Dubs commitment.
“I was shocked that nothing had happened despite the amendment. There are more people than ever, and the conditions are as awful as ever – children living in shacks, in tents very makeshift, with just one meal a day, often not enough to eat, with no support system except for the volunteers, left to their own devices,” Dubs says.
“Visually, it is pretty awful, hemmed in, with barbed wire along the motorway; what it will be like in the cold and winter, I shudder to think. Human beings can’t survive indefinitely like this. No wonder there is violence in the camp, no wonder they are so desperate to escape. It is not surprising they are doing everything they can to get across the Channel. In their position, I would be doing the same.”
He is reluctant to overstate the similarities between his own experience as a child fleeing war and the ordeal confronting many of these children, but he recognises that his campaign has been given moral weight by his timely reminder of how much Britain had helped Jewish children fleeing the Nazis.
“It was important, politically, to remember that Britain had set a strong humanitarian example in 1938, which undoubtedly saved the lives of many people who would otherwise have ended up in the gas chambers,” he says. “I wanted the argument to stand on its own merits, not just because I was putting it. However, it clearly informed me and made me perhaps more emotionally committed, because I thought about my own background. Britain has given me fantastic opportunities and I would like to think that others who flee could have similar opportunities.”
Peer condemns 'shocking' delays over help for unaccompanied child refugees
Dubs came to Europe on a train organised by when he was six, in the summer of 1939, a few months after the Germans had invaded Czechoslovakia. Like the children in Calais, he had very little with him, a few clothes and a knapsack of food, (which he forgot to open on the journey – a sign, he thinks, of how traumatised he was).
He only remembers the journey hazily. “My mother saw me off. I can see my mother with a friend at the station and a soldier with a swastika on the platform. When we got to the Dutch border, the older ones cheered. I had no idea, but they knew it meant something.” Later, he remembers waiting at Liverpool Street station with a name tag around his neck, until his father (who had fled Prague a few months earlier) was allowed to take him back to a bed and breakfast where his father was staying in Belsize Park, north London.
“There is a temptation to make up what you thought at the age of six; actually you don’t remember much. I didn’t know what was happening; I couldn’t understand. I don’t want to pretend I had a sensitivity or wisdom that I didn’t have,” he says. Nevertheless, he believes his experience has given him some understanding of how the unaccompanied children in Calais are feeling. “Some of them were helped to flee by their parents or by traffickers, because they feared death, war, bombings – not totally different motivations from mine. I see them, and I see think there but for the grace of God ...”
He takes some inspiration from Winton’s campaign. “It was a matter of luck that he was persuaded to give up a skiing holiday to go to Prague and he saw for himself what was happening. He set about working extremely hard to overcome the resistance of the British government and the suspicion of the Germans.”
This is not a place for living. The human is not created to live like this
In some ways, it might have been easier for Winton, because “immigration wasn’t the political issue on which the administration had staked its reputation”, Dubs says. “But he took on the British authorities almost single-handedly and got them to agree. He was an exceptional individual who made things happen when a lesser person would not have bothered.”
Winton’s MP was , and Dubs met her first at his 103rd birthday party. While May was home secretary, he met her twice to talk about his amendment; the second time, under considerable political pressure, she agreed to include it in the immigration bill. He is uncertain about the strength of her ongoing commitment to the issue.
In a wooden hut, set up by volunteers as a safe meeting space for the children travelling alone, a couple of dozen boys, mostly in their early teens, are waiting for food, half-watching a Bollywood film involving a flying taxi; some are curious about the visit from British politicians.
Among them is 13-year-old Jawaad (not his real name) from Afghanistan, who learned English from his father, a Nato translator who has been pursued by the Taliban for working with western forces, and who has separately fled the country. “Is it true that the government will pick up the right boys and take them legally?” he asks, in careful, grammatically correct English.
He says he his too tired and frightened to continue attempting to travel to the UK illegally. “Every second you are scared that something dangerous will happen to you. The French police, they are familiar with beating. When the police started beating dangerously, a lot of the underage boys stopped trying to go illegally. They don’t care if you are a child or a grownup. They send dogs after us. The dog’s mouth is covered but they can get you with their nails.”
He is clear about why Calais is not a suitable place for children travelling alone. “From the time I arrived in Calais, I don’t have a happy moment. Every day I spend in sorrow, thinking about my family and how to reach the UK.” Intelligent, and very motivated, he is particularly frustrated at not being to able to study; eventually he hopes to become a doctor.
Asked what message he would give to the British government, he thinks for a while before offering a clear summary of the problem, fluently articulated. “If I could directly speak to the British government, my suggestion is that the government should help the underage boys because they have no father, mother or brothers to help them here. Calais is full of dangers and difficulties. When we want to take a shower, we cannot. We have no money for anything. When we want to call our parents, we are not able to. We have no relatives here.
“This is not a place for living. The human is not created to live like this. In my room in Afghanistan, I had electricity, I could study night and day. I had a beautiful bed, I slept comfortably. Here I have a tent. I have only a blanket, and the clothes I am sleeping in. When it is raining heavily sometimes the water comes inside the tent. Sometimes when you are late for the food, you will be hungry. At home, I never lived like this. It is too strange.”
Returning home would be extremely dangerous. “I don’t want to go to back to Afghanistan. I couldn’t be alive for a moment back there. The Taliban forced my father to leave his job. I don’t know where he is now.”
Volunteers who have been trying to help the children, struggling without the support of international aid agencies, are jaundiced by the lack of progress on the “Dubs” amendment. “I’d love to say I was surprised,” says Karen Moynihan, who works with children in a youth centre on the camp. “There have been lots of politicians with good intentions, but, on the ground, very little has changed.”
Volunteers are becoming used to seeing children with cuts to their heads from falling off lorries, or complaining of having been sprayed in the face with pepper spray, she says. “Now we just say: ‘Are you OK?’ It has become normalised. These are, without doubt, the most appalling conditions for young children to be living in.”
Dubs leaves the camp determined to keep fighting to ensure that at least some of the children are helped. “These kids are having a terrible time. There’s no safety, no security. The situation we saw today is terrible. It is a disgrace to Europe to have 9,000 people with so many children living in those conditions.”
How to help
• Donate to the cafe where .
• Support Citizens UK’s campaign work; .
• Donate money, food, clothes or time to .
• Donate to the , supporting the smaller number of families with young children in the camp, and helping work with the youngest unaccompanied children.
• Donate money and food to, which delivers food packages to the camp, and to , which provides hot food daily.