David Burrowes is a member of Home Affairs Select Committee and of the 1922 Committee Executive. He is MP for Enfield Southgate.
Over the summer, I went to visit the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais. I wanted to see the progress that had been made since my last visit, and also since the so-called ‘Dubs Amendment’ – which promised to provide sanctuary for vulnerable child refugees in Europe here in the UK – passed into law.
This was my second visit to the camp. While the rolling dunes littered with makeshift huts and tents are becoming familiar, nothing can make the sight of a lone child in such a setting any less shocking and upsetting. These children are not living in a safe environment. The camp is dominated by young male migrants from Africa, most of whom will not have a legitimate claim for asylum in the UK. Women and children hide away, but remain at risk from rival gangs and traffickers. There are no laws in the Calais jungle. Violence, intimidation and exploitation are rife.
While in the camp, I met Omar, a 17 year old Syrian boy who was waiting to join his family in Willesden – not far from my own constituency, Enfield Southgate. Omar had been approved to travel to the UK, but five weeks later was still all alone in the Jungle. Thankfully, this awful situation has now been rectified – just this week, Omar came to the UK.
But Omar is not a one off. Sadly, there are many children in Calais all alone. These children are keeping their heads down, desperately trying to get by and avoid the chaos – and placing their trust in a system that seems hell -ent on failing them. All too many end up relying upon a people smuggler or trafficker.
In spite of this bleak picture, some progress has been made. Since the Government accepted the ‘Dubs amendment’, many more children in Calais are being reunited with their families – with around 100 children brought to safety this year, up from zero in 2015. It is also clear that French and British authorities are starting to cooperate, and are taking into account the needs of these very vulnerable children during their ongoing dialogue about Calais.
However, children are still languishing in the “Jungle”, where they continue to be at risk of exploitation and abuse. And it is not just in Calais or in Europe that children are at risk. Developing countries host 86 per cent of the world’s refugees. Whilst struggling to stand on their own two feet, these countries are now responsible for the welfare of some of the world’s most vulnerable people – and children are bearing the brunt of this.
Next week, there are two key opportunities for the UK Government to change this: the UN General Assembly and President Obama’s ‘Leaders Summit on Refugees’, which are taking place back to back in New York. The UN aims “to bring countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach”.
Only 50 per cent of refugee children are enrolled in primary school. Without the chance to study, an entire generation is at risk. The Government has already championed the importance of education in emergencies, including at the London Syria summit earlier in this year, and is leading the development of Education Cannot Wait, a global fund for education in emergencies. Next week, the UK must call on other nations to follow our lead.
Given the UK’s efforts to resettle the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, these global summits are also an excellent opportunity to demonstrate our continued commitment to helping the refugees most in need. Twenty thousand refugee places have now been secured as part of the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme, thanks to the good work of local authorities coming forward led ably by David Simmond’s Task Force at the LGA. There is also the Government’s commitment to give refuge to 3000 ‘Children At Risk’ – which reveived less headlines then the call to take child refugees from Europe, but is more significant because it provides UNHCR led safe and legal routes from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for vulnerable children and their carers. The Government should use the summit to commit more spaces for vulnerable children and their families, and encourage other countries to follow suit. The more safe and legal routes established in the MENA region, the less likely that children such as Omar will take dangerous journeys in the first place.
But most of of all, we need compassion. The Prime Minister will play a prominent role next week. This is her chance to remind all of us that it is children who inevitably pay the highest price – whether in a camp in Calais, or hiding from bombs in Syria.
Here in the UK, that means ensuring that the most vulnerable children on our shores are not left to fend for themselves by speeding up family reunion processes; implementing the Dubs amendment with integrity, and putting an end to child detention on the continent.
To those who believe this will be a “pull” factor, I say to you: join me on my next visit to Calais. No child chooses to end up there. These are children who have been utterly failed by the system. Fleeing trauma, war and persecution in their home country – and then smuggled, trafficked and left to fend for themselves in Europe. There is much wrong about the “Jungle” – and in many ways the sooner it is gone the better, and we can then focus on the bigger refugee problems in MENA. But for now we have vulnerable children on our doorstep, many of whom have a claim to be reunited with family in the UK. The Home Secretary promised me last week that she would do all that she could to find refuge by the end of the year for all the Calais children to whom we have a legal obligation. Whether it is in Calais or in New York at the summit, the new Government can show its compassion for child refugees.