Personal reflections on the refugee camps at Calais and Dunkirk
The sun shone last Friday. It was warm. For once it was not tipping down with rain. For the refugees it must have been a relief, yet it only underlined just how bleak the situation really is.
Late on Friday evening, I got off the Eurostar at St Pancras, made my way home, looked in on our young children (fast asleep in warm beds) and went to bed.
But I could not sleep.
I had just returned from Calais and Dunkirk where thousands of migrants have set up temporary homes.
The conditions in both camps, but particularly Dunkirk, are so bad that describing them (even with accompanying photographs) cannot capture the squalor.
You have to smell conditions like these, and feel the squelch of mud mixed with rain water, urine and much else through your boots to appreciate the true horror.
No one should have to live in such conditions and the fact that I saw children the same age as my own (and younger) settling down for yet another freezing, damp and hopeless night in a tent pitched in the muck kept playing on my mind.
Their lives so different to those of my family for no reason other than their place of birth.
What makes the conditions in Calais and Dunkirk so troubling is not just that the camps are just one hour by Train from central London; it is also that they don’t need to be so bad.
British volunteers are doing extraordinary work across these sites.
Joe Friday - who helped set up A Home for Winter – has been constructing hundreds of wooden homes in Calais to provide a minimum level of warmth and comfort.
If the French authorities allowed volunteers to erect temporary shelters, toilets and water taps in Dunkirk, the situation could be improved within days.
But until very recently they have refused; for fear that to do so will encourage others to arrive.
If our government put as much emphasis on humanity as it does on security in its joint working agreements with the French authorities, things would be better. But it doesn’t.
Within both camps are mums, dads and children who are entitled to reunify with their families in the UK if the processing system worked.
But it doesn’t. And in both camps there are unaccompanied minors - children, without help or guidance.
I sat in Calais and listened as a mother, with her four children, explain why she had to flee from Afghanistan. I won’t name her, for her safety.
‘I have a brother and a nephew in the UK,’ she told me. She had applied for family re-unification under asylum rules accepted by the Home Office under the EU’s Dublin convention, but had heard nothing.
‘I have skills. I worked at the British Council in Kabul,’ she explained. Her English is fluent and she would have little trouble in fitting in, if only she could cross the Channel.
‘I came by car, by truck and by walking. We are so tired. We are like a butterfly looking for somewhere to nest.’
The emphasis of the authorities – French and British – is symbolised by the high security fencing and the CRS riot police, who patrol the area day and night.
I returned to London and the warmth and security of my family and our community. But my thoughts were in Calais.
Any human being making the visit I made last Friday would come away, as I did, uneasy with themselves and clear that, on all fronts, more needs to be done; and fast.