Joanna Cherry: What hope can there be for kids in '˜Jungle'?

HUMANITY is failing the unaccompanied kids living in squalid conditions in northern France's refugee camps, says Joanna Cherry

Monday, 18th April 2016, 9:55 am
Updated Monday, 18th April 2016, 11:00 am
Joanna Cherry in Calais. Picture: supplied

Over the past few months, I have received hundreds of emails from constituents concerned about the UK’s response to the refugee crisis. During the Easter recess, I joined with three other SNP MPs from the Justice and home affairs group and a delegation of experts on refugee matters to visit the camps of Calais and Grand-Synthe with a view to investigating the reality of the position on the ground in northern France.

Arriving in the demolished southern section of the Calais camp, we were met with an endless horizon of broken tents, shoes and belongings, lifeless in a mud marsh; a reminder of the place that thousands of men, women and children once called home.

Amidst this forgotten landscape, now run by French bulldozers and armed police, stands the last remaining structures of the forced clearances; an Eritrean church and a youth centre.

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We spoke with an Afghan boy who had made the journey alone because it wasn’t safe for him to remain in Afghanistan. After his experiences at home followed by months of travelling, living in fear and in limbo in Calais, he has effectively been robbed of his childhood.

We asked him where he was from and what he’d like to do in the future. He announced that he was from “the Jungle” (the colloquial name for the camp) and shrugged his shoulders to the latter; hopeless.

I don’t know what will become of that boy. As one of 293 other unaccompanied minors in Calais, will he make it to the UK or will he remain in limbo on the French/UK border in the first shanty town of the developed Western world? Or even worse, will he vanish or die like countless others? Just days after our visit, an 18-year old youth was crushed to death beneath a lorry.

Help Refugees UK have published worrying results from their latest census of “the Jungle” in Calais. Since the demolition of the Southern camp, 129 unaccompanied minors have not been accounted for; vanished.

At home in the UK, people question why refugees or forced migrants don’t claim asylum in France. Why for example, did the 16-year-old unaccompanied girl we met in Grand-Synthe not seize the opportunity to integrate into French society?

Unaccompanied minors are often confused and unaware of their options. They feel unable to engage with French authorities or communities and many refugees or forced migrants have experienced physical assault and hostility.

Often, English is the only language they know other than their own and they are more familiar with British than French culture. The majority of volunteers who have helped them since their arrival in France are British or Irish.

Like the girl we spoke to, many of the refugees have family in the UK. The charity, Citizens UK, have identified at least 150 young people in Calais with a legal right to be reunited with families in the UK. Yet, only a handful of under-18s have been granted this right.

Last year, the Scottish Government passed the Human Trafficking (Scotland) Act. This ensures that all children who arrive in Scotland alone and separated from their families have the right to an independent “Guardian” to assist them.

These Guardians help each child with everything from their health and wellbeing to housing issues, dealing with lawyers and helping them to build social networks and feel less alone.

It is abundantly clear that separated children and unaccompanied minors in Calais and Grand-Synthe require a similar structure.

In returning to Westminster, I will renew pressure on the UK government to do more in response to this crisis and urge the Home Office to ensure that those with a legal right to join their families are granted that right.

When a child is asked where they are from and replies, “the jungle” – humanity has failed.

• Joanna Cherry is MP for Edinburgh South West