What would you do if you were the Mayor of Calais?

Last week, Cllr Chris White went as part of a Local Government Association team to see first-hand the conditions of Calais' "Jungle" refugee camp, and raise awareness of the continued plight of the people living there.


Inside the Jungle in Calais


I was part of a Local Government Association delegation last week to the ‘jungle’ in Calais.

The ‘camp’ is essentially a shanty town with tents and shacks (including ‘restaurants’) built from scrap materials. It is set in sand dunes next to an industrial estate and alongside one of the key roads heading towards the Channel Tunnel. Its occupants are mainly male and there are over 800 residents classed as children – including many teenagers. The bulk are Afghan, fleeing Taliban conscription and in places combat zones. There are some Syrians as well as Eritreans and Somalis.

The authorities are clearly hostile to the camp: residents feel that the inhabitants are responsible for nuisance and crime. The response to this in March was partial demolition –which meant that 127 children simply disappeared. Meanwhile the CRS (the riot police in other circumstances) harass the inhabitants – confiscating phones, destroying SIM cards – and using plastic bullets, which can cause life-changing injuries.

The camp does not officially exist. Nevertheless, provision has been made for some inhabitants to go into adjacent freight containers – adapted to provide a form of accommodation, aimed at women with younger children, because of the dangers posed by people traffickers in the main camp.

The EU Dublin III agreement means that children should be reunited with their families, but the numbers who do so are still a trickle – we briefly met four getting on a train bound for St Pancras. The charitable sector has provided lists of children who qualify but there is clearly a lack of will by both UK and French governments. The ‘Dubs amendment’, which gained parliamentary assent earlier in the year and which should allow 3,000 unaccompanied children to enter the UK over and above Dublin III, seems so far not to have caused any extra children to enter the UK.

Even when children are verified as being eligible, with an identified family to go to, they still have so little trust in the system that they try and find a lorry to climb into to make it across the Channel. This may seem perverse: but their nightmares are more often about the behaviour of the CRS than about the now distant Taliban.

Get into the Mayor’s shoes. Your residents don’t want a large and growing migrant/refugee camp next to their town. If you unblock the system then children get across the Channel – but more will follow. If you demolish the camp altogether, then the problem is landed on central government.

But this can lose sight of humanity.

One eight year old I met had managed to get from Afghanistan, to Iran, to Turkey and thence across Europe. Fortunately he had his cousin to look after him. His cousin is nine years old.

Local government must say to central government: ‘We are talking about children here. Set aside bureaucratic barriers, talk to each other and so do your duty to the children of a troubled world.’

* Chris White is a member of the Liberal Democrat Voice Editorial Team and is a Liberal Democrat Councillor from St Albans.

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