Over the past year, more than two thousand constituents have written to me about the refugee crisis – as an issue of concern it is surpassed only by the response to the EU referendum result. A few months ago, a local resident called Eileen came to my surgery on a Friday morning. She told me that she had been volunteering at the refugee camp in Calais, and that she wanted me to visit Calais with her, because she thought it was important for her MP to see the situation there.
Last week we visited the camp together and met with Claire Moseley who runs the charity Care 4 Calais, one of a very small number of organisations working in the refugee camp. Claire was so moved by the plight of refugees in Calais that she left her job and family in the UK to work in Calais. We met her in the warehouse, a hive of activity with volunteers working tirelessly to sort through donations and pack parcels to take to the camp.
Claire spoke to us with passion and fury, sometimes tinged with despair, about the lack of recognition of the refugee camp or any facility for processing applications for those who have a legitimate claim to come to the UK, the lack of safe passage, even for unaccompanied children, the devastation caused by the recent decision of the French government to demolish a large part of the camp, the dwindling of donations as the issue has dropped from the media attention, and her new reorganisation of the Care 4 Calais distribution system to make it fairer and to ensure that all the refugees have an opportunity to access items that will make a real difference to them.
We travelled to the camp, where we met Marco, originally from Kurdistan, but now settled in Middlesborough, Marco was also so moved by the plight of refugees in Calais that he travelled to help, and has been there for several months, establishing a school for children in the camp, and also for adults who want to learn English and/or French. The school is built from scrap wood and tarpaulin sheeting. It is an oasis in an otherwise very bleak environment. Inside, beautiful, lively children are drawing pictures and learning new words. I was moved to see heart shaped bunting with messages of love made and sent to the camp from Paxton Primary School in my constituency. Marco has built some raised vegetable beds and is delighting in growing food for the children to eat. Each day, he and volunteer teachers collect children from around the camp to taken them to school – this simple act represents hope defying a despair which otherwise threatens to engulf and overwhelm.
In the camp itself, we saw more evidence of the resilience of human spirit – small makeshift shops selling food, or hairdressing services, offering English lessons – often optimistically named things like ‘the London Café’. But the camp is squalid. The French authorities destroyed the area where the best shelters had been painstakingly constructed, forcing many refugees back into flimsy tents. There are no plumbed toilets, and only standpipes providing water. And there are thousands of people who live each day not knowing when their lives will move on, whether they will become citizens once again. There is endless boredom, limbo and despair.
This situation – 6,000 people including at least 1,200 children, living in squalid conditions – is less than three hours away from my front door. The refugee crisis is shocking, complex and intractable. No-one chooses to leave home, community, familiarity, unless they are desperate. So the larger part of resolving the crisis must be that we work for peace and stability in the countries from which people are fleeing.
But the present human need in Calais is urgent. It cannot be denied and it must not be ignored. Three months ago, the UK government agreed after much pressure and leadership from Lord Alf Dubs who himself came to the UK as a refugee on the Kindertransport, to accept thousands of unaccompanied refugee children who can be reunited with family members in the UK. As of this week, only 20 have so far been able to settle in the UK. Claire Moseley and her colleagues in Calais highlight the urgent need for facilities for processing applications and enabling safe passage to the UK so that children can be taken out of danger as soon as possible. International aid agencies must also do more to alleviate suffering in the camp at Calais. More medical provision is urgently needed – Marco spoke of a woman who is due to give birth imminently and who will do so in the camp without medical assistance; many refugees have scabies and many other health problems are commonplace.
I recently met Syrian women who are living as refugees in Jordan and who visited my constituency to share their stories with children at a local school. One of the children asked what the worst thing about their experience was. One of the women answered quickly ‘It is being called a refugee. I was going to university to study English and become a teacher. I was a person. Now I have this label. I am just a refugee.’ I want all of us to remember the individuals, just like you and I – doctors, teachers, lawyers, students, engineers, bus drivers, nurses, entrepreneurs – whose lives became so difficult and dangerous that they fled to safety. Our empathy provides the key to helping to solve this problem.
I will raise the plight of the refugees I have met and whose lives I have witnessed in Parliament, I will hold the government to account for its commitment to accept unaccompanied refugee children, and I will call for more to be done to alleviate suffering and to enable those who have a legitimate claim to come to the UK to have their application processed without delay. Please give what you can. If you have clothes, books, toiletries, blankets or sleeping bags to donate, please contact me and I will let you know how to do this. If you are able to donate money, please do so here: www.care4calais.org/donate