The Dubs amendment was passed in May 2016 to grant safe passage to unaccompanied refugee minors into the UK. As of February 2017, it has been restricted from the original ballpark figure of 3000 children to a mere 350. Local councils in the UK show that they are able to cater for the full 3000, but the Government has voted against taking others from councils able to accept more minors.
The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ is one of mass migration from conflict zones, oppressive regimes, and violent states around the world. I have long been sceptical of NGO and humanitarian work for its often-colonial undertones and its lack of understanding of cultural specificities. I’m also not sure how responsibility is allocated in a situation like this, or where narratives of belonging come in. These ideas are too complex for this short article – I cannot tell you about the politics but I can tell you about the personal, human dimension.
I worked at the Children’s Centre in the camp in Dunkirk over Christmas. The camp there is organised, compared to how makeshift the camp in Calais was. There are huts for most people, three meals a day, toilets, supply containers, a women’s centre, a children’s centre, a learning centre, and a tea tent. This is unusual in itself; across the rest of Europe many refugees are sleeping rough in cold and dangerous conditions.
Some of the kids I was working with had parents that were dead, in prison, or were human traffickers. These kids, in a flash of unfortunate circumstances, could be left alone, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, physical abuse, and emotional trauma. We must look out for them. When we neglect to provide for minors, we essentially give up hope for the future. The camp is a strange combination of optimism and despair – someone once said to me that it’s like watching flowers grow out of manure and I think that’s true. The residents there don’t believe that Europe will not provide for them – the UK is a shining beacon of hope. Everyone wants to get here. I met someone there who was younger than me and had spent every night for two months trying to get into the back of a lorry to make safe passage to this country. Before he was in France, he had been in Finland. He had fled Iraq aged 15.
Importantly, it’s also not just the youngest ones we need to be concerned for; most of the unaccompanied minors at the Dunkirk camp are boys in their late teens. They look like men because they have been through a lot. We often neglect to recognise their childhood, and we expect that because they have already lived the lives of men well beyond their years, they can and should be able to continue as such.
The camp is unsafe. The living conditions are cold, cramped, and there is an abundance of dangerous black mould. The camp is mostly male and so women are especially unsafe; human faeces was scattered around the edges of the camp because the women were too afraid to use the toilet facilities after dark for fear of being attacked. There is a large Kurdish majority in the camp, and this often means those that are of another ethnic group, such as Afghan, or Persian, can be made to feel less than welcome. This is harrowing for all residents, but for those who are just children, it is heartbreaking. Nobody leaves their life behind for fun. These people have uprooted their homes, their families, and their existences for whatever hope that is driving them.
We have laws and policies enshrined to protect our minors, and yet we are letting painful neglect occur just across the Channel. The moment that will always stick out for me was when I was walking through the camp and passed a girl who hadn’t been at the Centre that morning. I asked ‘where were you?’ and she gave me the world’s cheekiest grin: ‘I was in a lorry last night and I only woke up now. Everybody is sick – my mommy is sick, my daddy is sick, and my sister is sick, but I’m not sick because I had two blankets!’ She stuck her tongue out and galloped away. The joy in her voice over having two blankets, contrasted with the desolation of the scene, breaks my heart. It makes me bitter, and sad, and angry. Take action: these are kids whose lives hang in the balance.