Calais: Refugees - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:23 pm on 2nd November 2017.

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Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Liberal Democrat 3:23 pm, 2nd November 2017

My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity. First, I will quote a friend who was there when the bulldozers came to demolish the camps in Dunkirk and Calais 12 months ago. He said that,

“after I visited the Calais refugee camp, I still have an image in my head, which I’m sure will be with me for the rest of my life. When I arrived at the camp, there were police in riot gear everywhere. There was a pastor standing, holding what was left of two religious buildings—a blue cross, which once stood atop the camp’s church. The look of complete despair. This was a man who had had the last bit of hope ripped away from him. To remove a religious symbol, a place of hope and prayer, from people who have only the clothes they are wearing and a shelter that is surrounded by mud, must be one of the worst, most inhumane things that I have ever witnessed”.

The demolition is not only of the camps, but of hope—replaced by despair. The refugees housed there were dispersed to different locations in France. The agreement was that the UK Home Office would go to all the “welcome centres”, as they were called, and do proper assessments of the young people and their claims. However, the evidence is that the interviews lasted no more than five minutes, and no interpreters were present. A few of the claimants were brought to the United Kingdom in the winter period, but those who qualified under the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, were ignored. Many who had a strong Dublin III claim were also overlooked. People who backed Brexit must realise that the Dublin EU regulations will no longer be there for the UK if we come out of the European Union. Another strand of hope will be gone.

There is evidence, reported by Professor Sue Clayton in her film, “Calais Children”, that in the welcome centres facilities were mixed. Some were good, but others not so, with no medical facilities, not enough food, opposition from local populations and many other problems. Hope was not rebuilt. Calais Action and other refugee organisations are still active in Calais; they are back there. Many refugees returned to Calais and, this very day, sleep in fields, forests and ditches. They dream of being physically present in the United Kingdom, where they have family—and they have the language. They gather at points of transit, in Calais itself, Dunkirk, Brussels and Zeebrugge. They risk their lives on illegal routes.

However, last March the French Government made it a “crime of solidarity” for citizens or aid workers to give food or shelter to a refugee, even a child. People who run a Catholic safe house say that of 600 lone children, less than 40 have a bed to sleep in at night. The recent report published by Human Right Watch, Like Living in Hell, describes the abuse of child and adult migrants in Calais. We know that there are 85,000 unaccompanied minors in Europe. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, which we supported, would have brought 3,000 youngsters into this country; but that was gradually reduced. The Government refused. I say to the House, especially Members opposite, that it was one of the saddest days of my life when I saw the Conservative Benches marching into the Not-Content Lobby, refusing to welcome these children. It was a very sad day.

In February, France closed the centres, leaving young people in limbo. They have gone back now. On 24 October, I received these numbers: there now 750 refugees in Calais; 250 in Dunkirk; 400 in Brussels; 400 in Metz; and they tell me that as many as 1,500 are sleeping in Paris, seeking shelter wherever they can find it.

Over the centuries—not centuries, although it certainly seems like that sometimes; it must seem like that to the noble Baroness because we discuss it so often—over the years, we have pleaded with the Government to look again at our policy towards refugees, especially children. Some action has been taken, which we welcome, but we desperately need to look at the long-term, worldwide strategy. We must respond to need. We must bring hope. We know that David Cameron made a promise that 20,000 Syrian refugees would be received into the United Kingdom before 2020—which they presumed would be the end of the last Parliament. I would very much like to know the actual figures for how that is going on.

I will quote the words of a 15 year-old from Afghanistan, who is a member of our Citizens of the World Choir; I remember them singing at the Llangollen Eisteddfod. He said to me afterwards, “Do you know, that was the best day of my life, singing in this Eisteddfod”. We can either bring hope to the most vulnerable, or we can leave them in their present despair. So much that we take for granted is denied them. The United Kingdom should not be trying to create a hostile scenario toward immigrants—the Prime Minister said that was her aim. The Government seem intent on pulling up the drawbridge of hope and denying them what we take for granted.

We have not only a political but a moral responsibility as fellow citizens of the world, which is what we are. Mrs May once said that if you say you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. I prefer Socrates, who said, “I am not a citizen of Athens or of Greece. I am a citizen of the world”. We are citizens of the world. We need to take new initiatives. I am sure that other noble Lords will mention them as the debate continues. Then, many more people will be able to say, “These are the best days of our lives”.

Let us do something honourable and memorable. The opportunity is there. The Minister and her colleagues can move in this direction, even though the courts said differently this morning. We can have these 3,000 children here if we have the determination. I plead with the Government—I have argued with them for a long time and I plead with them this afternoon—to take new initiatives so that children like that little 15 year-old from Afghanistan will be able to say, “There is hope. These are the best days of our lives”.