Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Only Way Out? Save 3,000 Children by Tess Berry-Hart

"Afsar held on to the axle beneath the lorry and watched the road rushing beneath him. Above him the huge lorry thundered and rattled with its thirty eight tonnes of French potatoes bound for England packed tightly into the container. For hours Afsar had been clinging underneath it, his fingers frozen and his neck stiff, perilously close to the deadly tarmac only inches away.

"Ninety minutes," the smuggler had told him. "Ninety minutes, and then  you'll be in England. After the ferry, once the lorry stops, you get off, and run."

But the lorry hadn't stopped. It had gone on, and on, and on. Now it was tearing up the motorway at eighty miles per hour. A police car cruised past, its signal screaming. 

Little by little, his fingers started to slip ..."

Boys arrive in  the back of a goods lorry in Dover
I wish I didn't have to write this story as part of my series of books about child refugees, but unfortunately I do (though in my version, Afsar has a happier ending, you'll be pleased to know).

Sadly the stories are already being written for us - they are happening in real life. A few weeks ago, a 17 year old Kurdish teenager called Muhammed Hassan (incorrectly reported as 18) was killed in Oxfordshire after hanging on to the underneath of a lorry for hours. Muhammed had been living in the camp in Dunkirk and had made one final, fatal attempt to reach the UK and relatives living in Manchester. Earlier this year, a 15 year old Afghan boy, Masud, squeezed into the back of a lorry to try and reach his sister in England, and suffocated before he crossed the Channel. A few days ago, a 7 year old Afghan boy, Ahmed, was narrowly saved from a similar fate by texting Liz Clegg, a volunteer who runs the Unofficial Women and Children's Centre in Calais. She had given him a phone for his own safety and topped it up with credit donated by volunteers. "I NEED HELP/ DRIVER NO STOP/ NO OXYGEN IN THE CAR..."
The original text sent by Ahmed to Liz Clegg

The text crossed the Atlantic to Liz Clegg who was at a conference in New York at the time. Police were alerted and Ahmed, together with a friend, were rescued. A happy ending - and yet. Despite the terrible cost to children, our government is still so terrified of increasing any potential "pull factor" for immigration that they are shamefully dragging their feet on addressing the humanitarian policy disaster that exists in the camps in Northern France - at the expense of children's lives.

Unbelievably, of the 651 children in the Calais camp, 423 are unaccompanied minors, meaning that they have travelled from their home countries without a parent or adult figure. During my visits to the camps I have met many unaccompanied children and am always astounded by how much they have experienced in such a short time. Despite half the camp being demolished in March, the North Zone still remains, and over 4,000 people are still crammed in tents there, of which 300 are unaccompanied children. Volunteers are doing their best to look after them, but according to a census carried out by on-the-ground charities L'Auberge des Migrantes and Help Refugees, 129 children have disappeared from the camp since the demolition began in the camp's South Zone.

Where have they gone? I was interviewed by a French paper on this question, and my answer was, as the French authorities have not put any child protection or safeguards into practice, nobody really knows. Some may have managed to jump the lorries or the trains, such as Karim, the 12 year old who disappeared from the camp for days, before being found safe in England after the intervention of journalists and the Children's Commissioner. Others may have fallen into the hands of traffickers, or the prostitution or drug trade. That possible fate is too sickening and dreadful for us to contemplate - but we must, if we are to help other children escape it.

Here's what we can do:

On the 25th April the "Dubs Amendment" to the Immigration Bill will go back to the Commons for a vote. Lord Dubs was one of the thousands of Jewish children brought from the Kindertransport in 1939 from Germany, and he created an amendment to the Immigration Bill to bring 3,000 unaccompanied children FROM EUROPE to England. This amendment was passed in the Lords by a majority of over 100 peers, but now it's going back to the Commons to be voted on by MP's. Winning the vote will involve persuading Conservative MPs to vote with their consciences, rather than their party, or at the very least, to sit on their hands and allow the Dubs amendment to pass.

Despite Tory arguments of "pull factor", these children are ALREADY in Europe, they're already in danger, living in dirty camps or disappearing into the hands of traffickers. 50% of those polled by Save The Children have an STD. (Yes). Europol reports that 10,000 unaccompanied children are suddenly unaccounted for since their arrival in Europe. This is an important moment in history, where we have the power to save 3,000 children's lives. Let's make sure we are standing on the right side of it.


If you live in a Conservative constituency, please email your MP encouraging them NOT to vote against the Dubs amendment. You can tell them that Europe is NOT a "safe country" - children are at risk of exploitation and trafficking, as evidenced by the high numbers of STD's documented by Save The Children and the disappearances from unofficial camps such as Calais.

You can tell Conservative MPs that the existing systems to try to claim asylum are broken: the Dublin III amendment by which children with relatives in Britain can be reunited is impossible to access without specialist legal help. Of the 150 children with potential actionable cases in the Calais camp, less than 10 have been able to exercise their rights, and then only after months of waiting in a dirty camp and the intervention of pro-bono lawyers. And of the other 200 (still remaining) - they continue to live in unimaginable circumstances, forced to choose between the traffickers and the train tracks.

You can remind Conservative MPs that asylum and immigration are not the same thing. These are children, not economic migrants.

If you live in a constituency which is Labour, Liberal, Green, SNP or otherwise, please email your MP encouraging them to TURN UP AND VOTE for the Dubs amendment.

If you care enough to donate an hour or two of your time, you can always write to or email a Conservative MP without being a constituent - although they will have no requirement to answer you - but you can tell them that this is not a constituency issue, it's a pressing humanitarian issue that needs their consideration. And the sheer volume of emails/ letters thudding into inboxes should help remind MPs that the eyes of the public are upon them. If you'd like more information on how to make your time worth while, please PM me on Facebook.

You can identify your MP here:

Please sign the cross-party petition here:

We've got less than two weeks. Let's make them count.


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Tess.

Tess Berry-Hart said...

Thank you Joan! Please do share it around - it's so important we get some traction going - thanks for your support!!

Sue Purkiss said...

Have emailed my MP and signed the petition - thanks, Tess.