It was a brutal and tense week for the almost 10,000 residents of the informal refugee settlement that has become known as “the Jungle” just outside Calais, northern France. Reports emerged the morning of Oct. 24 of running battles between French police and would-be migrants to Britain as the Calais authorities moved to demolish the infamous settlement. Things quieted as the clearance action soon became bogged down in bureaucratic delays.
Rumored for some weeks, the French authorities’ move to finally shut down the camp put further pressure on the British government to accept more of the refugees, especially the many unaccompanied children in and around the camp. Almost all the refugees had been hoping to make it to Britain.
In mid-October as the first young people arrived in Britain, some voices in the media and parliament saw fit to cast doubt on their identity; one Tory member of Parliament stated plainly that some of them “looked older than 18.” It was claimed that these might be people intent on “abusing” the country’s hospitality. Momentum then began to gather around an inhumane proposal that the authorities should carry out dental checks on the young refugees to ascertain their age. This proposal, disavowed some hours later by the government’s Home Office (Ministry of the Interior) struck a chord with the sour and introverted mood of some in the United Kingdom, a mood that has been increasingly prominent since the Brexit vote.
Some of the media, the usual suspects among the “red tops,” as British tabloids are known because of their red mastheads, latched onto the idea. It is worrying for the state of our society that we might even consider using a procedure that might be appropriate for, say, livestock on vulnerable human beings.
Later in the week, several thousand Jungle residents were bussed to reception centers all over France while some children were eventually allowed entry into Britain. In scenes reminiscent of the welcoming parties that, last year, met arrivals in Germany, voluntary groups such as Citizens UK and faith-groups turned out at the Home Office immigration offices in Croydon, south of London. But these moments of welcome had to be balanced against the stranding of many young children, unaccompanied minors, back in Calais.
Charities and relief agencies protested vigorously that the camp should not have been destroyed until every single child had been safely relocated. In an unusual move, the content of a personal phone-call from Paris to London was made known to the media. French President Francois Hollande had urged the new prime minister Theresa May to “take your responsibilities and assume your moral duty by immediately organizing” the arrival of scores of unaccompanied minors who had been living at the shuttered camp. Mrs. May’s response was only to note that over 200 children had already been brought into Britain and to refuse to make any further commitment, despite the many verified reports of perhaps hundreds of vulnerable minors left stranded in France.
As the week ended, the French security sweep seemed to have got stuck—only around half of the residents had been removed to other locations in France while fires began to sweep through remaining parts of the camp. Again, the children were the chief cause of concern, as a number of charities and aid-agencies working on the site produced verifiable reports of minors with nowhere to go and forced to sleep in the open for several successive nights as autumn temperatures drop.
The fires were thought to have been set by disgruntled refugees; aid workers were unable to prevent some of the refugees, children and adults from running back into what was left of the camp to rescue a few belongings. The local authorities had provided some converted shipping containers as temporary housing but these quickly filled; children were turned away. Volunteers cited in the media compared the scenes to the Lord of the Flies, as up to 1,500 unaccompanied children, some as young as eight, denied even fresh running water since last week, roamed the site while the demolition efforts, using heavy machinery, continued.
This is a humanitarian and moral catastrophe. It beggars belief that U.K. officials are letting young children undergo what has happened this week—exposed to various hazards, some without a roof over their heads, facing dangers that have been known about since at least July, when a UNICEF report highlighted the plight of the unaccompanied children. Two national governments point the finger at each other while the children spend another night, at-risk, in a shipping container or even in the open.
This week, French authorities said that the operation had been successfully concluded, but Red Cross officials refuted this claim, noting that there were many children still stuck in those now over-crowded containers. On Oct. 31, a senior professional soccer club in west London, Queen’s Park Rangers, stepped in with an offer of a fleet of buses that was ready to bring the kids across the English Channel at a moment’s notice. Their local municipal authority, Hammersmith and Fulham also put a team of social workers on standby, displaying a readiness to help that the central government had refused to consider. There were no demands for dental-check; no xenophobic scaremongering about the worthiness of these refugees, who have already been through so much; and no posturing or self-justifying by citing of numbers already brought in.
It is a ray of light in an increasingly bitter, sour national mood that is growing in England. The last Jungle shelter was finally demolished on Oct. 31, but while even one refugee, adult or minor, remains stranded in a cold damp metal container, our government’s apparent willingness to degrade the humanity of mere children diminishes us all.
Pope Francis has asked us all, with his Universal Intention for November, to pray with him “that the countries which take in a great number of displaced persons and refugees may find support for their efforts which show solidarity." Britain is still not showing that solidarity, finding excuses for taking in a paltry number compared to some countries, even leaving children in great danger.
David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.