By Jess Baker @jessica_baker_
It is 7pm in a dull Calais car park, and well fed refugees are wandering away from our vans into the dark. I’ve finished my actual job on the hot food distribution, having spent an hour ferrying hot curry to replenish busy serving tables, wiping surfaces and organising a cramped van. I meander around with a bin bag, collecting stray plastic spoons and empty plates. Often the people we’re serving get up and help with the clean up around them. I get chatting to the boy who’s walking beside me, as we pick up tissues and toothbrushes- we complain about the weather and laugh at our language barrier. He brings up education. He would have been studying Engineering but life has set him off course. I’m going to be studying Politics. He doesn’t know if he will ever be able to study. Then, he asks me how old I am. “19”. “And me!” he says. We both smile, but then pause, and look into each other’s eyes for a second of silence. I don’t know if he thought the same as me in that moment, but, standing in a grotty car park, weeds and litter underfoot, a grey sky above us, I considered that there was both so little and so much between us. In 19 years, our lives had followed different paths. Then, he makes a joke, and we’re laughing again- just two teenagers.
I had so many interactions and moments like this over a few months in Calais. It is a regular reminder that this could have happened to anyone. A reminder that, although privilege is an important factor, anyone can be a refugee. Lionel Shriver’s ‘The Mandibles’ is one of the best examples of this. Displacement is one of the few most uncontrollable possibilities in our lives. Eighty years ago my great grandparents were newly arrived in England, while today I have the means to support new arrivals.
The Kindertransport children 80 years on: ‘I’m grateful my parents sent me away to carry on living’ https://t.co/oLgmhR1Rk9
— The Guardian (@guardian) November 7, 2018
People leave a whole life behind, and are willing to cross deserts and oceans, but it isn’t enough. Once they arrive in Britain, a whole new process starts. This summer, one of the stories that saddened me the most was a Guardian report about teenagers committing suicide due to the pressure they were under in the UK system. In the first half of 2018 at least three teenagers, all from Eritrea, killed themselves after achieving the goal they’d spent years trying to reach. The sheer fact that someone could travel from Eritrea to Dover as a child, but find the immigration system here unbearably hard says enough. The full article is worth a read. To me, the most poignant part comes from one of the boy’s fathers- “These children, who have to leave home through no fault of their own, are traumatised on their journey through the desert and the sea. It is the job of the authorities to look after and guide these children, who come to the UK alone. They shouldn’t come to die.”
In November 1998, 20 years ago this week, the Human Rights Act received Royal Assent in Britain. Being born around six months later, I have lived my whole life under these protections, free to vote, pray and learn. The Act has also provided some support for asylum seekers– in 2016 three minors with family across the channel were allowed to come to the UK from the camp in Calais for their safety, due to the Act’s requirement to respect family life. This was a great success, pushed for by Safe Passage, but didn’t save the uncountable number of other children who were dispersed eight months later when the camp closed. It also hasn’t helped the children already in the UK, whose parents have been detained. According to Bail for Immigration Detainees, 155 parents were separated from their children when being detained, and, contrary to Home Office policy, three instances of which have led to a child having to go into care.
Today @AlfDubs launched his petition, asking our Gov. to live up to the spirit of 80 years ago when British communities welcomed 10k child refugees on the eve of WW2. If we could do it then, then we can certainly do it again today. Add your signature 👇 https://t.co/FIE1CjhliU
— Safe Passage (@safepassageuk) September 2, 2018
This British government’s disregard for young lives is more upsetting given that 80 years ago next month the Kindertransport helped 10,000 children travel to Britain and escape the Holocaust. Philippe Sands’ book, ‘East West Street’, tracks the impact that the Holocaust had on the international system of criminal law and collective action that we now have. One of his key stories follows Hersch Lauterpacht, a Jewish law student who went on to be one of the most vocal in the journey towards a system of universal human rights. 80 years ago Britain had recognised a humanitarian crisis and did its best to help strangers, resulting in the generation of inspirational and kind Kindertransport adults that now exist. Today, even with ‘the Rights of the Child’ and a national cry of support, the government has avoided helping children who need their support.
The Human Rights Act was created to help everyone in this country, but by denying asylum seekers some of their rights the UK is still failing them. I could talk about how the Dubs amendment has been going in circles, or about how you can have lived in London for 50 years and still be deported, or how a child can be unable to use Dublin III to allow a sibling to come and live with them. By vilifying refugees and forgetting that only chance has stopped us from being in the same situation, international discourse has lost the idea that refugees are humans, and that some of those humans are children. Children need stability, safety and their human rights, in order to meet their full potential, just like anyone else.
Jess Baker previously interned at René Cassin and volunteered for the Refugee Community Kitchen in Calais. She is now studying at the University of Leeds.