Sunday 5 February
A month and a half after leaving the refugee camp La Linière in northern France, I am sitting in my flat in Glasgow with a group of friends, connecting speakers to one of our laptops to watch a film. Four of us were in La Linière voluntarily, but the fifth friend was not. This fifth friend did not move to Glasgow voluntarily either, although the dispersal scheme that determined this was quite different from the conditions that had led him to Dunkirk.
We met this evening to watch a documentary shot in the camp. It is titled 'Mamosta
', which, as we learnt from working at the Dunkirk Children's Centre, means teacher in Kurdish. There are many mamostas in the camp – former physics teachers who are now seeking protection, retired French teachers driving to Dunkirk from Lille every week to give classes, and nine-year-old girls teaching volunteers simple (and not-so-simple) phrases in Kurdish. The film centres on the adult learning centre, which, as well as being a space for residents to practise English and French, is a social space allowing each person to temporarily forget his or her immigration status.
Watching the film together, one of us recognises someone’s laughter. Another recognises someone’s coat. We are sitting in Glasgow together, looking for glimpses of our friends who have been anonymised for their safety, wondering how many of them are still in the camp.
Wednesday 8 February
I wasn’t actually meant to start writing this column until next week, but then I read the news and couldn’t help myself.
During the final months of last year, I was volunteering as a legal support worker in La Linière, working predominantly with unaccompanied minors. Today, the UK government announced that the Dubs amendment will be scrapped.
The amendment was introduced by Lord Dubs in May 2016, calling for the government to resettle unaccompanied refugee minors from elsewhere in Europe. Although Lord Dubs initially called for 3,000 minors to be resettled, the amendment eventually passed containing the vague formulation, 'a specified number of unaccompanied refugee children...determined by the government in consultation with local authorities' will be resettled and supported in the UK.
Now, nine months after the passing of the original amendment, and after only 200 children have been resettled, the Dubs amendment is being put to an end.
It’s appalling to the MPs who voted in favour of the amendment, to the citizens of the UK who thought that the UK was committed to taking some degree of responsibility for forcibly displaced children, and it is appalling to campaigners who have been pushing for improvements to a piece of legislation that can be scrapped from one day to another.
In the camp, I often found that whilst I would get angry at governments’ changes in policy and sudden U-turns, my friends living in the camp as refugees would often be unsurprised. Sometimes even surprised that I was surprised. If you have been let down by authorities over and over and over again, at some point you almost stop believing that there is a possibility of not being let down.
As part of the Dunkirk legal support team, my colleagues and I created a database to keep track of the number of unaccompanied minors in the camp, and whether they might qualify for transfer to the UK under the Dubs amendment or Dublin III regulation (pertaining to minors with a family member in the UK). In a camp of around 1,000 people, approximately 150 were unaccompanied minors, and half of them were likely to fit the criteria of the Dubs amendment.
Of the hundreds of minors who risk everything when trying to cross the channel underneath or inside lorries, many have the legal right to be transferred to the UK from France. Although the Dubs amendment includes many criteria that are seemingly arbitrary (e.g. you must have arrived in Europe before 20 March – the date of enforcement of the EU-Turkey deal), the main issue has not been with the legislation itself, but with the lack of enforcement.
As a legal support worker, you want to instil hope whilst not being able to promise anything. Yes, you are legally entitled to be transferred to the UK. But no, I am not a lawyer. No, I am not the Home Office. No, I can’t promise that you can enter the UK, despite your father being there, despite you being 15, despite you being at risk every night you spend in the camp.
Some minors from Dunkirk were registered in Calais when the Home Office made its chaotic appearance in the midst of the camp’s dismantlement. The minors were told that they would be contacted within two weeks. After just over two weeks, one of the boys came up to me and asked if we could drive to Calais to see what was happening with his case. Once there, we met six people – two who laughed at our hopeless attempt, one who was collecting scrap metals, and the rest who advised us to drive to Saint-Omer, 40 minutes away. After meeting the staff at Saint-Omer who had no association to the Home Office, we drove back to the camp. The boy had filled his bag with his possessions before he left, ready to be sent somewhere else, somewhere other than Dunkirk.
Today was one more day of unaccompanied children being let down by those who should be protecting them. Minors will keep risking everything to cross the channel to the UK, and a number of them will be successful in doing so, but each time you are let down by the authorities, it becomes more difficult to believe that you will ever reach the other side.