Thousands of unaccompanied children and young people will, by the end of this week, lose the perilous, bleak place they have sheltered in for many months, some, for years. ‘The jungle’ in Calais is being demolished and inhabitants bussed out to various places in France. Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais wants the world to know that: ‘For the last three years life has been hell in Calais’. She is not referring to the Syrians, Eritreans, other Africans and Arabs who were surviving under tarpaulin covered flimsy structures, dirty, exhausted, often hungry, fearful yet hopeful. No. She means the locals. The suffering victims of war, revolutions, poverty and natural calamities, weeping, wounded, starving kids until recently, were but media stories and characters in charity appeals. Now, Europeans find the folk they pitied from afar have materialised, stepped off newspaper pages and TV screens, even built a shanty town in a place best known for cheap booze and great garlic mussels.
In 1886, the French government gifted the Statue of Liberty to New York. The American poet Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet titled The New Colossus. Some of her words are inscribed at the base of the arresting monument: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door’. There is no better description of the thousands crossing over stormy seas to get to Europe today. But there are no golden doors.
Of course it must have been hard for the good people of Calais. ( I am not being sarcastic) France has tried to do what it can for the migrants coming into Europe. It accepted over 80,000 asylum seekers in 2016. And the people of the ‘jungle’ will get accommodated and looked after. Citizen hostility and the increasing popularity of neo-Fascist parties means trouble ahead for the governing national and local politicians. But for now, they are showing moral fortitude and some compassion.
In contrast in ‘Great’ Britain has turned off the taps of integrity and empathy. Here are some facts: Thousands of children were in that Calais camp; a large proportion had relatives already settled in the UK; Lord Dubbs, himself a Kindertransport child who escaped the Nazis and found refuge in England, had the law changed so more of these lost children would be admitted to our country; Cameron promised we would take them; some of them have been sexually exploited, others have become mentally distressed while they waited in limbo for years; an uncounted number came as children and grew into teenagers; the NSPCC and Unicef have campaigned to get the young asylum seekers reunited with families in the UK; the coalition and now the Conservative governments could have, but chose not to have a proper plan of settlement for the Calais kids.
Now, as the bulldozers flatten the ‘jungle’, Home Secretary Amber Rudd wakes up and starts taking a few of the lost children. Some councils are receptive, others not. No funding plans are in place. Some newspapers and politicians, turn into mad bulldogs, bark at and besiege the young arrivals. They demand teeth tests, guarantees that these are not cannily disguised terrorists. An aunt of a nine year old Syrian girl tells me the child has started her period and screams for hours ‘like we are burning her’.
I could say: ‘Imagine these were your children. Would you want them treated like this?’ But that sounds trite, insincere, bogus. Children born in the west are forever protected. History and fortune have been exceedingly kind to them. We cannot imagine such things. And the truth is too many Brits have resolutely hardened their hearts. Football broadcaster Gary Lineker and singer Lily Allen recently spoke up for the displaced and were shockingly abused online and in tabloid newspapers. Today anyone who defends refugees is atrociously assailed and demeaned.
In 1729, Jonathan Swift penned a satirical essay, A Modest Proposal on the terrible poverty suffered by the Irish and England’s irritation with these hopeless subjects. ‘[Their prodigious number of children] … in the present deplorable state of the kingdom was a very great additional grievance’. He suggested the babies should be sold and eaten. We have moved beyond satire. Here’s a recent unsigned missive from someone who calls himself a ‘true-Britt’ [sic]. : ‘ I don’t care if they die. They are a bother. We should shoot the boats, have shooting parties in Calais. Let them hide and we find them. Kill the young before they grow’. So why not gas ovens? Extermination camps?
Conscientious Britons must stand with these refugees and speak up. If they don’t, such voices will get bolder. For the sake of all our children we must fight this irreversible descent into a new barbarism.
International Business Times 26/10/15