The End of the Jungle
Last month saw the destruction by the French Police and Security forces of the so-called ‘Jungle’ in Calais. I always hated that name, used by sections of the British media to suggest that those seeking refuge there were little better than animals. Certainly the residents of the camps were treated little better than livestock. This operation in Calais has been brought about by the French desperation to move the border for UK immigration back to Dover in the wake of the ‘Brexit’ vote. Neither France nor Britain has emerged from this process in a good light.
Aid workers shepherding children during the destruction of the camp last week
Many of those who were desperate to enter the UK have families in this country. Faith groups and others have offered protection, accommodation and support to the young people whose lives have been put on hold and whose health and safety have been undermined by months living in the vile conditions of the camp. Similar offers have been made so that families fleeing the conflict in Syria can be offered a safe haven in the UK. And yet so far the numbers of unaccompanied children who have been accepted into the UK remains tiny. Legal routes for these children to come to Britain do exist. There is provision under either the Dublin 111 Regulation, which allows children with a family link to the UK, or the Dubs Amendment which recognises that some children with no such links should be offered the safety of asylum in the UK.
What is a child?
What is a child? Anyone who has read a memoir such as Gulwali Passarlay’s ‘The Lightless Sky’ will realise that the hardships of a long journey will mean a premature adulthood for many boys and girls who have been forced to survive without family support sometimes for years. When they finally find security and safety here, their protective shell can dissolve and the trauma they have suffered reveal them as the vulnerable children they really are. Others are desperate to resume interrupted education and go on to make fantastic contributions to British society. Some sections of the British media have covered the arrival in the UK of some of the young people in a mean minded and distorted way, suggesting that the youngsters who have come in are exploiting our sympathy and that most are not really young enough to be eligible. I have been angered by the emphasis on this aspect of the arrival of the first child refugees from Calais.
Gulwar Passarley, the Afghan boy who became a torchbearer for Britain and its Values
I also deplore the way in which the issue of refugees, people who are fleeing violence and oppression in their countries of origin, has been conflated with the wider issue of immigration so that public sympathy for the suffering of refugees is undermined by the public’s fear of economic migration. I do understand the concern of those who feel that their jobs or access to amenities are threatened by uncontrolled immigration and that we need to look at how our immigration policy is working or failing to work.
Values in Action Locally
I believe the constituency of North East Leeds represents the best of British values. Many organisations here in North East Leeds are helping ordinary people to do what they can for those refugees travelling across Europe from Africa and the Middle East. Groups such as PAFRAS (Positive Action For Refugees and Asylum Seekers) does excellent work supporting people facing destitution, insecure accommodation and the sense of powerlessness associated with being an asylum seeker. People give their time, energy and money willingly and with impressive results. The congregations of such as St Edmund’s C of E and St Andrews United Reformed Church give freely of of their time and resources for example in offering their homes to refugees and offering support to the most needy. St Edmund's will be hosting the WYDAN (West Yorkshire Destitute Asylum Network) Night Shelter from 20th March to 27th March 2017 and working with St Andrew’s URC in assisting with hosting from 23rd January to 30th January 2017.
The Mosques, Temples and Churches in this constituency have made a strong stand in support of the victims of persecution around the World.
This should not be a matter for charity. As a spokesman from the Jewish community said to me, the language of this debate needs to be changed from ‘Charity’ to Justice’. He added: “ The Jewish Community of North East Leeds is a refugee community, and most people here would take the view that it is the duty of this country to provide a safe haven from persecution and fear.”
‘A Soft Touch?’
This is not to say that we should operate an open door policy with regard to migration: we have mechanisms for testing the claims of asylum seekers, and although these mechanisms are imperfect, in my experience they are loaded against the seekers and are certainly not responsible for allowing vast numbers of economic migrants to pass as refugees and gain the right to stay in the UK. Through my casework I see just how difficult it is for people to gain Leave to Remain in the UK. I also see how much harder it has become in recent years for people to obtain visas for visiting relatives or to join their families here. I do not think this country is the ‘soft touch’ which the tabloid press suggests it is.
We could have a better and fairer debate about the issue of migration in the modern world if we could untangle the idea of ‘the migrant’ from that of the ‘refugee’. Migration is a global phenomenon and is a challenge to conventional ideas about boundaries and resources. The immediate needs faced by the victims of war and religious or political persecution is another matter.