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Special report from Calais: Maidenhead delegation sees plight of unaccompanied refugee children

James Harrison

James Harrison

Special report from Calais: Maidenhead delegation sees plight of unaccompanied refugee children

A delegation of Maidenhead clerics travelled to Calais on Tuesday to see first hand the plight of unaccompanied refugee children. With them went Barbara Winton, daughter of Sir Nicholas Winton, and peer Lord Dubs, one of the children he rescued. Reporter James Harrison and photographer Ian Longthorne accompanied them.

“But for the openness of the British people, I wouldn’t be alive, I wouldn’t be here. I would just be a statistic.”

Dr Jonathan Romain is reflecting on his own family’s history in one of Europe’s last great refugee crises while sat in the middle of its latest.

However, while the Maidenhead rabbi’s mother was embraced by the UK after fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany through the Kindertransport scheme, that welcome now seems to have become a cold shoulder.

Dr Romain, along with his wife and fellow rabbi Sybil Sheridan and other faith leaders from Maidenhead, was in Calais on Tuesday to see first hand the situation for migrants trying to reach British shores.

It is almost a year since the notorious Jungle camp, which at its peak was thought to house more than 10,000 people, was cleared. Yet there are still about 750 people left in the town.

This number is thought to include 200 unaccompanied children, many of whom could also have the right to settle in Britain.

And it is an issue of particular concern for the group, which was joined by Barbara Winton, daughter of the late Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued more than 600 Czechoslovakian youngsters on the eve of the Second World War.

Also with them was Labour Party peer Lord Alf Dubs, who was one of those children.

Speaking at a warehouse used by UK charity Help Refugees and its French counterpart L’Auberge des Migrants, Barbara said: “We’ve seen people in pretty desperate situations and the best of humanity trying to make a difference.

“Seeing this many young volunteers from all countries of the world who have come here to try and help people in such desperate need is inspiring.

“That’s what my father did. He went somewhere people were in need and did what he could.

“The sad thing is they’re doing it because of something going on in France, somewhere so close to us.”

Throughout the day the warehouse is a hive of activity, with dozens of volunteers sewing, repairing and sorting clothes and other supplies, many of which have to be replaced up to three times a week due to police confiscating them from migrants or otherwise destroying them.

The food hall is especially busy and has served up about two million hot meals since the service started in December 2015.

Of particular concern to the group and the volunteers on the ground – which includes Safe Passage, an organisation which helps refugees process asylum claims – is the difficulty faced by children with a legitimate claim to settle in Britain to actually reach the country.

In May last year Lord Dubs led a campaign to change the terms of the Government’s Immigration Act, resulting in the Dubs Amendment, which committed the UK to accepting 300-400 unaccompanied child refugees.

This was distinct from the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which already gave asylum-seeking children in Europe the right to be reunited with family members elsewhere in Europe.

However, in February the Government announced it was closing the scheme after taking in about 300 minors – about a tenth of the 3,000 that campaigners had expected.

Capacity among local authorities to house them was blamed, but Lord Dubs has consistently claimed this is not the case and in June a judicial review was launched questioning the ‘defective’ process used to measure how many youngsters councils could take.

Lord Dubs said: “I feel it’s very sad that the Government, for reasons of their own, are back tracking on what they should be doing and in what Parliament said they should be doing on the basis of that amendment.

“I think it’s sad they’re closing the scheme for such spurious reasons.”

Downplaying his own personal involvement in the cause, he added: “I’ve always argued that anything I did in moving that amendment was because of the humanitarian consequences.

“I didn’t do it just because of my background.

“But what I said was it gives me a more emotional involvement and makes it harder for the Government to slap it down.

“Having come as an unaccompanied child refugee myself, I was the living embodiment of that.”

The peer, who has spoken to Maidenhead MP and Prime Minister Theresa May about the issue on several occasions, and who even said he would have offered her a Labour Party membership following a speech she made in memory of Sir Nicholas at memorial service last year, is still unclear why the scheme remains so opposed.

“It can’t be about the public reaction. I can only assume it’s about the numbers – she said if the children came then more will come after. I say that may be, but it’s not proven,” he said.

It’s a view echoed by Barbara, Sir Nicholas’ daughter. She said: “I believe the British Government is doing some very positive things in the Middle East and in the vulnerable Syrian families resettlement scheme, and I applaud that.

“But there’s a situation within Europe which is totally unacceptable and I don’t feel that just because the Government is doing something good in the Middle East that absolves them of their responsibility to help children in Europe – many of whom have a right to be in Britain.

“My father went somewhere and saw a need that was not being filled by the responsible authorities.

“So he thought, rather than wait for the authorities to act, or not, then he would.

“This doesn’t exactly mirror that, but there are similarities and I think he would applaud what they’re doing out here.”

The group was left with the question, raised by Safe Passage, of who will be the Nicky Winton of today?

As more children try to get to the UK, more obstacles are thrown in front of their legal routes, forcing them to take ever greater risks.

As rabbi Sybil Sheridan pointed out, ‘there will always be people wanting to come to England’, and they are all potential politicians, faith leaders or professionals of the future.

Having seen the crisis firsthand, their mission now will be to spread word of the things they have seen and heard in Calais, both to their respective communities and congregations, but also to the Prime Minister who represents them in Westminster.

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