Calais crisis: children’s stories speak to a wider truth
How do you know your parents love you?
For most of us the answer to that is pretty simple. A parent’s love is measured in the lengths they’ll go to keep their children safe and give the best possible chance in life.
That’s what motivates the mums and dads who encourage their children to flee violence and suffering knowing they face horrific journeys across deserts, seas, borders and barbed wire fences – to reach safety. Not greed, not opportunism, but love.
As the political conversation about the situation in Calais takes a sour turn I can’t help thinking of a teenager I met in Sicily a few weeks ago. He had fled persecution and suffering in Eritrea only to be kidnapped and trafficked.
He was held in the Sinai desert in Egypt for 11 months and tortured to extract more money from his family – the traffickers would phone so his mum could hear him screaming. Those traffickers knew the power of a mother’s love.
In the last week alone, we’ve heard of a 16-year-old boy electrocuted trying to get on the Eurostar, another teenage boy found dead in a lorry and a young Eritrean woman who died on the road trying to reach Britain.
We don’t know her story yet, but we can take an educated guess. Many of the women coming through Save the Children’s centres in Europe have been subjected to horrific sexual abuse and violence somewhere on their journey.
Her parents may still be somewhere in Eritrea, waiting for her phone call to confirm she made it. The call won’t come.
Fleeing war not economics
These are just four cases, but they speak to a wider truth. Behind all the talk of ‘hoards’ and ‘floods’ are stories of individual men and women, boys and girls, every single last one of them somebody’s daughter or son.
Of course there needs to be a system for managing migration. One that is tough but fair with economic migrants. But we are in danger of shutting our hearts to the desperation of the people pleading at the door, refugees not economic migrants.
Let’s remember that refugees escaping wars and persecution do have the legal right to international protection. Too often they are mixed up in the debate about economic migration. Many of these so-called migrants are refugees fleeing conflicts such as in Syria. They are not fleeing economics.
Britain’s proud legacy
The irony of the situation is that those who adopt the harshest tone and say they are sticking up for Britain have forgotten the best of what Britain is.
We have a proud history of offering sanctuary to refugees, whether they were running from Nazi persecution, the Vietnamese war or the conflict in the Balkans.
In a modern mirror to that proud tradition, Save the Children believes the UK government could take in at least 1,500 of the most vulnerable unaccompanied children currently adrift in Italy and Greece, a calculation that considers the UK’s GDP, population, existing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers and unemployment rates.
This would not be the first time a country has made special arrangements, outside normal immigration channels, for unaccompanied children. The “lost boys” of Sudan were children who were separated from their families or orphaned during the Sudanese civil war.
Approximately 3,800 of the 20,000 lost boys were resettled in the US, with 500 of the younger children being placed in foster care. They have grown up to be doctors, lawyers and sports stars and their success should offer perspective and hope.
The danger of the other proposed approach – fixing Calais alone – is that it deals with a tiny part of the problem. We need a much more comprehensive response, particularly in relation to the 4 million Syrian refugees.
A fair share
Britain has a scheme to resettle the most vulnerable families but has so far only accepted fewer than 200 people. Save the Children believes we should be accepting thousands.
To put that in perspective, Lebanon has taken in 1 million Syrian refugees, who now make up a third of its population. Germany has offered sanctuary to 30,000 Syrians.
Most Syrians that Save the Children speak to are heading to Sweden or Denmark, where they know they will be granted asylum much more easily without risking death at their borders.
Saving children’s lives
The UK government is very generous in aid and should be proud of rescuing thousands of people from drowning in the Mediterranean this summer. David Cameron deserves real praise.
But we can do more to help and should focus in particular on children, who are amongst the most vulnerable. Until legal avenues are in place for those with the right to protection, desperate people will face untold dangers attempting to reach the UK.
That they want to come here should be a source of national pride. That many will die in the attempt should be a source of burning shame.
This blog post was originally published as an opinion article in The Observer
*Name changed to protect identity