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An hour from Westminster, children are sleeping rough in the freezing woods

Categories: Articles:Asylum & Refugees | Published: 16/01/2018 | Views: 689

In an article for the New Statesman, Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth, describes conditions for refugees in Calais.

With the Christmas period a time for giving, many of us will have spared a thought and donated to charities helping those less fortunate than ourselves. Now that the decorations have been taken down, most of us have returned to our normal lives.

But the pain and suffering continues, often in the shadows. Many charities will tell you that January can be more challenging than December for those in need, as the weather bites and donations dry up. One group that sticks in my mind are the unaccompanied child refugees I met in Calais last September.

In my first few months as an MP, no event was as haunting as this visit to northern France, where more than a hundred lone children, who have a legal right to be in the UK, wait in limbo to be reconnected with family members.

Children as young as nine sleep rough in the forests and buildings surrounding the former unofficial camp known as “the Jungle”, living in fear of the authorities while dreaming of reunion with their families in Britain.

When the Jungle was bulldozed in October 2016, our government accepted 750 unaccompanied child refugees. In times of emergency, the process of reunification could take a matter of days. A year on, it takes eight to ten months for applications to be processed by UK and French authorities.

The conditions are harrowing; now far worse than they were before the Jungle was razed. With January upon us, there’s a real risk children will die from cold, hunger and preventable suffering. While this should mean an increase in the urgency of action by the government, this is not the case.

Debating the matter in Parliament three months ago, I was struck by a hard truth. I represent Plymouth, four hours from London by train. These unaccompanied kids are an hour by train from London. They’re closer to Parliament than the people I represent, but they may as well be a million miles away.

It will remain cold and damp for months. On 11 December, Safe Passage reported 12 young people asked for somewhere safe and warm to sleep, but emergency accommodation for minors in Calais was full – at 4°C, it was not cold enough for the local authority's “cold weather plan”. Their staff also report having to take children who are suffering from hypothermia to the local hospital.

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