Fr. Jeremy's trip to Calais to learn about the Unaccompanied Refugee Children situation
Last week (on Tues Aug 22nd 2017) I joined a delegation of Maidenhead clerics to witness first-hand the plight of unaccompanied refugee children. We were joined by Barbara Winton, daughter of Sir Nicholas Winton who rescued more than 600 young people on the eve of the Second World War and Lord Dubs, one of the children rescued by Sir Nicholas and who has campaigned to change the terms of the Government’s Immigration act to enable up to 3000 young people to enter this country. This delegation travelled with an organisation called ‘Safe Passage’ which began when a small group of lawyers, community organisers and faith leaders from Citizens UK travelled to Calais to try to help the situation there.
Safe Passage have using the Dublin III Treaty, which governs common EU asylum law, has a provision under which, if you are a minor and have close family in another EU country, you can apply to be re-united with them. Following the demolition of the Calais camp in October 2016 the British authorities transferred around 750 minors from France to the UK under both the Dublin III and Dubs amendment. People were enabled to enter safely and legally through legal routes that Safe Passage had helped open.
The itinerary started with a welcome and explanation of what Safe Passage represent and was followed by each delegate giving a reason why they were there. This gathering took place outside the German Gymnasium, a café outside the splendid St Pancras and Kings Cross buildings. It was interesting to hear from one young Muslim from Birmingham whose Mosque is sharing with a Methodist church the challenge of welcoming refugee families. I had read Pope Francis’ book ‘The Church of Mercy’ and a number of other articles in preparation for travelling to Calais.
Francis’ words challenged Christians to ‘obtain knowledge of the events that force people to leave their homeland, and where necessary, to give voice to those who cannot manage to make their cry of distress and oppression heard.’ Pope Francis in the book goes on to write ‘By doing this you also carry out an important task in sensitising Christian communities to the multitudes of their brothers and sisters scarred by the wounds that mark their existence: violence, abuse, the distance from family love, traumatic events, flight from home, uncertainty about the future in refugee camps. These are all dehumanising elements and must spur every Christian and the whole community to practical concern.’
Pope Francis continued by saying that we should try to see a ‘ray of hope in the eyes and hearts of refugees. A hope that is expressed in expectations for the future, in the desire for friendship, in the wish to participate in the host society also through learning the language, access to employment and the education of children.’ The pope goes on to say, ‘I admire the courage of those who hope to be able gradually to resume a normal life, awaiting joy and love to return to brighten their existence.’
If we reflect upon the Biblical stories we find the Infant Jesus escaping with his family to Egypt fleeing the threats of a tyrant to seek refuge in another country. In a recent service at All Saints we heard the story of Joseph in Egypt receiving his father Joseph and family escaping famine. The adult Jesus challenged us all to think about being a neighbour to anyone in need in the parable of the Good Samaritan. One of the most powerful stories of the Christian faith is the Road to Emmaus. In the story, we discover that through welcoming the stranger to hospitality the Apostles share a eucharistic meal with the risen Lord. (These themes are discussed more fully in an excellent article ‘Welcoming the stranger, New Testament and catholic Social Teaching perspectives on migrants and refugees’ by Stephen j. Mckinney, Robert J. Hill and Honor Hania in ‘The Pastoral Review’ November/December 2015.)
Following the welcome and briefing at St Pancras we journeyed via Eurostar to Calais. On arrival, we witnessed the warehouse where volunteers from around the world (Including one of two from South Wales – I couldn’t mistake the accent!) collect clothes, sleeping bags, shoes and other items to help the vulnerable. We discovered the Refugee Community Kitchen which includes event organisers, chefs, caterers, and other volunteers providing nourishing meals.
Some of our group went to meet Brother Yohannes a man who runs the Caritas safe house, which supports and helps vulnerable people. We then listened to Lord Dubs and Barbara Winton being interviewed for the Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme looking at the plight of vulnerable people in Calais and looking at Britain’s response to the problem.
Following the visit to the warehouse we were all expecting to take part in the evening food distribution where we could assist the distribution of food in an informal wooded area and chat with unaccompanied minors and the youth support teams. Sadly, this did not take place as there had been violence between various groups of people the night before and during the afternoon and so for our own safety we were not able to share this vital part of the day. I could not get out of my mind that while I felt relieved that we were being kept safe there were young people, in the midst of this violence.
This violence did not surprise me as I had been seated with our security guard who had witnessed first - hand some of the troubles in the Jungle before it was closed last year. He showed me pictures of horrible aggression and made it clear to me that there are evil people making money out of vulnerable people.
The last part of the day was spent visiting the former ‘jungle’ now just large fields surrounded by barbed wire. The artist Banksy had created a mural of apple founder Steve jobs on a wall near the site of the jungle.
On the journey home, we reflected on how we as a community in Maidenhead might respond to the refugee crisis. Our response seems to have been relatively small although as Barbara Winton pointed out the Government have to their credit been doing some very positive things in the Middle East.
There is good news in the world when you discover from the Church Mission Society that over one million refugees from Syria are being hosted by the country of Lebanon an old enemy. The CMS tell remarkable stories of Syrian children finding joy that the Pope spoke about in his book the ‘Church of Mercy’.
Having seen the crisis first hand, although sadly, not being able to meet the young people, those of us who went to Calais from Maidenhead are charged with spreading the word of the things we have seen and heard in Calais. This is clearly a difficult and complex situation but I think we are called to try and support organisations like ‘Safe Passage’ in helping vulnerable young people. I know that the Maidenhead faith group are hoping to meet with our Maidenhead MP and Prime Minister Theresa May to further discuss the issues raised by the visit. Thank you to Sybil Sheridan and Dr Jonathan Romain for planning this important trip alongside ‘Safe Passage’.
The visit was covered in an article in the Maidenhead Advertiser - an on-line version of this can be seen here.