Op-eds, Opinions

Drury ’17: Cameron, Calais and unaccompanied kids

op-ed contributor
Sunday, March 19, 2017

It’s estimated that 90,000 unaccompanied child refugees live in Europe. Last year, an amendment was passed by the British Parliament establishing a scheme to transfer 3,000 child refugees to the United Kingdom, though so far only 200 cases have been processed. David Cameron, who is speaking later today at Brown, was prime minister when this law was passed; two weeks ago the law was scrapped. David Cameron’s legacy is Brexit, and Brexit found much of its final momentum in anti-migration politics and fear. What does Cameron think about these children and the failure of the British government to follow through with its resettlement promise last March? There is a chance that this issue won’t even be addressed at today’s lecture or in the question and answer session.

Calais, France is the closest place in Europe to the soon-to-be independent United Kingdom. For years, migrants and refugees from all over the world have been temporarily staying in this port town as they try and sneak onto lorries — trailer trucks — heading to England via the Chunnel. In October 2016 it was estimated that over 10,000 refugees settled in a camp near Calais called the “Jungle.” This figure included an estimated 1,200 unaccompanied minors. The French government evicted the camp at the end of October, sending adult residents to accommodation centers around the country to wait while their asylum claims were processed. The French and British governments could not reach an agreement about who was responsible for the unaccompanied children. As a result, the children were held in a collection of converted shipping containers during and after the eviction.

I spent four months working at a community kitchen in the Jungle, through the eviction and the week of uncertainty during which the children were held in the containers. Our daily presence in camp meant that we took part in an unofficial child protection network. We administered first aid, took children to the doctor, brought them toothbrushes and were always a phone call away should they be arrested or detained by the police. One boy came to the kitchen with an infected toe, and after days of changing his bandage (he had no socks), he showed me his arm, covered in scars. Pointing at one, he said, “Taliban.” Pointing at another, he said, “dog.” Pointing at a third, he said, “fire.” At 12 he had already lost his childhood yet still possessed much hope that he would find safety in the UK. He was eligible for resettlement via the Dubs Amendment.

The upper chamber of the British Parliament, the House of Lords, passed the Dubs Amendment on March 21, 2016. It provided a legal framework for 3,000 unaccompanied minors to be resettled in the UK. Cameron was Prime Minister at the time. Although never a vocal supporter of the Dubs Amendment, Cameron eventually stepped out of the way to let it pass, authorizing the processing of up to 3,000 resettlement cases of unaccompanied minors in Europe. It seems important to again remember the context; there are an estimated 90,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe. In May 2016, the Guardian reported Cameron’s promise that the British government was going “to do more” for child refugees.

Cameron in many ways opened the Pandora’s box of Brexit with his 2013 effort to unite the Conservative Party behind an in/out referendum and his campaign promise in 2014 to review the UK’s relationship to Brussels and the European Union. British nationalism and frustration with EU bureaucracy certainly fueled the Leave campaign, but as the vote drew closer, anti-immigration sentiments became overtly part of the discussion. Since the closure of the Jungle in October, only 200 resettlement cases have been processed under the Dubs Amendment. Two weeks ago, on March 7, the British Parliament voted to cancel the scheme, allowing at most 150 more cases to be processed before ending all action under Dubs this month. This leaves at least 650 children, promised in November to have their cases processed in weeks, with no opportunity for resettlement and no explanation why.

In the Jungle, these children were vulnerable to sexual and physical assault, human traffickers, manipulation and exploitation. With contact from the British Home Office decreasing and ultimately stopping, these children have been streaming back to Calais from their accommodation centers. The closure of the Dubs scheme seals the intended safe and legal path for these children to get to the UK. Their only option now is back in Calais — illegally sneaking into the UK on the back of lorries.

From my perspective, it is unimaginable that the British government would refuse to accept these children, many of whom will be welcomed by family already in the UK. I looked forward to the opportunity to hear what Cameron might say on the subject — his experience and knowledge gained from six years as British Prime Minister would certainly provide a different perspective on this issue. But I found out that at his lecture today, he will not host an open question and answer session. Rather, President Christina Paxson P’19 will lead the Q&A between herself and Cameron; she has solicited questions from members of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, and interested parties may submit questions to her for review. But why this filtering?

I appreciate that Cameron is coming to speak at Brown, but I don’t want a sanitized discussion that hides the darker, still very relevant parts of his legacy. I want to know why he didn’t support the Dubs Amendment last spring as Prime Minister and only begrudgingly let it pass after pressure from members of Parliament and the British public. I want to know what he thinks will happen to these children who were told by the Home Office that their cases would be processed, only to be left without explanation or resolution. I want Cameron to engage with this painful and complicated issue and bring the highest possible level of discourse to this campus. I will probably disagree with him, but as James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Let’s face the issue of immigration, child refugees and the closure of the Dubs Amendment later this afternoon.

Izza Drury ’17 can be reached at eliza_drury@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.