Skip to main content

Refugees in Calais

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered assistance to refugees in Calais.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Chope, and to welcome the Minister to his place as he arrives. In the brief time available, I will first say a little about my involvement with the “jungle” camp in Calais and the circumstances there. I do not know whether the Minister has visited the camp—a nod would suffice.

I am grateful. I hope that the Minister will find the time to visit, because I will not be able to do justice to the situation in the time available to me. Alongside Calais, there is also the issue of Dunkirk. I have several questions for the Minister, but if he is unable to answer them today, I am sure he will write to me.

Martin McTigue, a senior manager at the London ambulance service and a constituent of mine, contacted me in December and suggested that I visit the jungle camp with him, which I then did. Mr McTigue’s involvement came through Samad Billoo, who is involved in a charity called HANDS International. The charity was set up in Pakistan in 1979 to bring relief to villages there. It is a substantial charity in Pakistan, but its first venture outside Pakistan was to set up an immunisation clinic in the jungle camp in Calais. Sam also works for the London ambulance service, and I found quite a number of paramedics and others who work for the LAS out in the jungle camp providing not only immunisations—40% of the 6,000 or 7,000 people have been immunised against flu—but basic medical procedures. I met a great number of people and will not be able to pay tribute to them all, but I want to mention Abi Evans, another paramedic from the LAS, who has also devoted a lot of time. These individuals are giving up every weekend, and substantial parts of their week through leave, to go out to minister to the refugees in the jungle camp and the camp at Dunkirk.

I mention that background, which is interesting in itself, but it is a curious state of affairs when the relief of several thousand people situated 30 miles from the British coast on the land of our nearest neighbour, a prosperous and civilised country, is reliant on the skilful and diligent attentions of British volunteers. Whether they are medics bringing food aid or helping with shelter, clothing and other matters, these people are predominantly British. They are all volunteers. Some of them have expertise and some do not.

I will in a moment.

These people simply saw a humanitarian crisis and wanted to assist. However, that is the limit of the support that has been provided to the refugees so far. There is no support from major charities or from the UN, not because they do not want to be involved—Save the Children and Amnesty International have provided briefings for this debate and are very concerned about conditions at the jungle—but because the French Government have persistently refused to recognise the situation as a refugee issue and see it as a border control issue.

In a moment.

The French Government will not allow major NGOs and humanitarian organisations into the camp, nor have they been providing any real assistance themselves. That is changing, but only following legal action by Médecins sans Frontières, which is present in the camp alongside Médecins du Monde. They had to take the French Government to court in order to get some response, but the Government there will not provide any permanent accommodation. Heated tents are now being constructed for 1,500 people—presumably women, children and the vulnerable—but that is the limit. I saw that part of the camp being built and it will clearly be better, but it is not complete and the winter may well be over before it is finished. That is an appalling way for a civilised country such as France to treat people in dire and desperate need.

I will now give way twice.

Many thanks to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I share many of the concerns that he has expressed in such detail. Does he agree that it is of the utmost importance that children in Calais have access to education? Even one lost day of schooling for a child refugee is a day too many.

I was trying to save time, Mr Chope, but it obviously had the opposite effect. I will come to the good point made by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) later, but I will first give way to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald).

Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. I am concerned that those who are supporting the refugees in the Calais are volunteers giving up their time. In my constituency, many volunteers have undertaken collections, raising more than £7,000 for the refugees, and provided a convoy of goods and food to Calais. Funds are now being raised for a trip to Dunkirk to provide more much-needed food and supplies. The situation is unacceptable.

My attempt at a multiple intervention was clearly an innovation too far, but I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. A lorry load of supplies, organised by Reverend Bob Mayo of the Church of St Stephen and St Thomas in Shepherd’s Bush, went out from my constituency before Christmas. Communities all over the country are assisting, if not directly by their own intervention, then by giving money and goods, which is to everybody’s credit.

During the day I spent at the camp on 21 December with HANDS International, I met many people. I am unable to do justice to everything I saw; suffice to say, however, that conditions are appalling and will get worse as the winter deepens and the weather deteriorates. Despite all the assistance on offer, the jungle camp is still in an old landfill site under a motorway bridge. There is asbestos lying around. It is waterlogged with mud everywhere. There are chemical plants on either side of it. There is a chronic spate of illnesses, ranging from respiratory problems and scabies to serious diseases such as tuberculosis. The medical and accommodation facilities, which may just be a combination of tents or some rudimentary wooden shelters, are simply unable to cope. I admire the resilience of both the volunteers and the refugees, but they are fighting a losing battle against establishing any quality of life. Of particular concern are the hundreds of unaccompanied children, some as young as 12 or 14, and the increasing number of families.

The people at the camp come from a variety of countries. Many are from Syria, but some come from Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Eritrea and Sudan. Many of them have stories of fleeing persecution. Many of them have their nearest relatives, outside of the countries from which they have fled, in the UK, which is essentially why they are there. It is also true that not all are seeking asylum in the UK. The French authorities have given the situation poor attention. Their involvement in the camp is limited to patrols by riot police, who occasionally fire tear gas into the camp. They do nothing to curb either the problems of violence within the camp, where a 15-year-old boy was stabbed to death before Christmas, or the protests by fascist elements of the National Front. It is a truly beleaguered and desperate situation.

Against that there is a huge amount of hope. There are churches, a theatre and—to take the point made by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow—classes, including English classes and education for children. Shops and restaurants have also been set up, with extraordinary ingenuity in the circumstances, but all that cannot be a substitute for proper treatment. The Minister says that he has visited a number of refugee camps, as I have, but this is not a refugee camp with facilities able to maintain any basic standards of life; this is simply people camped out in the open in completely unsuitable conditions.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about the conditions in the jungle camp near Calais, which I have also visited, with the Bishop of Dover. I was similarly shocked by the conditions, which were much worse than I have seen in the official camps for Syrian refugees in countries such as Turkey. The conditions in the jungle camp are absolutely shocking and simply unacceptable for animals, let alone for humans, and the migrants certainly felt that they were living like animals, which was leading them to have a great hatred for the UK, the country that they hoped to come to and came towards with great hope—instead, they are very angry. It is good news that the French Government are planning to improve facilities and to construct a new camp. The hon. Gentleman might well yet do so, but I ask the Minister to update us on the UK Government’s conversations with the French about improving conditions and on the part that we are playing. Will the Minister also address the concerns of my Kent constituents about the security implications of the new camp?

Order. I have indulged the hon. Lady, but normally interventions should be brief—they are interventions, rather than speeches.

I am glad that you indulged the hon. Lady, Mr Chope, because it was a good intervention and one with which I agree. I must speed up a bit, but I will pick up on one point: I am afraid that not much comfort can be given, because the pace of action by the French Government is so slow, whether deliberately or through bureaucracy.

I want to bring another matter to the Minister’s attention, although it might be a debate for another day. If conditions in Calais are atrocious, they are far worse in Dunkirk. I have not visited Dunkirk, but I have had a long report from there. We were told—this was reported in lurid terms in the UK press—that a new refugee camp was to be built, à la Sangatte, at Dunkirk by the French Government. Perhaps so, but it too is to have those heated tents, and everything is taking much longer than it should be. It might well be winter before it is ready.

Importantly, while the camp is being constructed at Dunkirk, no resources will be allowed in. Only this week I had a report from Mr McTigue to say that police were not letting in any tents, blankets, building materials or wood for fuel, which adds to the misery. There are no signs so far of a permanent camp. I therefore urge the Minister to visit not only Calais but Dunkirk, because the conditions at Dunkirk are truly appalling given the freezing conditions and the lack of shelter, water and toilets. Each day young children are having to sleep in those conditions, without even enough food being supplied. Of the first 100 people vaccinated by HANDS International at Dunkirk, 96 had scabies. Such conditions should not prevail anywhere, frankly, but certainly not in northern Europe.

In the few moments I have left, let me ask the questions that I want the Minister to answer. How much are the UK Government spending in and around Calais? I think that the answer is nothing to relieve the refugee situation, but some £18 million on razor wire fences to stop refugees getting to Eurostar or other ways of reaching the UK. How are the Government liaising with the French? What pressure are they putting on the French Government? I ask that because of a Home Office statement—I think about Dunkirk, although it might well apply to Calais—that said:

“We do not get involved in what is a French decision on what they do with a camp in their country.”

I am afraid that that rather Pontius Pilate attitude will simply not do.

What steps are the Government taking to allow the reuniting of families? As I said, a large number of the unaccompanied children and the families in the French camps are there because their nearest relatives are in the UK. At the moment, other than risking their lives and trying to get through the tunnel or over on lorries, there is no way for them to achieve reunion with their families. What are the Government doing to facilitate asylum claims to the UK? How are they co-operating—this might be a difficult issue for them at the moment—with the European Union?

The Minister will have seen the recent report of the Select Committee on International Development, which was excellent and clearly recommended that this country should take 3,000 refugee children from within Europe. I do not know whether the Minister is in a position to respond to that. I must also pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) on such matters. She has visited the camps and heads the Labour party’s taskforce on refugee issues. She has called for a major new, co-ordinated humanitarian relief programme, including for Calais and Dunkirk; a proper series of assessments of who needs refugee support; and an increase in the number of people to whom this country is granting sanctuary.

The problems are severe and terrible, but we are still only talking about something perhaps in excess of 10,000 refugees in total; compared with the refugee crisis as a whole, the situation is not one that should be beyond the wit of Britain and France to resolve. I share the frustration of organisations such as Amnesty and Save the Children, which wish the Government to act or to act themselves, but at the moment they are prevented from doing so.

I ask the Minister to look at the terms of Dublin III and the UN convention on the rights of the child to see whether his Government are properly fulfilling their obligations under them. He might rely on Dublin III to say, “Britain has no responsibility,” but I urge him to acknowledge that we do have a responsibility—a humanitarian responsibility—in particular to the children in Calais and Dunkirk who have relatives in the UK, and to say how we may reunite them with their families.

I could say a lot more, but I will give the Minister time to respond. One of the many inspiring people I met in Calais was a man whom I will simply call Muhamad. He was a translator for UK forces in Afghanistan, but he did not qualify for the right to come to the UK, which some translators were given, because he was not still employed at the time—although his services to the UK forces were none the less for that. He is an inspiring figure in the camps and he helps to run the library and the education classes. He let me know through some of the people I met in Calais that a young friend of his called Masood was found dead in the back of a lorry at Dunkirk last week.

Any death of a child is a terrible tragedy, but in those circumstances I find it extraordinary—we are talking about people whom the Minister could get on a train and meet in an hour’s time. The reason why Masood wanted to come to the UK is because his nearest relative, his sister, was in the UK. However, the only way that he thought he could reach her and escape the terrible conditions in which he was living was to take the step that led to his untimely and tragic death. Those are the circumstances with which we are dealing. We cannot turn away and say that the situation is someone else’s responsibility. We have to play our part.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I apologise for my lateness, but a lot of people were leaving the previous debate and we had to wait outside.

I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for introducing the debate. No one could suggest that this is not an important subject. I have not visited Calais, but I have spoken at length about the conditions there to many of the people whom the hon. Gentleman has mentioned in his speech. For example, I have spoken to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who is in her place, and others as diverse as the Chief Rabbi and non-governmental organisations, so I feel familiar with this subject.

In the limited amount of time that we have, I would like to say that the Government are not standing idly by and doing nothing. The gist of one of the questions the hon. Gentleman asked really was, “Is it being left to the French on their own and what are the British Government doing?” My hon. Friend’s question also related to that. Therefore, rather than giving hon. Members a lecture about the migration crisis, which they are familiar with, given the limited time I will attempt to stick to the core subject.

A lot of what the UK is doing stems from work done together by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and her French counterpart, Monsieur Cazeneuve. As I am sure Members are aware, that led to a joint declaration. That was not just a political declaration; it set out a programme of achievements for the two Governments. It has led to significant improvements in security for example, which answers my hon. Friend’s question.

I understand that, from a security point of view—I will mention this before we skip on to the refugee side—the situation is very different from the middle of last year, with extensive fencing installed and infrared cameras on the way, so there are many different methods to detect people trying to get into this country. It is not perfect, but there has been a dramatic improvement. I want to ring-fence that security point, because while that is not the main purpose of the debate, the question was asked. I accept the worries that my hon. Friend’s constituents have, but a lot of work has been done on that and I could spend the whole 10 minutes talking about it.

On the core subject of what the joint agreement between the two countries has achieved, other than on security and the related subjects of challenging organised crime gangs, intelligence sharing and everything like that—I do not want to detract from the importance of that—I shall use the remaining time to talk about the refugee side of the agreement. What has actually happened? On the main effort—this answers the hon. Gentleman’s question about what money the UK Government are spending on refugees—I want to put on record that the efforts of the Department for International Development are predominantly in helping refugees in the areas around Syria. As people may be aware, in particular those who have read the International Development Committee’s report, which was ably referred to by the hon. Gentleman, we are spending £1.2 billion. Apart from the United States, we are the major provider of humanitarian resources in the areas adjacent to Syria, as I saw when I visited the region as the Minister for Syrian refugees.

To get back to Calais and the French situation, the UK has supported significantly—I believe to the tune of €750,000—a French NGO that operates for the most vulnerable people around the jungle camp. That work has involved the construction of a day centre away from the camp and facilities to take the most vulnerable people away from that site. That is coming to fruition now. The steering committee behind that is made up of UK and French officials and others, and it hopes to target the most vulnerable people—children, women and those who have suffered particularly—and remove them from that spot. Therefore, while I cannot say that that is a financial priority for DFID—after all, France is a high-income country with adequate resources of its own—it is trying to target financial efforts on vulnerable people. I know that some people are sceptical about whether that will work, but the strategy is serious.

I accept that the French Government have primary responsibility—if it were on UK soil, it would be the British Government—but the French are failing on this. I ask the Minister to ensure that his Government take a proactive stance. They do so, rightly, on security measures in terms of co-operation and they should do so on humanitarian measures. By setting an example on both the conditions in the camp and the resolution for the individuals there, they may encourage the French Government to do what they should be doing.

In answer to the point about the French failing, I cannot speak in complete defence of the French Government because the conditions are as they are, but—as the hon. Gentleman may be aware—they have pledged that people will not sleep under canvas this winter: large amounts of heated container-type accommodation, similar to what I saw in Jordan, is currently being installed.

The strategy is based on reducing the number of people at the jungle camp. According to the most recent report, which I received yesterday, there are about 4,000 people currently in the camp and it is expected that significant numbers will leave as a result of beefing up the French asylum programme and moving them to other centres throughout France, away from the Calais area. My information is that significant numbers of African refugees are taking up that choice and being relocated voluntarily.

I would love to take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but there is a very small amount of time left. I will happily talk to him outside the Chamber if I may.

It is an important point that the hope is to halve the number in the camp. In terms of specialist accommodation for children and other people, it is significant that the number of vulnerable people is in the hundreds and expected to increase. Given the scale of the problem, one may argue that that is just a small part, but the British Government are pushing the French Government on that. The joint declaration is a programme of work that is being monitored all the time.

This is not quite as simple as it sounds. The UK is not saying, “We wash our hands of it—it is not our problem.” We accept that people are going to Calais because they believe that they want to come to the UK. We have officials there who explain to people what life in the UK is like and that, actually, a lot of the reasons why they thought they could or should come to the UK are not valid in reality.

The French Government are being pushed by us to beef up their asylum programme. To take up the final question the hon. Gentleman asked about the family reunion side for children in particular, of course if those children can, under guidance, claim asylum, they can then apply through our family reunion scheme to come to this country. I believe that such requests through the normal channels for those with family in the UK would be looked at favourably. However, they must have it explained to them how to become asylum seekers in France. The French policy is to make them become asylum seekers in France, because they then get a whole lot of benefits and things that they otherwise would not.

This is a complicated subject that must be seen in the context of what the UK is doing overall. We are not the only country: there are all the countries in Europe and others who are trying to deal with the refugee situation. However, I am proud of what the Government have done. That does not mean that we can say, “Calais is nothing to do with us,” because, as everyone knows, it is only 22 miles away from parts of Kent.

The British and French Governments are working together well. I hope that what the French Government have said about reducing the number of people under canvas will happen shortly. I also hope that the enhanced security will work and that our money, through the French NGO, will really help those most vulnerable people.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.