On Friday morning at 5.30am I joined Canon Pat Browne and Alcinda Verissima, from Holy Apostles Catholic Church, Pimlico, and Fr Dominic Robinson from Farm Street Church, Mayfair, six Rabbis, one Anglican Bishop, three Baptist Ministers and one Islamic Chair of a Mosque - 22 of us altogether - on a day trip to 'The Jungle', the temporary refugee city in Calais. Around 10,000 people currently live there. They have fled war and persecution in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan, and Albania. It was an emotional, unforgettable experience.
Living conditions are bleak. The Jungle is built on a toxic waste dump. It is surrounded by six successive fences topped with barbed wire. Sanitation is a woefully inadequate. Gangs are extremely violent and prey upon the young. It is no way to live.
During our time there, we met children (some as young as eight years old) who had travelled to Calais unaccompanied. They were delightful young people who share the same interests and ambitions as any other children we may know.
One particular experience that sticks with me was meeting an Eritrean teenager who had fled through South Sudan, been captured (and escaped from) Daesh, before making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. However, all he wanted to talk about was football. Children like this are simply looking for a deservedly normal life, free from fear.
There are currently around 700 under-18s living in The Jungle. The UK government is legally obliged to accept children who are seeking asylum and are stuck in Calais. This is true both for those who have relatives in the UK (under the Dublin 3 legislation), and those who do not, but arrived in Calais before March 20th 2016 (under the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act). 325 children are eligible for transfer to the UK under these laws.
Citizens UK are currently working with Safe Passage UK to process these children's applications. Within the last year only 50 children have been accepted to be reunited with their relatives in the UK. This is progress, but it is too slow. Each child's application is extremely laborious, with only four ad hoc administrators working in The Jungle gathering the information required.
While we were in Calais, we handed in letters giving the names of the children who legally can come to Britain under the Dubs and Dublin legislation, asking the mayor, the immigration authority and the police in Calais to speed up processing these children. Living in The Jungle is unsafe for children. There have been five alleged murders in there THIS WEEK. It seems the governments are worried if we help these ones, others may come. So? Let them live in danger instead? If this is the approach of the French and British Governments, it makes a mockery of all the safeguarding legislation we have got in these countries.
This issue is all the more pressing as Calais authorities have committed to removing The Jungle entirely in the next few months. If these children are moved on and disappear, their welfare is at grave risk.
I therefore invite you all to attend Citizen UK's next action, on 2nd September, which is pressuring the Home Office to receive the names of the 325 children who are eligible for transfer to the UK under the law. It begins at 10am at the Home Office, Marsham Street, for one hour. Please contact Robbie on firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information, and better still if you can attend.
Why next Friday? On that day it will be one year since the body of Ayan Kurdi the little boy who was washed up on the beach in Greece. We must not stand idly by doing nothing as children's lives continue to be at risk.