They arrived at church one Sunday last month, slightly dazed looking, their inadequate clothing a sorry indication that the British weather had come as something of a shock. Our smells and bells high church Anglo-Catholicism was also new to them. But it was recognisably Christian, and this was what they were looking for. We offered them food and money. They declined. What they really wanted was a Bible in Farsi. And a new life away from Iran.
When their small boat left the continent the week before, the weather was relatively calm. But half way across the Channel the wind picked up and the crossing was terrifying, waves crashing over the side of the boat. I doubt their young daughter — seven perhaps — will ever forget it.
I’m not interested in arguing the toss about the rights and wrong of taking a young girl on so perilous a journey. Those of us who have safe and comfortable lives over here should listen more and talk less. The parents who turned up at my church were clearly fighting for their daughter’s future in the way they thought best, and that is a parent’s job. Stuff your politics if you disagree. Humanitarianism trumps politics.
Save the Children estimates that over 200,000 unaccompanied children have sought refuge in Europe over the last five years. Seven hundred of them perished at sea. These statistics are just so unspeakably appalling that I think we block out the full horror of them, unable or unwilling to comprehend.
While I cuddle up to my children in bed at night, other people’s children are on their own in the dark, frightened, in a boat bobbing about on the Med. Some of them die that way. It’s hard to think about it for long. But we must.
Many of those who survive the trip go missing. Lost in Europe, a collective of journalists, estimate that between 2018 and 2020 more than 18,000 unaccompanied refugee children have disappeared from state care in Europe. They came here, on their own, seeking a better life, escaping horrors back home. And thousands of them have now vanished from official records.
The picture painted by various NGO’s working in the field is horrendous. There are now more than 72,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece, Cyprus and the Balkans, including more than 22,500 children, according to Unicef. “They are unable to move forward, unwilling to go back to their home countries and struggling to fit into their host communities.”
These children, they say, are increasingly showing signs of deep psychological trauma. Those who are not herded into camps, sleep in doorways or under bridges. Some are taken in by people they hardly know — to God knows what fate.
At the same time, reports continue to emerge of the callousness and brutality being used by EU member states to deter refugees from seeking a new life in Europe. The Border Violence Monitoring Network’s annual report makes for horrendous reading. Stories of the use of un-muzzled attack dogs being used on migrants. Of migrants being stripped, their clothes set on fire, then being pushed back across the border, naked. Of people being detained in freezer trucks. The report describes “forms of violence and abuse that we assert amounts to torture or inhuman treatment”.
And the risks for those travelling to Europe by boats are worsening. Frontext — the EU’s increasingly expensive border force — has recently taken out a 100m euro contract with an Israeli military company for the purchase of drones to monitor migrants in European waters. Some see this as a clever way of keeping tabs on migrants without having the responsibility to save them from danger. Ships monitoring migrants have to rescue those who are at risk of drowning. Drones, conveniently, have no such ability — thus no responsibility.
Since the 2016 referendum, so much of the migration debate has been forced through the narrow weir of Brexit. And this has distorted things in at least two ways. First, it encourages Remainers not to hear a bad word about the EU, and its increasingly bad behaviour. And on the other side, it encourages the idea that leaving the EU has answered the migration issue, when it patently hasn’t. Our collective moral responsibility to these people is more properly basic than our membership, or otherwise, of some European political bloc.
Over the last few years, I’ve been involved in a crazily ambitious theatre project called The Walk. It involves a 3.5m puppet of a refugee girl, Little Amal, walking 8,000km from the Turkish/Syrian border, over to Greece, up through Europe, and eventually ending up in Manchester. It is planned that Little Amal will land in Europe in August, on the Greek island of Chios. Where, according to The Walk website “she hears a group of women singing to her. Music that meets her across the sea… as she takes her first steps in Europe, she is invited to take part in a momentous concert created by the local orchestra”.
The reality of Chios is very different. It is a place where, earlier this month, a young Somali man died alone in his tent and was then partially consumed by rats. Dr Apostolos Veizis, executive director in Greece of the international humanitarian organisation Intersos has described it as being “like a scene out of the middle ages”.
He went on: “Greek island camps are synonymous with overcrowding and inhuman conditions. People are exposed on a daily basis to rats, rubbish and violence. In clinics across the islands children are often admitted with signs of rat bites. You have to wonder if treating them like this is a deliberate policy choice of the European Union so that more don’t come.”
Perhaps it sounds a little grotesque, a puppet being feted with song whilst real people are being eaten by rats. But that is precisely its point. It exposes the vast distance between how we would like to treat people, and how we actually do. And we should all be shamed by it.
Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and rector at the south London church of St Mary’s, Newington
This article was first published by UnHerd
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