Britain must once again become a great humanitarian nation

A few weeks ago I visited the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais to see first-hand the tragic situation right on our doorstep.

Television cannot capture the full desperation of the Calais camp. My visit met my worst fears: 5,500 people; 60% of them young men, and many children too, are living in miserable conditions in shanty towns resembling some of the worst parts of the Nairobi slums I visited last year; the difference being that in the ‘Jungle’ we were less than 2 hours from Central London.

We were spared from the deep mud that is commonplace at the camp, but only because Calais was so cold that the ground was frozen. However, the temperature didn’t change how the people there were living, many under nothing more than canvas and plastic sheets.

At night, I saw bleak and tense young faces huddled round fires. The night before we arrived, burning pallets were thrown over the British Government-funded razor-topped wire fences, onto the motorway, in an attempt to stop traffic and provide opportunities for refugees to board hindered vehicles. And in the days after my visit, 50 refugees attempted to storm the ‘Spirit of Britain’ ferry in Calais docks.

While I do not condone attempts to enter the UK illegally, these are the actions of desperate people in desperate situations and this is something that we need to address before more lives are lost; it should not be forgotten that these refugees are migrants by necessity, not by choice.

Similarly, we should not overlook the number of young children who are currently suffering in these conditions. Having escaped from the horrors of war, many having lost their families (either in the war or on the perilous journey to Europe), they find their way to the Calais camp where they are greeted with barbed wire and surrounded by desperation. As a liberal, I find this situation appalling.

The Government says that it recognises the importance of the early years of childhood development, and that it also recognises our humanitarian responsibility to those in need. Yet why then are the people most in need of our help – unaccompanied children who have escaped such terrible conditions – being left to grow up without the chance of a decent education and a stable home?

If we, as a country, believe in the ‘Rights of the Child’, we need to put these beliefs into action. Is it not time that the Government stop dehumanising the refugees in Europe, labelling them as a ‘bunch of migrants’, and instead showed compassion to those most in need of our help, whether in Syria or in Europe?

Britain was once a great humanitarian nation, a nation that rescued thousands of refugee children fleeing persecution during the ‘Kindertransport’ of the Second World War. We can be again – but only if the Government has the will to act.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • nigel hunter 16th Feb '16 - 10:34am

    The talk of bringing 3000 children to the country, how far has this got? 400 families have moved into the “ship container ” homes in Dunkirk, how about bringing these into the country. Some of the migrants have opened “cafes” in the camps They do not want to come to claim benefits they want to come to work and make something of their lives, denied to them at home. I know of a Turkish family that came and now own and run a dry cleaners paying taxes and therefore also benefiting the Landlord.

  • I respect, but completely disagree with your views on this. Resettlement and mass immigration into what quickly becomes disjointed and parallel societies is not a sustainable or viable solution for the world’s poor and disadvantaged billions. That’s the real “wedge” of which you’re are addressing the very ‘thin end”. It is dishonest to avoid the big issue and rely on sentiment dressed as humanitarianism. So many images and stories around the great westward migration of 2015 are dishonest and distorted that they now operate against the pro-migration argument. Your numbers imply that 40% are women and children – which is simply untrue by a factor of ten. I do not, however, doubt your good intent.

  • Thomas Shakespeare 16th Feb '16 - 12:16pm

    Cameron is scared of seeing Theresa May’s face when he announces that a few thousand refugees will come to our tolerant country. I get that, as much as I despise Cameron’s spineless so-called leadership on this issue. Why, then, doesn’t he offer aid to these desperate people in the dire camps? It’s all very well being the largest donor to Middle Eastern camps, but what about those in Dover? There are desperate human being suffering not 30 miles from Britain. Cameron needs to step up to the plate.

  • And what are you going to do about the millions who the EU are forecasting will arrive in 2016, 2017… ?

    Being ‘a great humanitarian nation” doesn’t mean you have to open your own home; remember the parable of the Good Samaritan…

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Feb '16 - 12:48pm

    I respect you and your work.I commend you for your visit.
    Unfortunately you do not mention two important factors .

    Firstly,most of these desperate people could and should have stayed in the first safe country they got to.I do not condemn them for heading to other countries , I admire their determination, but it should never have happened.It is through smugglers and exploitation , many have got to where they are.

    secondly, you do not mention the French authorities at all. You were in France .This is a glaring absence of criticism.Or of support.If the French are failing , mention it , level criticism there too.If they are trying their best , please say so .

    Many of us , who , members all ,of a Liberal and Democratic party , feel as angry and concerned about this crisis.But we believe that we are , even from our own party stalwarts , not getting a really full picture.Why can you only condemn Cameron , and not the , from what I have seen , lousy attitude of the Mayor of Calais etc ?

    I think a complex situation needs a degree of nuance .Can we have more.Yet , at the same time , I applaud you on the issue of the children.If they are orphans , or completely separated from adults , something must be done .It is indeed welcome that voices in Britain are calling for us to do more.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Feb '16 - 1:27pm

    I’m fine with this as long as we still use our military to support people like the Kurds who are staying to fight.

    I’m not voting for a party that abandons soldiers and simply welcomes refugees with open arms. We should support both. Thankfully, Tim Farron does.

  • I agree with Lorenzo.

  • Conor Clarke 16th Feb '16 - 1:43pm

    If we really cared about these people we would have done more to prevent their country being ripped apart in the first place.

    We can’t be genuine in our humanitarianism at the same time as we wash our hands of atrocities in far off places.

    What we’re seeing in these camps is a vivid illustration of the internal contradiction of non-intervention on humanitarian grounds.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Feb '16 - 2:04pm

    Eddie common sense as ever , indeed
    Conor,you make a good point but after the Iraq war , alas the fiasco rightly makes people wary as you saw on Tim and his , I believe, principled stand on Syria, this time , favouring military support, but previously not wanting to intervene.That sort of reflection is the sort of nuance I admire , even everyone opposed to a decision needs to look at the motives too.It is why I respect Mark and others above.

    These situations relating to war and its results , are difficult ones .In our call for greater humanitarianism , we must be clearer in our desire for greater evidence.We do not always know enough .The search for meaning and where that leads is what we need.It is not black and white.Te late , great , actor and ambassador , and Liberal , Sir Peter Ustinov, tried to point out that gray is a colour, not to be overlooked.

    We have lost a great humanitarian in Lord Avebury.A thoughtful man.A man of action too.

  • orenzo Cherin 16th Feb ’16 – 12:48pm………………Firstly,most of these desperate people could and should have stayed in the first safe country they got to.I do not condemn them for heading to other countries , I admire their determination, but it should never have happened.It is through smugglers and exploitation , many have got to where they are………

    That would mean hundreds of thousands in Greece; do you really expect Greece to take such numbers whilst the rest of Europe “Did a Dave”?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Feb '16 - 3:00pm


    Good point.No I do not expect any such thing , and I am strongly critical of Cameron.However, until there is a proper shared responsibility , and the EU has failed so far on that , it is better , for the safety of those involved as much or more than other reasons , that refugees or migrants do not trek across a continent.

    It is sad and wrong that other countries have allowed this traffic , and , in France , a more heavy handed country when it wants to be internally, certainly more than the British ,with a very , shall we say , dynamic sense of state authority, they could insist the Calais camp be closed , all its residents housed properly , or liasing with the other countries to deport people to either proper refugee camps in co operation with the other countries in Europe or elsewhere,or , if they have been found to not be refugees , to the country of origin.They have a greater responsibility for this mess than we do , we do not border any of the countries , and are not the nearest for travel on boats. No ours is a moral responsibility to our fellow human beings .It is not a guilt trip , nor should it be .

    Lord Ashdown , yes, Paddy our man , has , right at the beginning of all this , called for an effort to destroy the boats of migrants , when empty , to avoid the human trafficking.Some are more than evidence based in their Liberal views , they are robust!Whatever we believe we must have a shared imput , not a hand ringing or guilt tripping , we are not Assad . We are not ISIS.Nor is Cameron.We must not forget that .

  • The government is not prepared to support the vulnerable British, anyone offering a home to the homeless already on our streets? They are also living in appalling conditions. Do we throw a family out of their house into a hostel for having too many bedrooms and usher a migrant family in? You wonder why people are losing their compassion?

  • jedibeeftrix 16th Feb '16 - 7:54pm

    we [are] a great humanitarian nation as individuals:

    this quite aside from the ~£12b we give through taxation.

  • Anne,
    I sort of agree.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Feb '16 - 11:14pm

    Thank you very much to Phyllis

    Not sure it is quite like that , not a choice of us and them . We should have compassion in all of our individual selves and in every nation , for any suffering person or peoples.At home or abroad.But we cannot do anything properly without a holistic approach , and that means having more information and probing for the reality of the situation.

  • No one is being forced to live in the squalor of Calais and Dunkirk. They have and had the options to apply for asylum in France and the other countries that they have crossed en route to the French coast. We should not infantilise them in this way.

    The harsh reality is the voters of Europe don’t want these refugees, and for good reasons. Refugee implies that the refugees will leave when the situation stabalises. That isn’t going to happen, even if all the migrants were fleeing warzones, which they are not. Migration will not end when the war in Syria ends.

    So before we take in millions of people permanently, we need to know where we are going to house them, find employment, provide services. How a country which has limited water and farmland will provide for millions of extra people for the next decades and decades to come.

    Oh then there is integration. It would be nice if in 30 years time we had mixed families with muslim and non-muslim members. If muslim girls could date who they like, have sex outside marriage if they want, be gay, change their religion and their families be OK with that. it would be nice if people in the future could draw cartoons about Islam without needing police protection, but that isn’t going to happen.

    You see it isn’t about what happens next week or next month, but the Europe we leave for future generations. Previous Muslim immigration has been a failure, virtually no integration, a community living in a separate world.

    We should fund camps near Syria, but we should not encourage people to come to Europe. The camp outside Calais is illegal, it should be removed. Those in the camp who wish to stay need to make their case to the French government and apply for asylum there.

  • Catherine Royce 19th Feb '16 - 9:22am

    What happened to our international obligations to protect children from harm? We should make a bilateral agreement with the French immediately to remove all unaccompanied children from the camps to a place of safety where they can be quickly processed and meanwhile put back into school. Many will have members of their extended families here in the UK or other EU countries and there are many families in the UK ( and elsewhere) willing to adopt them. It is an outrage that they are being left in camps in the company of many desperate young men, we can be sure many are being trafficked and sexually abused. This is very urgent and I really hope Tim Farron can focus on using his influence to come up with a speedy solution for them. Lots of MPs and worthy others visit the camps but nothing happens!

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