Thursday 22 December 2016

Tidings of goodwill

It has been a bumpy ride, this run-up to Christmas. My children are excited to be on holiday and the house is filled with light and festive paraphernalia, but outside our cosy bubble there are so many tragic events blighting the world. Guilt is my primary emotion. How have I, and everyone I love, been granted such good fortune?

Refugees in southwest France
Val (centre) with asylum seekers and other volunteers
Even as I write, parents of a friend (Sam Jonkers of Henley's Jonkers Rare Books) have been visiting child refugees at a reception centre in Realville, southwest France. Val and Malcolm Johnstone retired to France some years ago and have been hosting older refugees at their home near Toulouse. The kids in the reception centre recently learnt that their asylum applications to join family in the UK had been turned down. It is a case of hopes dashed after months of suffering and hardship.

"The children are distraught, already weak from their time in Calais and on the road," says Val. "They began a hunger strike to highlight their plight." She visited them yesterday to boost morale and encourage the children to start eating again. Nevertheless, two of these young people, aged between 14 and 17 years old, have since been hospitalised.

According to The Guardian earlier this month, the government has now ended the transfer of children from reception centres in France, some of whom were previously in the camps at Calais. Those who have been turned down by the UK will be given advice on how to lodge their applications in France.

A change of plan

Last month, I received a letter myself from Robert Goodwill, Minister of State for Immigration, in response to my own plea to local MP, John Howell, to help the child refugees.

"We have made absolutely clear our commitment to bring unaccompanied children who had been resident in Calais to the UK," said Mr Goodwill in his letter dated 25 November, "and we continue to work closely with the French Government and other partners to ensure children who may be eligible can be identified and transferred as soon as possible." 

This was only weeks before the government apparently changed tack and closed the door to any new child asylum seekers. I am aware that 750 children have been brought to the UK under the Dublin regulation, but there are so many more youngsters out there who still need our support.

As I watch footage of Aleppo being slowly razed to the ground and more refugees flooding out of the region, I feel powerless to help. It would be easy to become disheartened in the face of such brutality, but for every battle-hardened soldier and terrorist plying their awful trade in death and destruction, there are kind, decent folk like Val and Malcolm. By their actions, they have shown how we should never let fear or indifference rob us of our humanity.

Happy Christmas everyone and thank you for reading!

If you would like to help the young asylum seekers in Realville, France, you could visit Help and Hope. Any money raised via this local charity goes straight to the children for essentials, medical aid, emergency dentistry, hygiene etc.

As Sam Jonkers says, "It is a very personal way to help, as we can see the effect of our donations on the kids... at present I am hoping our caring might encourage these kids not to give up hope."

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