Cardinal Vincent Nichols spoke out in front of the Prime Minister on Wednesday night to urge the Government to take action to help refugee children stuck in the jungle camp in Calais.
Speaking at a service in Westminster Abbey to mark the UK’s commitment to combat modern slavery and to commemorate the work of William Wilberforce, the Archbishop of Westminster said: “Little children are at risk in refugee camps including Calais. I hope our government and the government of France will improve the effectiveness of asylum procedures for those who have a right to be here.”
Four months ago, the UK promised to rescue hundreds of children stranded without parents in the squalid Calais camp, following an intervention by Lord Dubs, the veteran of Kindertransport - the nickname for the operation to bring thousands of refugee Jewish children to the UK from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1940. Dubs introduced an amendment to the Immigration Act, but with the French due to demolish the Calais camp within days, time is running out. Charities working at the camp and with displaced people fear that vulnerable refugees can end up prey to organizers of modern slavery.
The Westminster Abbey service was held on the same day that the UK’s anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, launched his first annual report, highlighting that there are problems with the recording of criminal activities linked to modern slavery and human trafficking.
The prime minister, Theresa May, told the congregation that the UK would lead the global fight against human trafficking and that it would combat modern slavery. Speaking at the abbey in front of a congregation including the home secretary, Amber Rudd, Hyland and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the PM said: “Our challenge is to ensure that the fight against slavery carries on – to free people from the bonds of servitude, to free those in metal chains and to free people from the clutches of slave-drivers and traffickers.”
“My message to the criminals is this: we are coming to get you.”
May, who as Home Secretary oversaw the first Modern Slavery Act, also pledged that £33 million from the overseas aid budget will be used to combat slavery and trafficking.
Cardinal Nichols also spoke of the next gathering in Rome in a fortnight’s time of the Santa Marta Group, set up by Pope Francis in 2014, as an initiative to help the victims of trafficking. At that first meeting, attended by May, police chiefs from more than 20 countries committed to working with the Catholic Church to combat human trafficking. “The Catholic Church is mobilizing its resources in this struggle,” said Nichols.
Also at the Abbey service, Princess Eugenie of York laid a wreath on the grave of William Wilberforce, who fought in the 18th century to have slaves freed in the British Empire.
Catherine Pepinster is the editor of The Tablet