Donald Trump's zero-tolerance immigration policy and the chaos it has, and still is, creating on the US-Mexico border continues to dominate the news this week. Accounts of families being torn apart and children kept in cages seem a step too far even for many Trump supporters and the reaction – from ordinary people and celebrities alike – has been visceral.
There were similar protestations closer to home when footage emerged from the sprawling Calais 'Jungle'. According to a July 2016 census by Help Refugees, the camp was populated by 7,307 migrants. Of those, 761 were minors. Yet since the sprawling camp was demolished in late 2016, the Jungle and those who lived there have slipped from public consciousness.
One female filmmaker is determined not to let what befell hundreds of migrant children who found themselves in Calais through no choice of their own to be forgotten and ignored.
When Sue Clayton first visited the Calais refugee camp in October 2016, as a consultant for ITV and Channel 4 News, she was "deeply shocked" by what she saw. "Hundreds, even thousands of lone children and young people, living in a chaotic and dangerous camp. They were in dirty ripped tents and lean-tos, subject to violence, predators and nightly attacks from armed police."
Clayton wanted to know who they were and how much longer they could survive such a dangerous and transitory situation. Moved to action, she "cancelled everything" in her life, booked into a cheap B&B in Calais, and began crowdfunding to film what was going on.
Jamal, a tiny kid, was making reckless attempts at night to get onto the road to the UK and has seen other kids badly injured. Sara worried that it’s not safe for her and other girls.
Within three days she had enough funding to get a crew there. Both Clayton and the crew became very involved with the young people in the camp. "Yemane from Eritrea missed his mum. Jamal, a tiny kid, was making reckless attempts at night to get onto the road to the UK and has seen other kids badly injured. Sara worried that it’s not safe for her and other girls… It’s hard to forget their stories and their faces," she explains.
She recalls visiting the cemetery in Calais too and "seeing the rows of unmarked graves, graves just with numbers on them: these are all the young people who died trying to get on trucks and lorries just to get somewhere safe."
It wasn't just the plight of the young people living in destitution that horrified Clayton. She learned that many of the children had the legal right to be safe in the UK. "I got a team of human rights lawyers to the Jungle as I believed the unaccompanied kids there had a legal case to be in the UK," Clayton says.
What happened to them next is a shameful indictment of the UK’s human rights record, as the young people suffered delays, denials and dismissal from the UK government, and were finally left abandoned in France with no support at all.
The film, Calais Children: A Case To Answer poses a direct question to the UK government which promised to help protect the children who had lived for years with disease, squalor and hopelessness in the camp. Why did those in the most desperate need, with legal rights to live in the UK, not get the help they needed?
Using the film as evidence, Clayton brought a challenge against the government for failing to meet the terms of the Dubs Amendment, which enshrined in law the relocation of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries to the UK but which the government closed in February 2017.
Toufique Hossain, a public law solicitor says: "For the children, this was not just a law, this for them was a promise, a promise that the UK government broke."
"We have since sued the Home Office in the High Court with the film as evidence," Clayton tells Refinery29 UK.
We visit the cemetery in Calais and see graves just with numbers on them: all the young people who died trying to get on trucks and lorries just to get somewhere safe.
The high court is yet to rule but Clayton points out the film, which has been shown 140 times and counting, is getting people to sit up and take notice. "Someone is currently doing the six-week Camino de Santiago pilgrim walk to raise money for the film. Others responded with a plan to turn containers into welfare centres and chill-out zones for the long-term volunteers still in Europe who are all starting to burn out. So it's like we lit a torch for those kids..."
Clayton was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, and comes from a "normal working class background". "My dad was an orphan so I always felt drawn to people who had no one, and wanted to be part of a family. Luckily for me now, two of the kids from Calais that did get here are fostered with a family just 20 miles from Newcastle, and I love being able to help integrate them, and share my family there."
The documentary was dangerous to film, she says. The CRS (French riot police) attacked the Jungle most nights with tear gas, charging in and using their weapons. "In the dark with no NGOs or officials there, a camp of 10,000 threatened people is not safe for anyone, be it the kids or even us as crew. I was attacked twice, and I often felt unsafe."
The resulting film is hard to watch. "I don't make films that are voyeuristic and just putting people’s pain up there for the sake of having an effect," she says. "What I hope is that people see the film and see these are just ordinary young teenage kids who didn't choose to make the journey. They miss their families hugely, and try to survive day by day the best they can, hoping that someone will hear them and take care of them, and not abuse or hurt them. It doesn’t seem a lot to ask, does it? Mainly what I hope people feel at the end is rage, which is what I felt. Rage that the UK government think creating a 'hostile environment' is an acceptable policy."
As a woman who has been making films for 30 years, Clayton has a message for activists who have a story to tell. "Get a good team around you. I spent a lot of time in the Jungle wishing my (mostly male) crew would protect me, and I'm sure they would have done, but I was too embarrassed to ask, in case they saw me as weak. It annoyed me that women are in that position in the first place. I heard of a scheme where some architecture students went to help build housing in the Jungle, and one woman was attacked. After that, the architecture school simply refused to allow their women students to go and help. This is the sort of contradiction that women are often in."