Heading north on the M1 on the long traffic-clogged slog from Brighton to Leicester, on a dark December Friday evening, I’m stuck in a monster tail back behind lorries and commuters fleeing London, writes Suzanne Harrington
Desperate for a pee. Gagging for a coffee.
Fed up of the cold and dark, head full of annoying things like Aldi having sold out of their cut price Christmas trees and whether there’s an LPG station en route because my camper van is running low on gas and how late I’m going to be for dinner and where can I charge my phone and if I hear one more fucking Christmas jingle I might kill someone.
Pulling into a service station, I pass four brown teenagers with their hoods up, hunched outside the warmth of services’ stip lit interior. They’re still there when I come back. There’s something about the way they’re huddling – are they selling each other weed, like normal teenagers?
No. They’re huddled over a Marks & Spencer white sliced loaf and a litre of milk. They are sharing the bread and milk, shovelling it in.
They look about the same age as my 15-year-old son, but thinner. There is something about them. Something scared, guarded. I don’t normally interfere with teenagers, but these kids have none of the usual swagger. I ask them if they are ok. They nod, but I persist. Eventually, they point to the truck stop.
They have just arrived from Calais, in the back of one of the trucks. They are 16-year-old Eritreans. They are cold and hungry and want to get to London and don’t know where they are, or what to do next. They have been in Calais for months, living rough. I think of my own teenage son, whose idea of catastrophe is running out of Lynx.
In Eritrea, there is unlimited national conscription. Basically, you are forced into the army, and cannot leave until you are 50 or dead, whichever happens first.
Earlier this year, three separate underage Eritrean boys killed themselves after reaching the UK without their parents; profoundly vulnerable, they were treated like adult criminals instead of child refugees.
The four boys at the service station have no idea where they are. They are like lost deer.
I point to my van and offer to drive them to the nearest train station; they eye my dog warily, and drain the bottle of water I offer them. The train station is small and rural, its ticket office closed. They are so polite and appreciative, refusing offers of food, yet radiating anxiety; I feel sick leaving them in the middle of nowhere, on this desolate night, on a deserted railway platform. What will they do in London? What will happen to them? They’re just kids. I remind myself they have made it all the way from Eritrea.
How much more resilience will they need?
I continue my journey north, not caring about stupid Christmas jingles anymore. Wanting to hug my son.