Refugees – have we forgotten the crisis in Calais?
The Calais’ continuing refugee crisis may not make daily headlines now that its ‘Jungle’ camp has gone, but for over a thousand refugees stranded at the French port city, life is still a daily struggle.
The reason that I want to bring attention to this humanitarian crisis is that I went with my husband and son to see the inspirational theatrical production of The Jungle at The Playhouse, Northumberland Avenue, London. I will be reviewing this play in another post. Having watched the play and knowing that my son is going out to be a volunteer in the refugee camps in Calais in October I decided I needed to find out what was happening in Calais.
The ‘Jungle’ refugee camp
The Jungle Refugee camp has gone, but the border at Calais remains a fortress. Fences standing five metres high, topped with razor wire, run alongside the train tracks and the approaching motorways. The port is guarded by armed police.
We all know what happened in October 2016 when the refugee crisis in the ‘Jungle’ came to a head and 6,500 refugees had their temporary homes dismantled by French authorities. Thousands were bussed to immigration centres around France whilst 350 unaccompanied children came to the UK under the ‘Dubs amendment’ scheme. The UK has since pulled out of this scheme having provided homes to only a fraction of the 3000 children that needed help.
Today, according to figures from charity Help Refugees, (click HERE to go to website) there are still close to 1,500 refugees living in the forests of northern France and the French and British governments have combined forces to prevent them from crossing the channel. In January, Theresa May agreed to pay France £44.5m to continue policing the border. Is this money well spent? Surely something more positive can be done with this money. These refugees cannot go home. Rather than throw good money at the refugee crisis in order to stop them coming to the UK, can we think of something to sort the crisis out long term? Let’s face it Brexit is going to make the situation worse as we take back control of our borders. Meanwhile the continued wars and persecution of certain groups of people in countries such as Syria, Sudan, Afghan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Chad, Cameroon, and Kurds everywhere is not going to suddenly stop.
The rest of the world needs to address the problems at the source. I am sure most of the refugees would prefer to live peacefully in their country of birth with their families and friends.
The French government
The French government is adamant that it won’t let another ‘Jungle’ develop. In January, President Macron visited Calais. In a speech to police, he said: ‘There will be no reconstruction of the ‘Jungle’ or tolerance of illegal settlements in or around Calais. To stay in Calais and build makeshift shelters and even set up squats is a dead end. The alternative is clear. People can get to the reception centres where everyone’s case will be examined and those who have the right, given asylum in our country.’
The speech was an indication of the direction to be taken by France’s new immigration policy, which passed in April. The policy takes a harder-line than its predecessor and has shortened the deadlines for filing asylum applications and doubled the time for which illegal migrants can be detained. Macron’s no-tolerance approach in Calais echoes previous moves by the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart who, in March 2017, banned the distribution of food to refugees (the move was later overturned by a French court).
On a different note, Macron warned police to act appropriately when dealing with refugees. A few months before his visit, a report released by the French administration and security forces’ internal investigations department pointed to excessive use of force by police against refugees in Calais, including against children. The report found that the police had used chemical sprays on sleeping individuals and had repeatedly confiscated sleeping bags, clothes and blankets.
There are numerous health problems. In the winter there is a high risk of hypothermia and there are outbreaks of scabies. Many aid workers report mental health problems as well. Whilst these people are making the often impossible and dangerous journey they are filled with hope and they have a purpose. However when they get stuck in Calais they slowly lose hope during the following months.
They want to come to the UK because for many it is to do with the familiar language and many have friends and family in England. Seeking asylum is complicated and is certainly risky. In 2017, France received 100,412 asylum applications and rejected 73 per cent of them. Its new immigration policy looks set to make the process even harder.
What are the UK government doing to solve this situation?
Apart from the £44.5 million given by our government to help police the refugees I can find no other evidence of any even suggested solutions. David Cameron’s promise to take 20,000 Syrian refugees in 2015. This came about after the picture of Alan Kurdi’s body lying dead on a Turkish beach. This was the catalyst for the groundswell of public opinion which demanded David Cameron’s Government act. Needless to say the UK has not taken even 5% of this promised quota. Germany and France have far taken far more than us. If you say that is because they are larger countries than the UK then look at Sweden.
Sweden took 163,000 applications for asylum in 2016, most of them refugees who travelled to Europe on their own accord. This is despite Sweden having a population almost seven times smaller than Britain’s.
Clare Mosley, founder of the charity Care4Calais, is skeptical that current tactics, which she thinks are deployed to deter refugees, will ever work. “It all comes down to this idea that the French and British governments have, that if they make it unpleasant enough, the refugees will stop coming. It’s the idea of ‘pull factors’. To me it’s completely counter-intuitive, because the push factors are so strong. The things they’re running away from are so big that how can the things they’re running to be more important?”
How can we help?
- Donate goods: if you have spare clothes, bedding and other items at home, they can make a real difference to a refugee’s life in Calais. Click HERE to find out how to get these goods to Calais.
- Volunteer: if you know someone who would like to volunteer in the UK or Europe click HERE.
- Be a host: Thousands of refugees are currently destitute in the UK. House one of them for a week or a month. Click HERE to find out more.
- Donate: finally you can always give money to support the volunteers vital work. Click HERE to donate to Help for Refugees.
Here is the story of one refugee:
My name is Magal, I am from Iran and I love my country. I have it’s history tattooed on my spine. I grew up in a normal house, I went to primary school and secondary school. I studied architecture and civil engineering and decided to be a civil engineer and build beautiful structures for my country.
When the economy became bad in Iran and the government was not helping the people I joined in mass protests like you do in a democracy. We wanted a new government. We were young and thought we could bring peaceful change. But we were wrong.
So many people died or were badly beaten. Me and my friends were rounded up from CCTV footage and put in prison and tortured, starved and humiliated. I was only in jail for three days but my friend here was there for eight months, you can see his torture scars, here here and here. It was very bad.
They let me go home but my sentence was execution, they said “don’t worry we will come for you”. So my family decided I had to leave. Really I did not want to but my mother cried and screamed she could not lose her son. So began the long journey to France and hopefully now the UK.
But now I have heard they have taken my father in my place and have threatened to kill him instead of me. I want to go back but I cannot, I know if I return they will kill both of us. I miss my family of course but maybe if I am successful one day they can join me.
The pain inside does not go away. I have heard in the UK they need engineers to work there. I am hoping I can work at my job and build something to be proud of. The bruises on my neck? That is nothing, that is just Calais police.
Theresa May once said, when she was Home Secretary, ““If we are really going to stop the people putting their lives in danger by crossing the Med, we need to stop them starting their journey in the first place.”
Has she or anyone else in the UK government done anything about this?