I wish I could offer a more upbeat account of my recent stay in Calais. Without a shadow of a doubt, the work being carried out by Help Refugees and Refugee Community Kitchen – amongst a handful of other critical organisations – is inspiring, incredibly heartwarming and a critical reason why almost 2,000 refugees who are currently sleeping rough in Northern France (Calais and Dunkirk) are managing to survive – especially in the bitter winter cold.
However, after returning to Calais with a mini-convoy during the first weekend of February in partnership with Voice of Salam and the newly-founded refugee and asylum-seeking organisation Under One Sky – which I’m proud to be a trustee for – I found myself filled with a sense of guilt, hopelessness and disappointment. I’d previously spent five days on a trip to Calais back in October 2018, so as I headed back to the familiar warehouse, I expected to feel a sense of home and excitement to be back in the fold of things, as well as being able to contribute in some (albeit a small) way to improving the lives of vulnerable refugees on the ground. Whilst this was definitely true as we set off in our van from Croydon and upon arrival, as time passed by, the hope slowly started to dim.
Now, I was prepared emotionally for the realisation of life on the ground as much as I could put myself in the shoes of those refugees in Calais. Of course, I could never possibly understand what life is like, as I’m not a refugee myself nor have I worked frontline other than taking part in a food distribution on my last visit to Calais. Several months earlier back in October, I experienced a glimpse of the harsh reality of life in Calais and Dunkirk, whilst volunteering to help as part of a nightly food distribution in Dunkirk offering a hot meal to Kurdish men, women and children on the ground. At that point, I was able to witness the reality of life on the ground and understand in the best way I could of the reality they were facing. Whilst I was somewhat emotional at the end of the night, I still held out hope. When I later got back to London, I started to reflect further and upon feeling somewhat glum at the situation, I realised that I needed to do more – to turn around the negativity I was feeling into something positive. It is from this starting point that the idea of the mini-convoy developed.
Yet, after the self-realisation of how costly running a convoy had been (almost £700 to go down with a van for two nights), my colleagues and I came to discuss the reality of the situation in Northern France. To date there has been very little political will to solve the situation. Whilst the UK government for example resettled a number of child refugees with family members in the UK back in 2016 as the “The Jungle” was being dismantled and has since pledged to resettle more (but not all!), it’s clearly not enough. Thanks to the Safe Passage programme run by the organisation Citizens UK, 1700 refugee children have arrived safely and legally in the UK from Europe through their own dedicated campaigning and legal casework. Their efforts are phenomenal and without the support of Safe Passage, who knows where these children would be now.
Meanwhile, having already dismantled “The Jungle” two and a half years ago, the French authorities have increased the numbers of camp evictions in the area causing “unprecedented hardship” for refugees in the area and are looking at the UK to help “solve the problem”. In fact, the UK government last year pledged to pay £44.5 million for extra security measures across the channel. All of these measures are designed to stop another “Jungle” (camp) forming and to “help relocate migrants…. to other parts of France.” Yet the fact is: people are risking their lives to reach the UK – a country where many hold linguistic, cultural, historical and family ties, as well as hopes of economic stability. These measures will not serve refugees in France (although nothing is changing any time fast). Over a thousand refugees – predominantly men but also including some women and children – are still sleeping rough, at risk of trench foot, with nowhere warm and safe to sleep and reliant upon food aid to survive one day to the next. Yes, this shocking reality is right on our doorstep.
On the ground in Calais, every day the Refugee Kitchen provides around 1,200 meals, day in day out, come rain or shine – regardless of how many volunteers are on hand – to support those in Calais and Dunkirk. Likewise, again and again, as each day passes and the volunteers and staff continue to work hard, no long-term sustainable solution to help these refugees on the ground is being reached. A wide range of EU States – including the British and French governments – are showing no real will to address the needs of the refugees. Despite the media scaremongering would leave you to believe, developing countries host 90% of the world’s refugees and in 2017, less than 3% of EU-based asylum applications were submitted in the UK. In fact, refugees make up just 0.24% of the UK population. Yes, we’re not being “overrun by refugees”! We need to do more. The UK needs to do more, France needs to do more and the EU as a whole, needs to do more and now. For those struggling in Calais, how long must they suffer for? How long must one hold out hope when you’ve crossed deserts, borders and seas to reach the dreary hub that is Calais? (And yes, Calais itself is pretty dreary!)
Reflecting on my most recent visit to Calais, what struck me the most was that upon entering French territory, not one check was made to search our van. Yet of course on the return our van was searched twice within the space of about 20 seconds. Whilst security is of course paramount, the difference between when we left the UK and when we were leaving French territory was stark. This was of course because refugees are literally risking their lives to come to the UK and leave French soil – not the other way around. The stark contrast was just too much. With not one check upon leaving the UK, it felt somewhat reactionary to go through not one but two security checks on the way back knowing that nothing of the sort was happening the other side. Rather than looking at the core problem, governments are putting their efforts into security measures alone.
Sitting in the van at the port in Calais, as much as I’d been advised by my colleagues to not delve into self-pity, I couldn’t help but feel this enormous sense of guilt and injustice which had start to build up inside me the day before after being at the warehouse. How could I not, given my commitment to equality, based on my belief that every human being deserves to be treated equally with the same right to safety and security that I benefit from day in day out? Yet, here we were, we’d come over to help for two days and now we were on the way back to the UK – a place where people are literally risking their lives to enter, where people risk suffocation being smuggled in the back of a van or face drowning crossing the bitterly cold rough Channel in boats not fit for any single human being.
The day before we’d visited the beach in Calais and were struck at how anyone could survive such a dangerous crossing. Now on the way home, my burgundy passport was a stark reminder of the different realities we were living. It had and continues to give me so much privilege – a document with which (in many cases) our entire lives are quite possibly planned out to some extent. Now, with said document, we were heading back to the UK and those back in Calais were stuck behind, left to face the reality of an ongoing uncertainty with nothing but hope to cling onto.
So, whilst the kitchen marches on, the warehouse battles on and good-willed volunteers continue to drop into the warehouse (with many having dedicated months – even years – of their lives to the cause): where lies the future? What will become of these young men and the families in Dunkirk and Calais? When will their resolution come?
You see, the problem isn’t that 2,000 people want to reach the UK, that 2,000 odd individuals in Northern France don’t have food to eat or clean, fresh clothes to wear and somewhere warm to sleep at night. No, the problem is that the world is inherently unequal. The problem is that in Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Somalia – the main countries of origin of the refugees in France – persecution is a reality if you’re Kurdish, poverty is a reality if you’re not an elite, military service is a reality if you’re young and for those who’ve fled their home country, injustice is a real reality. Let’s not be naïve here, no country is perfect and free of injustice, but to risk your lives to flee, to be left with nothing, says a lot.
So, let’s put everything into perspective: there are more than 2,000 people in need. What we are seeing are merely those who have fought tooth and nail to flee their homes and search for something better – for safety, security and for life. But what about the rest? What about those left behind? And again: what about France’s refugees? Where does their future lie? We can keep cooking, we can keep packing, we can keep sewing socks, chopping food and distributing aid but this won’t give them a home, this won’t give them permanent shelter, this won’t give them the safety and security they long for – and have in fact risked their lives for.
We have to ask: where does the future lie? The French authorities dismantled the so-called “Jungle” but they couldn’t sweep away the real problems at hand. Here we are in 2019 – several years later – and nothing much has changed. Indeed, the situation appears to be worsening with the rise of anti-refugee sentiment across Europe, including right here in the UK. Let’s not forget the terrible attack on a Syrian schoolboy here in the UK back in November 2018 with the UK being described as a “toxic environment” for refugees following the attack. The time is now. We need action, we need refuge to be given, we need to call these nations to account, we need to put human rights at the top of every agenda – we need to force governments to face up to the reality.
The refugee crisis is a problem that no government seems to willingly want to resolve and this must change. It’s been too long. Too much time has already passed. Too many lives have been lost and turned upside down and too many lives have been lost in the search of safety and security. If only as much effort were taken to stop the persecution, to improve the life-chances of those at risk and to provide a sense of hope as were taken in stopping people seeking refuge, to the building of walls, to the ramped-up enforcement of border controls and to the tearing down of tents for those left with nothing.
Only then would we perhaps see a sustainable solution. The question is: when will we put human rights first and our fears of refugees based on xenophobia whipped up by newspapers like The Daily Mail and The Sun last? We need to ask the UK and French governments: When will we put the needs of vulnerable refugees first and the colour of their passports last…?