The situation of refugees in Calais is a tragedy, a miserable story of human suffering that has no place in the UK or France, writes Kim Bryan, humanitarian volunteer with Utopia 56
Last week, Emannuel Marcon and Theresa May agreed an extra 44 million towards on top of the existing 68 million to secure the Calais border.
In practice this means our taxes going towards building more fences, increasing CCTV and detection technologies and the continued beatings, use of tear, pepper spray and horrific treatment of those seeking safety suffer,
It is time to end this Manufactured Catastrophe
As I arrived in Calais in December 2017, my Facebook feed was full of people at home celebrating the snow, tobogganing down hills, building snow people and enjoying the unexpected delight of winter wonderlands. Temperatures across Europe had plummeted and Calais and Dunkirk, where I had just arrived, were no different: harsh northerly winds battered the towns relentlessly accompanied by driving rain, sleet and snow.
I was volunteering with Utopia 56 which organises the distribution of food, clothes, blankets and other essential items to refugees who have become temporary desperate residents in the Calais area. As a volunteer you take part in organising and sorting donations in the warehouse and then going out within a small team for distribution of food, warm tea and other essential items to different groups of people seeking safety. Utopia 56 are an inclusive, diverse and inspirational organisation to work with and that across France.
It’s freezing as we begin serving warm spiced rice onto paper plates and the relentless wind rips around us. We are trying hard to stop the van doors from slamming into the flimsy table where we serve the food. It’s an endless battle and highlights how hard providing front line support without better permanent resources in the field can be. I am working with two other people in a derelict muddy wasteland near the motorway. It’s dark and the food queue forms quickly, I watch trembling hands trying to hold their plates, the usual smiles replaced with grimaces and set by red, watery eyes.
We are waiting for cars to turn up to try and take people to temporary shelters or hospital, there is a number of people with hypothermia . One vehicle arrived to take four young Afghani men who had been beaten and pepper sprayed by the police for taking shelter under a bridge in the icy rain.
Earlier, on during the coldest day of the year in Calais and Dunkirk since last winter, the CRS ( French riot police) threw tear gas into the ‘New Jungle’, dispersing people while a council truck drove off with the sleeping bags and tents and took them to a dump. One of the volunteers I am working with took a video of it, before he was stopped from doing so by the police.
There is a law in France called the Cold Weather Law: If the temperature has been below 0 degrees for longer than 24 hours, the authorities have to provide emergency shelter. The prefecture of Calais has said they will open temporary accommodation for people and after considerable pressure they do so. A network of grassroots organisation operating through a newly created Whatsapp group put a shout-out for people with cars to shuttle people around to the temporary accommodation. There is space for 200 people but there are many more displaced people in Calais than that.
Immediately the cars of volunteers go into action, driving around the wastelands, motorways bridges and underpasses of Calais to collect people and offer to take them to the point where they can get accommodation. When they pull up to the bus stop to transport people to the centre, a fight breaks out between the Eritreans and the Afghanis. The French riot police arrive quickly, swinging their batons around. More people pour out of the woods nearby, tensions escalate. It is bitterly cold and people are desperate.
We do what we can and drive back to our accommodation. People sit round nursing a beer, shaking their heads. No one is surprised but still everyone is shocked. “Calais, it’s always fucking shit.” said my caravan mate, a 22 year old who has been working in here for the last 2 months, “but this, what do they want to happen, they all die?”
The Refugee Community Kitchen based out of the Auberge de Migrants cook around 2,750 meals a day. It is the only number there is to go on as estimates fluctuate wildly. The refugee population is mainly Eritrean, Afghani, Kurdish with fewer numbers of Syrian, Iraqi and Sudanese. There are families, young children, unaccompanied minors and young men who have travelled across the world, stuck on their journeys. Everyone has someone they want to reach in the UK – They are someone’s brother, husband, son, uncle, friend – someone is there waiting for them to cross.
Many of those traveling from the African continent have been in Libya and experienced appalling brutality. Since the EU started paying Libya to stop sea crossings and contain people in Libya, there has been an almost 50% drop in migration and the reality is grim. Human trafficking, serious human rights abuses and violations including arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, and sexual exploitation and abuse are rife.
Badr, from Sudan has been travelling for 2 years. He has bountiful energy, a huge smile. The wind is howling round us, he has been trying to peg down a scrap of tarpaulin for him and his friend use to keep the rain off them. Tonight he says he will be lucky,
“ because it’s so cold, not many people will try, tonight I will cross.” He tells me that he was in Libya for one year, his eyes cloud over, “very bad “he says “very bad, beating all the time, but I have money. I pay, I can leave.”
The reality of the movement of people travelling from South to North is that if you have money, you can move, pay the smuggler, and make the journey. If you haven’t, you get stuck somewhere, behind one of the many fences that have been erected to defend Europe, or the wrong side of the sea.
‘There’s an immigration crisis!’screams our media; the right wing press depict hordes of benefit-scrounging, baby-eating, terrorists attempting to enter Britain. The left wing press, whilst more balanced, still can’t but help itself feed the crisis narrative.
Crisis is a time of intense difficulty and danger, it is unexpected chaotic, unmanageable and unpredictable, there is nothing spontaneous and unexpected about the freezing, beaten people in the North of France. Migration to the North of France has been going on for years and will continue to go on. This is a deliberately manufactured catastrophe that plays into the chaos narrative used to justify the appalling treatment of those seeking safety.
Whilst the EU is still squabbling over quotas, we in the UK have allowed our government to implement a brutal system that exacerbates the hostile environment promised by Theresa May. In 2002 the Sangatte refugee camp in Calais was dismantled, giving rise to the first of many ‘jungles’, they were tolerated. In 2003, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac signed the Le Toquet agreement that sees Britain paying £68 million a year for security in the North of France. That money, that we pay as British taxpayers, does not go to creating a humanitarian environment in which people seeking safety are treated with dignity. It goes to policing the border and transporting the hostile environment created by the British government in the UK and unleashing it with calculated cruelty in the North of France.
Long-term solutions to this that don’t play into the crisis narrative are possible. Europe, and all of its member states, need to understand, listen and communicate the evidence about why people are on the move in such large numbers. Policy solutions need to be devised which tackle the reasons for migration rather than expending huge resources and political energy on keeping people out. It’s not working.
In October 2016, at the cost of 36 million to the British taxpayer, the jungle in Calais was cleared, any attempts to recreate camps are quickly shut down by police, with sleeping bags and tents confiscated approximately every 2-3 days. The legal La Liniere refugee camp near Dunkirk provided sanctuary for thousands. It burnt down in mysterious circumstances in April 2017 ( at no cost to the British taxpayer). Despite the mayor’s support for rebuilding camp, the French government have blocked any attempts at its reconstruction.
Azoor, a 15-year-old from Afghanistan, proudly told me that he had found a place to sleep where the police cannot find him. “Too much tear gas “he said, looking at me conspiratorially he then said in a low voice. “ In between the lanes of the big road up there, there is small walls, I sleep there.” “That’s great” I say to him, heart bitterly divided between the outrage I feel that a child should be forced to sleep in a central reservation on a motorway and once again humbled by people’s ability to face the most dreadful situation with courage.
We get stopped and questioned by the CRS as we talk to some young Eritreans on the street “What are you doing here?” they bark at me as they demand identification.
“Talking” I say, “talking, it’s still legal to talk to other humans isn’t it?”
Working in the North of France, volunteers face frequent harassment from the police, considered semi-criminals like the so-called illegal people we are supporting- vilified and criticised as left wing softies. Ensuring that a four and two year old don’t freeze to death in a blizzard or serving food to a line of people who will spend all night walking around, trying to stay warm and hide against the cold wind is not left wing. It’s human and right now the British and French governments are waging a war against humanity to which they need to be held accountable.
Volunteers in working in Calais and Dunkirk refer to what’s happening in the North of France as a slow genocide. As British taxpayers, our 68 million pounds is not directly killing people, but it may as well be. This week alone 3 refugees were killed in Calais, in hit and run and lorry accidents. All of them become nameless statistics, a forgotten someone who lost his life trying to find safety. One of them was a 22 year old Iraqi. I think I remember him in the food queue, a funny man, we had a shared sense of dark humour. I hope it was not him but I can’t find out. I don’t want it to be anyone.
“Fascism in Europe never starts with mass killings, it starts with the normalisation of hatred.” Brendan Cox said recently. He is right, the genocide followed later.
In 2017, we normalised hatred, in 2018 everyone single one of us who believes in humanity needs to rise up and fight the rise of the populist right wing agenda, how we can, where we can, with what we can – together.
And we can start by ending one of the biggest outrages of our times, the manufactured catastrophe that is Calais, by turning those millions into humanitarian assistance.
All photos courtesy of Kim Bryan.
You can find more details about the work of Mid Wales Refugee Action volunteers here, where this article was originally published.