Probably like many others, I first engaged with the Refugee Crisis when images of sinking boats off the coasts of North Africa were in the news. My initial interpretation, and one which has stayed with me since, was that these were images of utter desperation. It was explicitly clear to me that you simply don’t put yourself – let alone your child or relative – on an overloaded, dodgy looking boat unless turning back is worse. Warsan Shire the British writer famously said that “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” and I think there is a lot to be said for this.
Some friends from my church, my parents and I have been to Calais a few times to deliver donations from our communities and volunteer in the warehouse there. Since there seem to be a lot of misconceptions about the reality of volunteering with refugee aid charities, I thought I’d write something brief and honest about my experiences.
Volunteering in the Help Refugees warehouse involved sorting incoming donations, preparing food with the Refugee Community Kitchen and sometimes going to the camp to hand out donations or help in other ways (litter picking, building, clearing spaces). There were jobs for people with practical skills in construction, cooking, or languages, or you could just do some manual labour if you didn’t have anything special to offer (like us). By estimation, the camp held somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people at its largest in 2016.
Visiting most recently in late December 2017, the situation in Calais was very different, but no less concerning. At the time of the demolition of the official Jungle camp in October 2016, many refugees avoided being rounded up by authorities, some intentionally due to doubts about where they would be taken, and some because there simply wasn’t provision for everyone. There are still hundreds living without shelter or government provision, with some estimates stretching as far as 800 in Calais and surrounding areas, and more people arrive regularly in the hope of crossing over to Britain. We did similar things this time around with sorting donations etc, but some friends and family of mine also provided a medical service for a few days, travelling between mini camps to offer basic care.
There have been various reports of injustices towards refugees in Northern France for several years. While the formal Jungle camp was in place, there were reports of excessive force being used by the police and riot police (Compagnies républicaines de sécurités, CRS). It was in early 2017, after the demolition of the camp when Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais, essentially banned the distribution of food to migrants and pledged to do everything she could to prevent charitable organisations from providing support to refugees, claiming that their presence posed a security threat. In the summer of 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report (Like Living in Hell – you can read it online), finding that the French police and particularly the riot police “routinely use pepper spray on child and adult migrants while they are sleeping or in other circumstances in which they pose no threat; regularly spray or confiscate sleeping bags, blankets, and clothing; and sometimes use pepper spray on migrants’ food and water.” In Calais in December we witnessed concerning incidences of aggression, hostility and racism on behalf of the police and general public towards refugees. Our only interactions with refugees were friendly, polite and incredibly grateful.
It strikes me that migrants in Northern France are being treated less like humans and more like pests. There is such a focus on avoiding pull factors and creating an atmosphere of hostility to deter people from making the treacherous journey to Europe, that the humanity of these migrants is overlooked, and their desperation is forgotten. This is why I love the Refugee Info Bus’s mission. While other organisations provide food and clothes (absolutely necessary and valuable), the Info Bus recognises a refugee’s needs which distinguish them as humans rather than just organisms needing to survive; the knowledge of their rights and civil situation and the ability to connect with their families. (They have a great Facebook page which you should follow if you’re interested!)
According to the UN Refugee Agency, nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute due to persecution or conflict, so it’s clear that the Refugee Crisis isn’t going away any time soon. I don’t pretend to have complete answers, but I think the answer must start with a dedication of time. The fact that this is an issue which isn’t leaving and which affects such a huge portion of the global population surely means that it deserves our time, even if that just means reading the odd article about what’s going on in Syria, or how our government is adapting laws and policies.
I’m guilty of quickly scrolling past news updates when they’re negative and I’ve had a hard day, perhaps telling myself I’ll think about it later, but as young people in a position of such extreme privilege, we can’t pretend to care about these issues and hope for change if we don’t engage with them in any way. So I’d encourage you to read those articles – it’s the least we can do. You don’t have to take the weight of the whole world on your shoulders but you can educate yourself about what’s going on, and you’ll find yourself in a position where you can do more to help. Whether that’s writing a well-informed email to your MP, being a future policy-maker, or just having a better understanding of someone’s suffering and being a better friend when you meet displaced people, it’s all valuable.
If you want to know about how to keep up to date with the Refugee Crisis or what you can do to help, please message me and I’d love to chat. Also, I can highly recommend Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow, which offers a brilliant balance of facts and personal perspectives and challenges you to think about how we as global citizens need to adapt to a shrinking world.
Miriam | 1st year @ Brasenose