Refugees deserve our respect as well as our help

The current situation in Calais is abhorrent and it is essential for the British government to resolve the crisis

Image: Ruben Godwin-Suttie

It is commonly thought that the demolition of the Calais jungle brought an end to the ‘migrant problem’ there. This was not the case. For many the realisation that Calais is still significant in the refugee crisis came only recently, when on 1 February violence broke out between groups of refugees, leaving four Eritrean refugees shot, allegedly by a trafficker. The shooting and mass brawls that followed were the subject of much media attention. Similar to the news coverage that had come before it, from Aylan Kurdi, who washed up on a Turkish beach, to Omran Daqneesh, who sat tranced in the back of the ambulance, this recent media frenzy focused almost entirely on the gory details: the weapons, ethnic divides, and the repressive police response. It completely missed the point.

There are roughly 800 refugees in Calais, mostly from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq. They are not allowed any permanent shelter, including tents, and are subjected to constant police violence. The heavy police presence is designed to intimidate them, involving beatings, confiscating belongings, and even tasering. Sleeping bags and coats are routinely pepper sprayed to make them unusable. The refugees are completely reliant on local charities, and with temperatures regularly sub-zero it is unsurprising that illness is spreading. It is hard to imagine how conditions could be worse.

Considering the conditions it is unsurprising, even inevitable, that we’re seeing this kind of violence. It comes as the new May-Macron deal on Calais takes effect. The deal sees Britain give an extra £44.5m to France to aid policing, as well as vague promises about increasing the speed of asylum applications. This brings the total British contribution to Calais security to approximately £150m in the last three years. If this kind of money was being invested in refugees’ lives, instead of being used to crush them, we would not see this level of violence.

I first travelled to Calais in May of last year, and this month I returned for the fifth time. The group I went with, Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity, began as only a couple of friends. On our most recent trip we were 32 strong, with two minibuses and a van full of aid. We were concerned by recent events, unsure of how tense the situation would be and whether the increasing police presence would interrupt our work. We worked on preparing and sorting aid before heading out to distribute it. Although the majority of distributions are calm, refugees are suffering immensely with very little aid, so there is always the potential for the situation to develop. A typical distribution involves a van full of aid and about 10 volunteers making a funnel from the back of the van doors. Two more volunteers stand at the front of the queue with their backs to the van working out which items they need. The final volunteer stays in the van retrieving the correct items, and passing them on; this was my job. In the end the distribution was one of the calmest I’ve been on, so when we were done we spent some time talking to the refugees, making them tea and listening to their stories.

This was the first chance I had to take in my surroundings: just off a roundabout, underneath a motorway. The refugees congregate here because it provides them with some shelter from the weather. The refugees here are mostly Eritrean, fleeing an oppressive state and indefinite military conscription. I met a young man called Nathanael with impeccable English, and as he described his story to me it dawned on me that he was who I would be, had I been born in Eritrea. He said he was 18 and wanted to study Political Science at university, that he had fled to avoid conscription, and that all he sought was peace and freedom. When I asked him why he didn’t seek asylum in France he simply pointed to what was around him. From police violence, to resentment and aggression from some locals, he had a point: if this was my only view of a country I doubt I’d want to live there. He was friendly while we talked, but there was an inescapable sadness in his face and exhaustion in his voice. To see this in someone younger than me was truly heartbreaking.

Image: Ruben Godwin-Suttie

I think too often the debate surrounding the situation in Calais is only an academic one, with near complete disregard for human suffering. Arguments against helping refugees centre on the concept that they are not real refugees, but instead ‘economic migrants’. Not only is this factually wrong, it presumes that they are leaving a country that is hospitable. Anyone who has actually seen their faces would know that no one deserves to live like they do in Calais, least of all those fleeing famine, oppression and wars; often wars that we are involved in.

In the end the solution to the refugee crisis will be foreign policy; stabilising peaceful democracies instead of generating power vacuums in which violence can spread, so that people don’t have to leave their homes. What is most tragic about the refugee crisis is that the suffering – especially in Calais – is the result of a political decision not to help. The responsibility therefore is ours, to do whatever we can to make life bearable for the refugees suffering in Calais and throughout Europe.

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