by Carmen Guillen
The storms came last night and I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about the thousands of refugees all over Europe who are sleeping outside. And the sea of papery tents found in the new refugee camps that are springing up in forests, beaches and abandoned buildings.
I have just come back from the ‘Jungle’ in Calais, the biggest refugee camp in Europe, and I was not prepared for what I found there. I went to volunteer with the inspiring organisation Skipchen, and having not met them in person we were pleased to discover they were dedicated, positive, kind and culturally sensitive.
My heart sank when we arrived and were greeted with newly erected barbed wire fences, reminding me that whilst Europe has spent virtually no money getting food and clothing to refugee communities, they have spent some 2 billion euros on erecting fences and high tech security systems. A stream of families made their way on foot alongside the motorway and I saw lots of exhausted looking children with SpongeBob SquarePants backpacks.
Arriving the camp we were greeted by more weary looking men returning to after a night traveling miles to try and get on the back of a lorry or onto a train, risking electrocution and death. Indeed many people have already died this way, just as thousands of people die crossing the Mediterranean Sea every month. How desperate must a person be to continually risk their life in this way? What atrocities must they be running from?
There were lots of people sporting broken limbs in the camp. Another volunteer told me that people were being turned away from the hospitals because no one wanted to treat them. Those that do get treated are purposefully treated badly to dissuade them from coming. An Afghani refugee showed me where his wound had been sewn up without disinfecting it properly and it had festered.
The entrance to the camp comes in the form of an underpass below hundreds of lorries. It acts as a doorway into another world. On one side you have Calais, admittedly a little bleak, with its microclimate of rain. This is guarded by police who look ridiculous in their excessive riot gear, calling to mind an angry armadillo, frostily watching people as they slope by peacefully. On the other side it is like stepping straight into the poorest shantytown of Sub-Saharan Africa. It is surreal. But mostly it’s heart breaking.
And this is how we welcome people fleeing war, by creating the impression of a maximum security prison, implicitly punishing them for not being able to stay put in a country that we have been active agents in destroying.
Skipchen were mindful of the fact that food distribution can be a sensitive process; the camp is divided and they wanted to find a politically neutral space where the distribution wouldn’t be interpreted as favouritism and we could reach as many people as possible.
We could only find one suitable spot as the Jungle was packed far beyond what I had envisaged; it had quadrupled in size from 1,500 to 6000 in the space of a few months.
What happened next was shocking. As we began surveying a potential spot, one of the volunteers running the neighbouring initiative began to scream in my face. This was my first point of contact. Perhaps it was naïve of me to think we would be welcomed with open arms, but we were just trying to help. Within the ensuing 20 minutes we were met with an avalanche of aggression from several volunteers.
I was completely taken aback. They were convinced we would ruin everything, that we were encroaching upon their territory, that our motivations were insincere. No matter how much we tried to placate them we couldn’t prevent the hostility being pummelled in our direction. We were forced to leave.
I tried to rationalise what had just happened. These people were over-stretched; they had been living on very little sleep, working with people who had experienced severe trauma. Perhaps we had caught them at a bad moment. Perhaps they had encountered unpleasant volunteers before. Perhaps we didn’t effectively communicate what we were doing, if it really would spoil the space that they had created we were of course happy to move on.
I went back later to try and extend an olive branch, to apologise and tell them I respected what they were doing, and that we had found somewhere else (The Ashram Kitchen graciously offered us their marquee) and that we were sorry if we didn’t explain ourselves effectively. I was met with further antagonism. Sensing that no amount of diplomacy could fix this, I left.
Meanwhile my friend Libby had been speaking to a representative from Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who explained that a few nights before, due to rising tensions amongst the volunteers, he had called a meeting between 60 of their main representatives. It ended in disaster, causing an even deeper rift between the groups.
In the absence of help from the state and aid agencies (MSF is the only major NGO there) all of the work has been left for individual volunteers and small initiatives. With no centralised system or support frictions are borne out of miscommunication and lack of resources.
More than anything I found this unforeseen issue embarrassing, it seemed that parts of the community of volunteers had become a microcosm of the EU; allowing petty squabbles and politics to get in the way of any attempt at altruism and leaving people to suffer in the interim.
I would like to stress that apart from that initial encounter every other volunteer I spoke to (of which there were many) was an absolute delight and I witnessed only kindness, patience, and warmth. By no means do I want to imply that this is pervasive. But the fact that it exists is significant for some of the reasons I have outlined but also because I feel that by calling attention to this we can develop a strategy to tackle the issue in the future. After all, the refugees have been through hell and back, and they deserve to arrive in a safe space, not one tainted by underlying tensions.
As I pitched our tent I stepped in diarrhea. This is unsurprising because the newly erected tents lie in what was once the unofficial toilet for the original residents. To add to this, the French government have provided 20 toilets for some 6000 people, which are rarely emptied. People are forced to continue to go amongst the tents where children play. The water has already been tested positively for E.coli and in the absence of proper sanitation it is only a matter of time before there is an outbreak of Cholera or something similar.
The government has made the conditions as dire as possible in an attempt to dissuade people from coming here. Not only has this been entirely ineffectual, but much like putting up spikes to stop homeless people, it does not make these people disappear, they still exist. All it achieves is making an already desperate, vulnerable population even more desperate and vulnerable.
I mostly helped out serving tea and coffee, which was really great because I got to meet so many refugees. I was joined in the kitchen by two Kurdish teenagers, both whom had lost their families. Hamid, the youngest was vying for my attention but with the language barrier it translated into a trying goofiness. Worn out and unable to communicate I gave him a hug. He wouldn’t let go. It occurred to me that this boy hadn’t had a hug for a really long time. That he had lost his mother. That he was craving human kindness. I felt ashamed for having found him annoying and for not having embraced him sooner.
Everyone wanted to help, and with few possessions people still managed to give us something. A man coyly produced a battered powder compact from his pocket and gave it to Libby, visibly proud he was able to give her something. Many people showed us photos of their hometowns on their phones as we laughed and chatted. Skipchen also installed some bike generators to help people charge their phones, so that they could speak to their families at home. The criticism of refugees for having mobile phones makes little sense. Any rational person who was forced to leave their home with limited possessions would not leave their phone behind.
I had wanted to take photos of some of the refugees but I didn’t take very many because it really changed the tone. People don’t trust journalists because a lot of right wing media outlets were arriving and interviewing them, only to twist their stories and making it sound like they were just here to take our jobs. Unsurprisingly, they felt betrayed. The other issue was that a lot of people are terrified of pictures of them reaching their families, as they have been lying and telling everyone back home that everything is going fantastically well. They were ashamed of the conditions they were being forced to live and I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.
On my first day I met a man who I had to give a double take because I thought he was my father. Bespectacled and portly, he spoke impeccable English as well as perfect German, French and even a bit of Japanese. In other words, this was an educated man. In fact most of the people I spoke to were noticeably middle class. Not that it matters, but it helped draw emphasis to the fact that these were everyday people who were just going about their lives when suddenly they lost everything and found themselves hungry, in a flooded tent in Calais.
Before I had arrived I couldn’t work out why refugees seemed so determined to come to the UK, after all it is riddled with xenophobia, asylum claims are rarely approved and it has one of the lowest rates of financial support in Europe (a paltry £36.95). Of course many of them already had friends and family there but there was another reason that became apparent the more I began to listen to refugees’ stories. Some truths are hidden in plain sight. The reality is that many of them had lived in countries occupied by British and American troops, who had been marketing the war as being in the name of Democratisation and Western values and somewhere along the way they had internalised this message. After years of being exposed to Western culture and listening to troops speak English they genuinely began to believe that England was some sort of Promised Land. It was an exaggerated form of Stockholm Syndrome. How do you tell someone the reason their country was destroyed was false?
On the second day I met a Sudanese man, who cried silently and toed the ground as he told me his wife and children had been brutally murdered. I met an Afghani painter, who showed me his paintings of the sweeping landscapes of his country. According to the UN there are currently 2.6 million Afghani refugees, leaving very little people left to revel in the beauty of this country.I met an Iraqi man who had just managed to bundle his fiancé onto a van headed for Liverpool after eight months of trying every night. He explained to me, all starry-eyed how his country had the best Shiraz in the world. Everyone I spoke to longed for their homeland, and would have gone back if the situation were different.
Perhaps the most distressing interaction I had was with a child. He was called Ahmed, he was 11 and he had watched as his parents get shot in front of him. He, along with a group of war orphans had made the 7282km journey from Kabul to Calais on their own. He shrugged as he told me how the others had made it onto a train last week but he was knocked off by a policeman, and managed to escape. What an incredible human being; to be so resourceful at such a young age, to have such tenacity of spirit. You could see from looking into his face that his childhood had been robbed from him, that he was now older than his small body would betray. I was deeply humbled.
The majority of the refugees in the Jungle are from wars of a few years ago, although Syrian refugees are now beginning to arrive. The demographics have naturally divided into their respective countries of origin; Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. Sometimes I think the fact that some of these countries and cultures, which historically have not gotten on are living in harmony is nothing short of miraculous. What I saw was a lot of light-hearted teasing. I think that when it comes down to it, the community silently identifies their shared trauma, and all that is left is their kindred humanity. Anther thing I noticed that was particularly stark is that the sections of the camp housing Sub-Saharan Africans have much sturdier looking shelters. This is due in part to the fact that they have been here longer but also one is left with the impression that they’ve done this before.
I spoke to an extremely friendly Eritrean man named Nahom. He explained to me that he comes from a shantytown that very much resembles the one he is living in in Calais. I asked him why he left. To escape the threat of violence he explained. Eritrea has compulsory and indefinite military service for virtually anyone that can serve, including minors. Abuse and mistreatment are rife, living conditions are abysmal and resistance is met with swift execution. Is it any wonder that 5000 Eritrean refugees cross the border into neighbouring Ethiopia and Sudan every month? Whilst I was in the Jungle I saw people that were visible torture victims. To characterise any of these people as economic migrants holds a bitter cruelty.
Globally there are 59.5 million people forcibly displaced. This is an unfathomable amount of people, and has now reached WWII proportions. Although an official WWIII has not been announced, we need to understand the comparable severity of the situation.
The clear parallels being drawn between the two historical periods are valid. WWII was a time that Jewish refugees were getting turned away at every corner. Famously, the 908 refugees of the SS. St Louis seeking asylum were sent back upon arriving in the US, only to be admitted to the death camps upon returning to Europe.
Currently echoes of this behaviour are being seen all over Europe. In Hungary refugees have been pulled off trains, had numbers written on the arms and sometimes men were separated from their wives and children. Right-wing groups that have proliferated all across Europe are using the terrorist attacks in Paris to make ground, leading to violent attacks on the very refugees fleeing this extremism.
They will use Islamophobia and the idea that every refugee is a radical Islamist; just as the right wing of the holocaust claimed that all Jews were radical Communists and did not deserve our help. In a bitter irony Israel has refused to take in a single refugee and has built a wall along the Jordanian border. Jordan on the other hand has taken in so many of the displaced that 1 in 13 people there is now a Syrian refugee.
When I was in Calais, despite the stereotype towards Islam and women, and despite the fact that the vast majority of the refugees there are men, not once was I made to feel uncomfortable and different, people only ever showed me kindness and respect. I only noticed one mosque and it was in fact the churches that were the most ostentatious places of worship. The fear of Islamisation in Europe is entirely unfounded. It is a fact that even if we were to quickly absorb the 4 million refugees into Europe, assimilating them into our workforce and integrating them into our society, and even if 100% of them were Muslim, the Muslim population would go from 4% of Europeans to 5%. Even as an atheist, I fail to see how this is such an encumbrance.
The state and media alike are using the concept of terrorism not only as an excuse not to help refugees but also to actively block ordinary citizens from coming to their aid. They have started to detain volunteers leaving the Jungle under ‘Schedule 7’ of the Terrorism Act. Even over in Lesvos an old classmate of mine was threatened arrest when the simple action of giving refugees a lift up the mountainside was interpreted as an act of terrorism. These people had just crossed the sea, on a dingy, passing the bodies of their drowned countrymen on the way. We cannot allow this remorseless scaremongering to deter us from trying to maintain a bit of humanity.
Calais, whilst only housing 1% of the refugee population is significant to me as I am British and these are our border people, only we happen to be separated by the sea which shields us from the reality and gravity of the situation.
This is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. But unlike any humanitarian crisis I have witnessed growing up on my TV screen, these people are on our doorstep. We criticise other countries for being barbaric and uncivilised and wave the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as some kind of ethical mandate of civility and yet even when the same people are on our very soil, we deny them these fundamental human rights. To food, to clothing, to sanitation. Even though it was our countries that were directly responsible for stealing the lives of their loved ones, in the most violent way imaginable.
We cannot allow these vulnerable populations to become our scapegoats. The fact is refugees who become immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native population. When allowed to work they tend to start businesses and integrate into the workforce as fast as possible, paying far more into the social systems than they extract, after all most of them are already educated and have skills to offer our economies, which suffer from aging populations.
We need to have the courage and imagination to accept this. It is human nature to say that we are different, but this is a form of insecurity. This allows us to feel that we would be immune to these atrocities if it were us in their shoes. But in this process of dehumanisation, of victim blaming, of othering we do ourselves a disservice. I have grown up listening to people condemning the actions of the Holocaust, and other such moments of historical barbarity, saying that if they were there, they would have never taken part, they would have stood up for justice and compassion. Well here is our opportunity to prove it. This comes in the form of actively helping but also by combatting complicity, by tackling the culture of misinformation. If someone tells you that refugees are terrorists correct them. If another person tells you they are here to steal our jobs present them with the facts. Because these small acts can have a dramatic effect on our collective futures, and it’s not too late to be on the right side of history.