By Tom Mcelholm
Correspondent, History Undergraduate Student
I stood monitoring the line for clothes distribution in Calais’ Refugee Camp during the emergency week in mid-January. The CRS had announced the impending demolition of a portion of the Kurdish section of the camp. Days after journalists left they would enter the camp in APCs, teargas it and then set fire to any remaining homes that the volunteers and refugees had failed to move.
The atmosphere in the camp was panicked but unsettlingly routine. Journalists swarmed the camp, volunteers ran around the fields offering to carry people’s homes to a safe zone, families emptied their tents of possessions and sought refuge. In the midst of all this I am talking to a refugee, there is a language barrier, I show him my Birmingham City Football Club necklace and his response is to point to the sky and say, “England good.”
I show him my Birmingham City Football Club necklace and his response is to point to the sky and say, “England good.”
A common response to refugees in Calais or other parts of Europe is: ‘Why England? What makes England good? Is it our healthcare, our economy, our benefits?’ The answer to that question is specific to each individual and there are few universal views in the camp, although a piece of dark-humoured graffiti in Calais Camp testifies to one universal feeling and reads: “Dear mum I miss you, but I miss the sun more.” As a society we look at Calais and we question ‘why’ but it is more often a retort than an attempt to understand. What follows here is an honest answer to why people want to go to Britain, Norway, Canada and America.
Hopefully that will clarify one facet of ‘The Refugee Crisis’ and shed some light on reality, but that isn’t enough to understand the human aspect of what we call ‘The Refugee Crisis’. The term in itself causes confusion – do we mean that it is a crisis for the refugees or for the European states that feel they are being forced to resolve it? Whichever of the two meanings you take from the phrase, and they are mutually exclusive by the way, defines your response to the refugee who points to the sky and tells you: “England good, Norway good, Canada good, America good.” If you believe it is a crisis for Europe you will ask “Why is England good?” if you believe it is a crisis for the people that have suffered then it simply wont matter to you – you may still be curious but it ultimately wont matter.
“England good, Norway good, Canada good, America good.”
A portion of people within the UK sees refugees as economic migrants, choosing England over other countries for its welfare state – this is false. In reality there is little support for refugees – the Red Cross found in South Yorkshire that: 60% have no fixed residence, a quarter go hungry every day, two thirds are hungry on a regular basis and now there are proposals to scrap the £5 a day they live off. Even if the UK had an excessive welfare state the argument that it was their primary motive for choosing England would still not hold water. This is because the refugees I have met have very little knowledge about what the UK is actually like; some asked whether French or English was spoken in Scotland.
For refugees Britain represents home and the end of a long, treacherous journey. They often leave from Libya and cross the Mediterranean, an ocean that swallowed c. 3,500 people from infants to adults in 2014 alone – half the population of our student body. On this journey they have to be mindful of coastguards because the Greeks notoriously pierce refugee boats so that they sink or remove their motors. They arrive at an overcrowded island without the necessary infrastructure to support the refugee population, so they head north to France or Germany.
For refugees Britain represents home and the end of a long, treacherous journey.
Those that go to Calais in the hope of reaching Britain go because their last remaining relative lives there, they go because they used to live in Britain and some go because they used to be translators for the British army, kicked to the curb and hunted by Taliban. They have had their homes, nations and identities taken from them so they seek the last remnants of their past lives – their relatives, their old homes, the government they fought alongside against the Taliban.
They sit in Calais Camp and they are routinely beaten, the family section by virtue of being near the road is tear-gassed frequently, fascists patrol the outskirts of the camp assaulting lone refugees, when found outside of the camp the CRS take their jackets and shoes. They suffer through all of this in below freezing temperatures, often sleeping with 11 others in the same shed, one blanket between two – although not all of them are so lucky, most sleep in tents. No human being could suffer through this hell without giving up for any other reason than they believe their home is at the end of that last twenty mile stretch of their journey, the other side of the channel. Their continued presence in Calais is testament to the honesty of their motives, their genuine and pure desire to reach their only remaining home.
Their continued presence in Calais is testament to the honesty of their motives, their genuine and pure desire to reach their only remaining home.
Justifying their desire to reach England dignifies the response on the part of the British and French governments, and their response is beyond dignity. They spend £19million on fences, they pay for hundreds of CRS officers to stay in Ibis hotels, they sanction police brutality by refusing to hold perpetrators to account, they allow frequent tear-gassing of the family section, sometimes they prevent volunteers and refugees exiting the camp, they stop people going to protests, they fail to prevent arson attacks on volunteer vehicles and worst of all they are the most likely origin of clothes being donated to the camp with GPS trackers sewed into them.
This response clearly has the mentality that the ‘crisis’ is Europe’s not the refugee’s. We should be rushing to the frontline to give these people back the lives they had taken from them, to restore crucial facets of their humanity – self-determination and self-esteem. This should be approached as an opportunity to love rather than something that necessitates ‘defence’. People want to come to Britain to be with the only remaining family they love, to find a new home that they can love. I wont sully this article with economic arguments for immigration and I wont devalue their humanity by explaining that they will do jobs others don’t want to – people are not products, their humanity should be enough.
This response clearly has the mentality that the ‘crisis’ is Europe’s not the refugee’s.
You have the right to respond to the situation in whatever way you choose, no one is obligated to help one another, just do not ease your conscience by telling yourself: “I would like to help, but it’s impractical” or “If they genuinely needed help and didn’t come for our benefits then I would be happy to help”, this line of thought comes from either ignorance or denial. After reading this article ignorance is no longer an excuse and you are no better than Natacha Bouchart, Calais’ Mayor, for turning away a group of traumatised people seeking the comfort of a home or a family.
Help or hinder the refugees, just do not delude yourself about what you really think.
To help raise awareness or register your interest for a volunteer group contact:
Feature and secondary image courtesy of malachybrowne via Flickr.