The British are not doing enough for refugees in Calais


I spent last Tuesday in the Calais refugee camps. It was a chance to meet and speak to the individuals that make up the group of desperate, hungry refugees living under tarpaulin, surrounded by piles of rubbish; the people that the British PM likes to dehumanise as a ‘swarm’.

The diversity of the swarm was striking: people had fled from conflicts in Eritrea, Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan. Some were Muslim, others were Christians. The largest structure in the camp was actually a church, constructed by a man called Solomon from Eritrea, who had been living around the ‘jungle’ for the last 6 months. He had built the church using just wood and tarpaulin, but it towered above the other structures in the camp, as a rare sanctuary in the midst of chaos.

calais refugee camp (1)

The most welcoming were the Sudanese Muslims, who’d fled violence and slavery in their own country. Greeting us with chocolate, tea and grapes, they welcomed us to their section of the camp, telling us to think of their tent as our home; stressing that we could eat whatever we wanted and even stay with them. These men were lost and losing hope fast. They had made an unimaginable journey through Lybia, across the Mediterranean and to the north of Europe in search of a place to start a peaceful life, where they could work and support their families. This group came to Calais specifically because they spoke some French and some English. They would happily take asylum in either country. Others felt connected to the UK because the UK had colonised Sudan in the past. They even referred to Queen Elizabeth as their grandmother. The important point to take here is that it is only a small subset of refugees trying to get to the UK. They are not ‘all coming here because of our benefits system’. The vast majority have fled elsewhere in europe.

What the Sudanese found instead was a disorganised camp, on the edge of a grim industrial estate in Calais, where their only remaining hope was to climb huge iron fences and avoiding baton-swinging and pepper-spraying police, in the vain hope of climbing aboard a train heading to the UK. But with increased press attention has come increased police security, making their attempts nearly pointless. Many were bandaged and hurt from previous failed attempts and others we did not meet have died in their attempts. But those that remain will continue to try.

The truth is that the efforts of these refugees has been in vain. The British government has announced that it will only take refugees directly from the camps around Syria. The decision to put those who have made the gruelling journey to Calais in a worse position than they would have been in had they stayed where they were is unbelievably cruel. Of course we should take refugees from Syrian camps, but there is no reason why we can’t take people from Calais, too.

advice to asylum seekers in calais (1)

David Cameron, using characteristically deceptive rhetoric, has announced plans to house 20,000 migrants, but only over the next 5 years. Around 4000 refugees this year is not nearly enough for a country with our wealth and moral pretensions and it is shameful in comparison to Germany, who are preparing to welcome around 500,000 every year if it is necessary.

Nigel Farage has said today that we must not let these people come to our country because ISIS have infiltrated their routes. Farage also claims that these people are terrorist extremists, while others are ‘throwing their passports in the Med’ and simply ‘pretending to be Syrian’. Farage and his nationalist supporters are very good at telling compelling stories to make us fearful of those we have not met. He wants us to doubt their motives and their identities, so that we close our doors and ignore the human suffering going on just a short boat ride away from the cliffs of Kent.

What I learnt is that if we engage with the individuals behind these stories, Farage’s narrative quickly comes apart and becomes laughable. The refugee crisis is complicated and there is no simple solution to it. However, it is clear that the British government is not doing enough to help these people in crisis and much of that comes down to our failure to think of the high numbers of refugees as individuals with families, stories and shoulders heavy with suffering.