How many times have you heard the word "refugee" in this last year?
Headlines such as “An increased feeling that the country is under siege” by the Daily Express, or statements by David Cameron dehumanising refugees by calling them "swarm people” are just common things in the recent media panic about migration. Europe keeps complaining, accepting to receive a few thousands refugees while some Arab countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey host millions of them.
But what is a refugee? It is important to ask ourselves this question.
A refugee is someone that has been forced to live outside of any political life, outside the scope of all tangible law. This situation has been seen before in History, and not so far away a history that involves Europe directly, think of Germany just few decades ago...Now that episode is considered one of the biggest tragedies of humanity, but how is it different to what is happening now? What happens when human beings lack of their own governments and have to fall back upon their minimum rights while no authority is left to protect them? The so-called inalienable “human rights” seem meaningless if we move away from the Nation-State, they only exist by virtue of one’s nationality and that’s when it all collapses. Human rights are still historical and by no means universal. Modern political philosophy and legislation have failed to define and institutionalize rights that transcend nationality and THAT is our biggest tragedy. As I said, forced migrations of groups for political or economical reasons have always happened, but the impossibility of finding a new home is what is really striking.
I decided to step out of my comfort zone and go to meet and talk to refugees myself. Didn’t have to go far. Just twenty-one miles away from Dover six thousand people that escaped from war and misery live in improvised tents. Most of them come from Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and other countries but nobody is keeping a record of how many come and go. Most people in the UK seem to have forgotten, or maybe media just stopped talking about it, but this refugees’ camp is at the doorstep and grows everyday. The original camp called “the Jungle” was established in the woods around the Port of Calais just after a Red Cross Reception Center for Migrants was closed in 2002 by Nicolas Sarkozy. Since, camps have appeared and disappeared due to repressive actions from the French Authorities. Today the “new Jungle” opened earlier this year and is already one of the biggest migrant camps in Western Europe.
The conditions at the camp are deplorable; just by stepping in you can tell it is a humanitarian emergency of the first order, and contradictorily, it is happening in one of the most thriving nations. International agreed standards for the provision of aid and protection are nowhere met in Calais and European States should and can do better. There are 40 overflowing toilets on camp, which means one for every 150 and the risk of contagion is high. Waste disposal has slowed down in the past month even as the size of the camp exponentially grows day by day. They live in tents and improvised shelters without proper washing facilities and the temperatures are dropping. One meal per day for 2000 people is supplied, but that doesn’t even cover half of the population. This just shames the UK and French government in equal measure and contradicts any idea of how basic human rights work within the European Union.
By walking around you can see signs of communal life everywhere; there are ramshackle shops and restaurants around the camp, barbers and cafés. On some days a generator is provided for charging phones, and there are a couple of improvised and colorful schools and libraries where English and French classes are provided by volunteers, as well as a makeshift church and mosque made by themselves. It is striking that after so long there is no more coordinated or organized humanitarian help, nor any support to hear asylum claims as soon as possible. It could have been handled and still could be handled in a more effective and human way. But the French authorities have faced the dilemma of addressing this humanitarian crisis to not make the conditions too attractive that more migrants arrive.
It is important to remind that this is the consequence of a world-system, and first world nations are part of this equation and share responsibility. The situation did not happened over night. Civil war and hunger drove people in their thousands - sometimes with nothing more than some clothes in the back - to take one of the most dangerous journeys. The risks are high as well as the costs. Smugglers charge over 1,500 euros per person to make the clandestine journey from Turkey to Greece, or from Libya to Italy. But these trips not only cost money but also, as we all know, many people do not survive to reach their destination.
The people that manage to come to Calais are just a few proportion of the amount of families that are forced to escape their hometowns as the only way to survive. By spending time with them I could see how brave and incredibly solidary these people are. The story of each one of them is unique and beyond conceivable....they have fought revolutions, lived through wars, lost beloved ones or left them behind. They lost their homes, and by this I mean not only a house, but the entire social texture into which they were born.
I talked for a while to this incredibly smiley man from Ethiopia fleeing war after all his family was killed, he crossed the Sahara desert, got caught and tortured by armed groups on the way, to later face the deadly ride across the Mediterranean to get to Italy. These people haven’t commit any crime, they just aim to have a safe and normal life, to study, to work, to live with no fear of persecution and out of misery. We need to change the narrative repeated by the media panic on portraying these people as “desperate masses” trying to invade the UK, or the poor helpless victims who need the white man to come and save them. These are the most courageous, self-organised people I’ve met; they crossed the world with nothing and surviving against all possible adversities.
A sense of solidarity is felt all around the camp, despite the sometimes-complicated mix of nationalities. All of them have gone through a struggle to survive, and all of them help and understand each other. Everybody kindly say hello and invite you to sit with him or her to have some tea and share the little food they have. A little boy from Pakistan, 14 years old, told me his story when he sat down next to me to offer a bit of his baguette. He first moved with his family to Afghanistan where he learnt English in a refugees' camp. “My parents were killed by the Talibans” he told me, and I just felt achundred waves crushing me. I said I was so sorry to hear that, and he replied confident with a smile “thank you, it's ok, war is hard, but at least I am alive and I am grateful”. He did the journey from Afghanistan to France by himself. “I want to go to the UK because I want to go to school, and then I want to become an engineer” he told me. There is not one single day that I don’t think of him and the incredible lesson he gave me.
I also found out that most of them are educated and skilled young men, electricians, accountants, lawyers, engineers, doctors which could also be an opportunity to Europe if they wanted to take it. Women are a distinct minority in the Jungle and are at greater risk on the camp if they get separated from their male companions. Most of them are caught into networks of prostitution, and some would do anything to protect and feed their children. It is the most unfair situation of all.
What also surprised me is realising they all want to cross to the UK mainly because of the language barrier, but also for high expectations on human rights. My heart would bleed to hear them talking about the UK as the dreamland that is so far to be, especially with new laws coming in. In the UK, whether by denying asylum seekers the ability to work, or by tying them to one place and requiring them to report on a regular basis, and forcing them to wait endlessly in order to find out whether or not they will get 'status': every aspect is planned to strip people of their agency and render them powerless. The result is to create maximum dependency on others, to induce shame, to reduce people to the status of passive recipients; all of which are critical to Europe's psychological war on undocumented migrants.
In Calais around 100 and 150 new refugees arrive everyday, but very few leave. To get to the UK is almost impossible and most of the attempts end up in failure and a 2 hours walk back to the camp. The municipal government but also the UK forces have taken strong measures to prevent refugees from attempting to cross on the Eurotunnel. They spent millions on building new barriers extending 20 kilometres and sniffer dogs and policemen have been deployed. Refugees have to risk their lives every night by walking 2 hours each way, jumping onto moving trains and trucks, sometimes falling off and breaking bones or dying in accidents or en route. I saw really terrible injuries made by policemen on refugees. A man with a broken leg after getting kicked by one of them, or cut hands after trying to climb the fences. Despite the danger and overwhelming chance of failure they all seem so confident to succeed. “See you in England my friend” they would all say to me.
But how is it possible the situation is not handled on a humanitarian base? Just last night 15 riot vans and police tear gassed the camps indiscriminately. These people have no place to go without the severest restrictions and their prolongation of their lives is due to charity, and not to right. There is an absurdity and a deep cruelty in this situation. The British and French government are caught in a cycle where each side blame the other for taking responsibility. The British government has said the problem is for France to deal with, the French say that because France is part of the Schengen Area, which is a free-movement zone along with most of mainland Europe, these refugees should claim asylum in the first EU member state they reached. This is the basis of the Dublin Agreement, but personally I find it a complete absurd and disproportionate agreement giving all responsibility to the countries on the front line such as Hungary, Greece, Italy and others, and being so convenient for countries like the UK. So France also resists providing asylum, and at the same time, all these migrants want to go to the UK, so why not the UK decides who or who not to admit? In a 2013 speech on immigration David Cameron said that "Britain will always offer a welcome to people fleeing persecution, as we’ve done throughout our history." If the government genuinely wanted to welcome people fleeing persecution, they would be allowed to apply for asylum from Calais. They could be granted asylum and travel to the UK safely and those deemed not to have a legitimate claim could be denied before undertaking the journey. But no. They have to risk their lives, once again. Only 700 migrants from Calais were granted asylum in France last year, while 1,200 were deported.
Being a privileged citizen, which in this case means having a convenient passport, basically is a huge responsibility and there are many ways to help.Charities are always a double edge sword, and most of the times serve to reinforce hierarchies and privileges as well as the existing socio-economic order. They work within the spheres allowed by governments and despite prevailing means for oppressed groups, they can be also legitimizing the actions of the governments that have helped created the crisis in the first place. The challenge of striking the balance between intervention and respect for autonomy is complicated, which is what I most felt on doing the distribution with the rest of the volunteers on the camp. All the donations that arrive to Calais are put into warehouses and then organized and distribute by volunteers in the camp. I felt a very cold and impersonal relationship in this dynamic of “providing help”, but I guess it’s true you need some structure and organization. It was really comforting to see so many people stepping out of their comfortable bubble and bringing all their energy and strength to carry boxes around and giving their time to the cause.
I think it is essential to achieve social change by working together in solidarity, in creating relationships of trust and respect, where we seek to challenge our own privileges and want to surpass the bridge between the self and “the others”. Yet despite the commonalities, in the context of immigration you start to recognise, or even to feel the weight of your passport in your pocket, and the huge different realities this piece of paper creates. But you also recognise other huge differential privileges such as speaking the local language and having the confidence that wealth and education bring. But the secret lies on surpassing those privileges and the close relationships you can have in such an intense and emotional environment transcend everything. It touches your deeply human side and the greatest acts of generosity and kindness can be manifested in the most creative ways, and it all becomes reciprocal. Just by being a real friend of one refugee you are making a massive difference, they truly need to feel listened and supported and most of all, you need to let them know they are not alone. I met the most brave and beautiful people in just the few days I spent in the camp, and now coming back to the concrete jungle in London I have to say it also brings a lot of pain. As any genuine emotional engagement with someone that risks its health and safety every night it can be quite challenging, but also dealing with the combination of awareness of our own privilege and yet our inadequacy to face the massive power of the State can be hard. The feeling of helplessness is just terrible, but you can never stop doing the best you can. Also what does this suffering represent compared to the one that these people have overcome? All these questions just keep bombarding me. I know it is not possible to renounce privilege, but what is important is to struggle towards a world without these hierarchies, and use your position to subvert particular structures of power.
I think the most important thing about solidarity is about commitment to long-term goals and responsibility to one another, about persevering, and building a community of resistance. Also, acknowledging that not only activists in the camp make differences, also people collecting money and supplies outside and publicise the campaign are essential for change. It is also fundamental to create an environment where people can engage in normal activities: cooking for themselves, playing instruments, reading, writing. All of these are all too often denied to undocumented migrants. Conditions need to be created that give rise to the activities which most of us take for granted, but which are the essence of what it is to be human and necessary to maintain sanity. But also one of the principal areas in which people need support is on their immigration cases. As well as casework for individuals' asylum claims, the key work to be done in this area is the compilation, simplification, and if possible careful translation of existing legal information, ensuring that it is accurate and up-to-date, while making the format as accessible as possible to people.
Overall this experience put me face to face with the worst and the best of humanity. I felt the love for life deep inside my bones. These people taught me that life it’s a chance we have everyday to create wonderful things. It’s incredible how the circumstances are the engine of change: on some, the best circumstances such as comfort, health, money and power can bring out the worst, and on the most unfavourable conditions like hunger, pain, grief, disease or fear it can bring out the purest of human compassion and love. It is difficult to understand the hardship and injustice but the one thing we can do is to make us better, to be better with the other, because sharing is the most beautiful experience we can ever have.
Dedicated to all those amazing people that opened their hearts to me in the last few days, you are amazing and deserve to live in peace anywhere in this world.