Higher fences and sharper razor-wire will only mean desperate people have further to fall, break more bones and be cut more deeply.

Irial Violet

A group of cyclists from London rode to Calais to meet with refugees being kept in a camp nicknamed notoriously The Jungle. Their aim was to donate their bikes to the refugees. Irial Violet describes what they discovered.

THE TRUE human situation on the ground in the refugee camps at Calais is not being reported. The ‘threat’ to us gets a lot of attention: what is happening to them gets almost none. Political solutions to dealing with the migrant situation seem irrelevant right now; at the moment it is a pressing humanitarian disaster. People are dying and are going to continue dying unless something changes fast.

I went to The Jungle with a group of cyclists who rode down from London to donate our bikes. The camp lies a fair distance from the nearest shops or the town centre by foot, so our hope was that the bicycles would make their travels around a little easier.

Getting to the camps required a long walk beside a tarmac road through a line of silent factories. Although early in the morning, there was already a stream of men walking away from the camp alone or in pairs, wearing tattered, beaten clothes, old shoes and empty-handed. Many stared straight ahead, numbly. In the other direction, walking back to the camp, were several men with ripped jeans and the fresh cuts of failed attempts to climb the razor-wire fences, after another unsuccessful try to get into the UK.

When I arrived in the camps on Monday morning it had been raining. A lot. Muddy paths had become small rivers, and many tents – ranging from 2-person camping tents to makeshift shelters of tarpaulin and plastic bags – had given in under the weight of the water, and were leaking over their inhabitants. In some areas, people lay sleeping in their sleeping bags, in puddles.

What kind of lives must these people have had for this to be preferable? Where when it rains you get wet while you sleep, where there are no clothes to replace those you rip trying to scale barriers, where human excrement and litter lies rotting on the ground.

There is no infrastructure. Only a couple of water points, a few pathetic light bulbs strung up for night time darkness, not enough toilets, not enough food. Imagine the desperation that drives someone from their tent every morning to have their flesh slashed as they attempt to scale a razor-wire fence, to try once again to cling to the underside of a lorry or jump onto a high-speed train.

“But why are they all coming to the UK?” someone asked me recently.

My answer: They’re not. The 3000 refugees in Calais represent only 0.015% of the global refugee population; the vast majority (around 86%) are taken in by neighbouring countries. Syrian refugees predominantly go to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, for example.

Amongst the European countries, the UK houses amongst the lowest numbers. In 2014 we accepted 10,050 refugees; Germany accepted over four times as many. Sweden, despite having a population seven times smaller than ours, received nearly three times as many asylum applications.

So, comparatively, few choose to come to the UK, and due to our tough asylum process, out of those that do apply for asylum here only around 25% have their applications granted. Once they’re in the UK asylum seekers receive a measly £36.65 per week to live on – Britain is hardly the ‘soft touch’ that the Daily Mail likes to bang on about. Additionally, refugee status is granted only on a 5-year basis, with cases reviewed after this time. This makes it particularly hard for people to make long-term plans or properly settle in.

But the ones that do come here have a right to come. Article 14 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.

The people in the camps at Calais haven’t spent months travelling hundreds of dangerous miles because they want free NHS treatment, housing or benefits, as the Sun would have us think. These are people who have had to make the torturous decision of leaving their loved ones and homes, and are fleeing for their lives.

People don’t risk everything they’ve got, walk for hundreds of miles, travel across seas on flimsy inflatable dinghies, or spend days in the back of a refrigerated lorry just because they fancy it. These people are desperate.

Despite the unwillingness of our government to accept refugees, we British have blood on our hands. While other countries across Europe and the world are taking in a hell of a lot more than us, it is the British, more so than any other country in Europe, who should accept a considerable share of culpability for these global crises.

Take Eritrea and Sudan for example, both ex-British colonies, in the latter of which we created segregationist policies that led to ethnic divisions that have been suggested to be the roots of the current conflict.

Or take Pakistan and Bangladesh, both of which used to be parts of British colonial India, which had their borders with modern-day India arbitrarily drawn-up by a British lawyer, leading to bloodshed that cost 1 million lives.

More recently still, take Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya – all bombed or invaded by the British in 2001, 2003 and 2011 respectively. The 13-year invasion of Afghanistan resulted in over 90,000 deaths and cost £18 trillion, while the Iraq invasion led to nearly half a million lives lost. These last three countries are the places where we now see the increasingly hasty rise of ISIS.

By and large, the refugees coming to the UK are from countries that at some point have been affected either historically, through our greedy colonial past, or more recently, with our military aggression and jingoism. The British have certainly left their imprint on the globe. I’m not going to go so far as to say it’s ‘karma’, but we certainly need to recognise the part we have played in the history of these countries.

I don’t know what the solution is; I’m not going to pretend to know. But this can’t go on. The living conditions for these people, who have already suffered so much, is an abomination. There is nothing in the camps that resembles ‘living’ to me… people aren’t ‘living’ there; they are just struggling to stay alive.

We are so focussed on ‘keeping them out’ that we have totally lost our humanity. Britain and France have spent millions and vowed to spend millions more on strengthening our borders. Higher fences and sharper razor-wire won’t solve the problem; it will just mean people have further to fall, break more bones and be cut more deeply than before.

The pressing issue right now is one of human rights. Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states that every human being “has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing… including food, clothing, housing, medical care”. Whatever your views on the migrant situation, these people are human beings, not animals, and they deserve their basic human rights.

Source: Stop the War Coalition

05 Sep 2015

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