The need to find a humane and practical solution to Europe’s refugee crisis has become increasingly urgent. I was shocked to hear about the announcement of the planned eviction of the southern zone of the refugee camp at Calais, in France this week. Volunteers in the camp estimate this action will leave 3,000 people – 300 of which are unaccompanied children – without homes during winter.
Refugees who gather at Calais, to try and reach the UK, have been evicted repeatedly. Forcing refugees out of the camp means already vulnerable people are dispersed without access to shelter and support. It also puts them at greater risk from smuggler gangs, traffickers and even extremist groups. It’s clear that the solution is not eviction but instead requires political collaboration.
Conditions in the camp – which lies in an industrial zone and top of a rubbish dump – are very difficult, with frequent and hazardous gas bottle explosions and disease outbreaks such as measles, with no formal aid infrastructure in place to help. Instead, ordinary people have stepped in to provide support for the refugees, who have fled poverty, war and persecution from countries such as Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. Volunteers, supported by charities such as L’Auberge des Migrants, have self-organised to receive donations from all over Europe, sort them and distribute them with dignity to the camp.
Since September, volunteers have helped set up a school, medical clinics, a youth centre for unaccompanied children, a women and children’s centre, a theatre with art therapy activities, a caravan zone to house families with young children, and a network of community kitchens to prepare hot food. A legal centre was also built to help repatriate unaccompanied minors who have family in the UK, under the European asylum rule know as the Dublin III regulation. The first test case was heard successfully last month when four young refugees won the right to be reunited with their families in the UK.
The threat of the Calais prefecture’s bulldozers puts this infrastructure at risk, leaving refugees with little support. Volunteers have already shifted the homes of 1300 people last month when the authorities asked for 100-metre no-mans land between the camp and the motorway. The French authorities want the refugees to leave their shelters and relocate to the new shipping container camp at Calais, which will accommodate 1,500 people, however there are only 450 spaces left. The other option is to join the hosting and orientation centres across France, although many who have family in the UK want to remain near the port.
It’s hard to look at the images of this camp and believe that this is happening in Europe, a mere 20 miles from the UK’s shores. At the same time, I admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the camp residents and volunteers in finding ways to ease their discomfort, from setting up shops to generating their own power through dynamo bikes that can charge mobile phones.
They also try to use the little resources they have to help others. I was inspired by the story of one Syrian refugee, Omar who uses his mobile phone to help save refugee lives in the Aegean Sea. His WhatsApp group provides weather reports and geo-tracking as refugees cross and calls the coast guard if they lose contact.
It can be hard to remain positive when so many face hardship all over the world. But we must continue to use our energy to fight on their behalf and against inhumanity and injustice.
Join me in signing this open letter, urging Prime Minister David Cameron to support the refugees of Calais.