Between September and December 2017, I have volunteered with Care4Calais, a charity providing assistance to refugees in the Calais region, Brussels, and Paris. I have collected stories and testimonies from refugees and volunteers on the ground, and been a first-hand witness of migrants’ everyday life.
In Calais, when the sky is clear, one can see England from the beach. Hundreds of lorries board ferries and leave the port every day, one of the busiest in Europe, to cross the Channel, carrying goods and passengers.
Since the late 1990s, the Calais region in Northern France has become the last stop for migrants trying to reach the UK. Every year, thousands of people try to get on lorries that cross the strip of water that separates the Calais and Dover, or board trains and cars going in the Eurotunnel.
The situation in Calais often made headlines during the past few years because of the presence of the “Jungle”, an informal non-official camp close to the ferry terminal used by approximately 10’000 people as a base while they attempted to cross the border. Living conditions in the camp were awful. The hopelessness and desperation of migrants created a fertile ground for disorder, harassment and abuse to thrive.
In October 2016, French authorities dismantled the camp, and most of the residents of the Jungle were forced to leave and move to temporary reception centres around France. The whole operation was depicted as a great success, and publicized as the end of the refugee crisis in Calais.
However, despite claims by politicians and the media, the truth is that people are still coming to Calais, and they are still trying to go the UK, however rough their everyday life is, and in spite of all the obstacles in their ways. Reaching the UK remains extremely difficult due to the refinement of security controls at the borders, and daily life in Calais is still extremely harsh. France and the UK’s strategy of dissuasion through repression is not stopping those in Calais to try making the last step of their journey in perilous ways.
In some respects, the closure of the Jungle has made the conditions of migrants in Calais worse: as people are more scattered throughout the city and the region, organizing distributions and providing help has become more difficult for local charities. Also, police violence has intensified, and is a constant threat for migrants, who are systematically harassed by the CRS, the French riot police.
The situation of refugees in Calais is a humanitarian disaster, and represents a complete political failure by European states and institutions, on all levels.
The inhuman border regime of the EU
Calais is the last stage of long, extenuating, dangerous journeys. People from East Asia and the Middle East fleeing war and persecution mostly travel through Turkey, Greece and the Balkan route, despite the stricter controls and erection of fences put in place in recent years.
Those migrating from Sub-Saharan Africa have to travel very long distances to reach Europe, and usually have to pass through Libya, a living hell for migrants, in order to attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Italy’s shores.
People have to rely on and are manipulated by reckless smugglers and human traffickers to cross borders or security checks. Once they reach Europe, migrants are often condemned to live in a state of semi-illegality, in extremely precarious conditions, and risk falling victim to discrimination, blackmail, and violence.
The reason why people forced to leave their countries have to do these long and perilous itineraries is simple: there isn’t a legal and safe route to reach Europe for those wanting to claim asylum in a European country. While European States adhere to the 1951 Geneva Convention, and therefore recognize the right to asylum for people fleeing from persecution, they have not put in place humanitarian corridors that would allow people fleeing their countries to reach Europe safely and legally and effectively make their asylum claim.
In fact, European countries and institutions have chosen a precise strategy aimed at dissuading migrants from attempting to reach Europe. This strategy is enforced through two interlinked main policy pillars: first, the militarization of Europe’s external borders, trying to shut all available routes of entry into Europe, which has rendered the Mediterranean Sea crossing a deathbed for tens of thousands of people, the deadliest passage for migrants worldwide. European countries have set up a highly sophisticated and ruthless security apparatus to protect its external borders and prevent the arrival of migrants on European soil.
Second, the establishment of deals with foreign governments and militias, in which the lockout and the stemming of the arrivals of migrants into Europe is traded in exchange of money or other favours. That is the nature of the EU’s deal with Turkey in March of 2016, for example, and of Italy’s pact with militias in Libya, described as “an outrage to the conscience of humanity” by the UN. Amnesty International denounced European governments for the deal with Libya as well, accusing them of “actively supporting a sophisticated system of abuse and exploitation of refugees and migrants by the Libyan Coast Guard, detention authorities and smugglers in order to prevent people from crossing the Mediterranean”.
If the policies adopted to deter migrants coming to Europe entail condemning them to torture, exposing them to all sorts of abuse or putting their lives at extreme risk, is for European governments a secondary issue at best, or of no concern at all.
In short, the objective of European nations is to keep migrants out of the geographical borders of Europe, far from the eyes of European citizens. There is no price European States are not willing to pay to achieve this goal. Although it is clear from the number of deaths at the borders that the EU’s strategy is not deterring people from trying to reach Europe, but only forces them to find other more dangerous routes, European States and institutions keep persisting in their attempt to stifle the arrival of migrants, systematically violating basic human rights and international law.
Despite Europe’s violent border regime, a total of 1.3 million asylum applications were made in EU countries in 2016. This number represents a very small percentage of the total number of forcibly displaced people globally in 2016, which, according to the UN, stands at 65.6 million. “While the spotlight last year was on Europe’s challenge to manage more than 1 million refugees and migrants”, writes the UN, “the vast majority of the world’s refugees were in developing countries in the global south”.
These numbers make Europe’s criminal policies against migrants even more shameful and inexcusable: rich European nations are perfectly capable, if there was the political will to do it, of providing dignified conditions and prospects for migrants arriving on European soil, and of helping Third World countries to cope with the inflow of refugees.
Migrants in Calais represent an extremely tiny proportion of those lucky enough to have made it to Europe, and who, for various reasons, want to go to the UK. It is their plights and hopes that I have documented during the past 4 months.
A living nightmare
According to estimates of local charities, there are around 700 migrants in Calais, mostly coming from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan, and about 300 in Grande Synthe, close to Dunkirk, (47 km from Calais), the majority of whom are from the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Iran, and Pakistan. Virtually everyone staying in Calais and Grande Synthe has one objective: to cross the Channel and reach the UK.
Since the dismantlement of the old Jungle in October 2016, migrants are dispersed throughout Calais. They tend to be regrouped by nationality, and linger and sleep in different parts of the city. Although life in the old Jungle was very tough and dangerous, the majority of the residents had, at least, basic makeshift shelters, in the form of a tent or of wooden huts, which provided them with an element of stability.
Now, migrants sleep rough, wherever they can, in the woods, under bridges, on the edge of industrial sites, until when the police force them to move. The most fortunate ones share tents, while most sleep without shelter. French public authorities have provided no shelter, and local organizations cannot organize accommodation due to lack of resources and legal obstacles.
As winter approached, conditions became critical. Temperatures dropped under 0 degrees, making the cold almost unbearable. In December, some charities started to send volunteers patrolling the areas where migrants spent their time during to day to check for signs of hypothermia. With charities unable to cope with the needs on the ground, refugees have inadequate or insufficient clothes to face cold temperatures. Most wear the same clothes for weeks or months, without the opportunity to wash or change them, even when they are dirty or soaked, including underwear and socks.
The risk that some won’t make it through the winter is very real, as it happened elsewhere in Europe this year.
Wound care is also a serious issue. Doctors of the World, the Red Cross, Gynécologie sans Frontières, and a first aid mobile team provide essential assistance to refugees in Calais and the surrounding areas. The most common issues include bruises and cuts from barbed wire fences and life outdoors, burns, insect bites, fungal infections due to having wet feet for long periods, blisters caused by walking with inadequate shoes for hours, headaches, tooth problems, cough, and fever. Treatment of these seemingly minor problems can become complicated due to the precarious conditions of people living in Calais: as refugees are constantly on the move, it can be difficult to monitor the development of an injury over time; also, doctors often advise migrants to rest and keep a wound clean, but most don’t have the option do so, since they don’t have access to a shelter, and because sanitary services are lacking.
More serious health problems can be treated at the main hospital in Calais. However, it is often the case that migrants are refused access to care because their conditions are not considered an emergency, even if they should be, or that they are released too early, when they have not yet fully recovered, putting them at risk. Because of the lack of sleep and their distressing conditions, migrants also suffer from extreme fatigue, stress, and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, for which treatment is virtually non-existent for them.
Above all, what has dramatically deteriorated the general living conditions of migrants in Northern France since the old camp was destroyed last year has been the escalation of police harassment. The French government, in line with the EU’s approach, is pursuing a policy of deterrence by making the lives of migrants in France a “living hell”, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, in order to discourage them to come to Calais.
The French authorities’ objective is to keep the number of migrants down, and to avoid the creation “fixation points”, which include setting up a tent to have a protection from the cold and the rain, or building a shelter in the woods with branches. This policy is implemented through regular police verbal and physical abuse towards migrants, the systematic confiscation of their personal belongings, and constant interference of local charities’ work. Although the stable number of migrants in Calais clearly demonstrates that this strategy is not deterring people from coming, but is only resulting in a perpetual series of widespread human rights abuses, police repression has only intensified with time.
Despite the denials of the French authorities, police abuse in Calais is well documented. In July 2017, HRW published a 40-page report on the subject thoroughly exposing what is all too familiar to refugees and aid workers assisting them on the ground: the routine use of pepper spray on migrants, including children, in “circumstances in which they pose no threat”; an “excessive and disproportionate” use of force; the regular spraying and confiscation of sleeping bags, blankets, and other personal belongings; and the constant disruption of local charities’ assistance. HRW describes police behaviour in Calais as “inhuman and degrading”, and in blatant “violation of international standards” regarding basic human rights.
French President Macron has accused local charities of “lies and manipulations” regarding police violence. However, the French police department itself admitted in an internal report based on “abundant documentation”, that police abuse in Calais is real. In fact, as written by freelance journalist Alex Fusco, “CRS officers are not acting on their own initiative; they are agents of the state, obeying orders, implementing a policy designed to create a truly hostile environment for migrants”.
The report also says that the discrepancy between the number of testimonies of violence and the much lower number lawsuits brought against the police, another argument used by the French State to underplay police violence, can be explained by the migrants’ understandable reticence and fear of providing their identity and status to the same police officers who beat them.
“I am going crazy here”, says Karza*, from Iraqi Kurdistan, his eyes marked by fatigue, as he queues to get a warm portion of food.
“I have been here for two months, I don’t know what to do, it’s too cold”.
The police had just taken Karza’s belonging, again.
“I was sleeping in the woods, and at five in the morning the police came, woke me up abruptly and told me and my friends to go away. We didn’t even have time to collect our stuff, because they immediately started to take our belongings and to encourage us to leave. Then they sprayed my friend with gas, his eyes are still burning”.
In the absence of accommodation centres, tents, blankets, sleeping bags and tarpaulins are the only thing migrants can use to protect themselves from the cold and the rain during the night. Still, these items get systematically confiscated or destroyed by the French police. In addition, once migrants’ extremely precarious and inadequate “shelters” are destroyed, French authorities do not present them the option to be relocated to an official centre, leaving them in the cold, with nothing.
As documented by L’Auberge des Migrants, a local charity operating in Calais, at the moment of the destruction and confiscation of their personal belongings, public social workers and translators are never present to inform migrants about their accommodation options; also, buses used to transport refugees to temporary centres around France are only available for migrants in Calais two or three times a week, depending on the capacity of the centres, and not on the actual needs of migrants and on the situation on the ground.
To avoid the creation of another camp, the French and British government have collaborated to render Calais a nightmare for refugees. Their message is clear: you are not welcome here. Charities offer them vital support, filling the gaps left by the State, without which they would not survive.
Despite everything, refugees stay. Their resilience is stronger than the riot police’s club, and resistant to the freezing cold.
No future for the children of Calais
As French police dismantled the old Jungle in October 2016, most unaccompanied minors who lived in the camp were relocated to temporary accommodation centres around France. The process was very chaotic. During the days before the closure of the camp, authorities were “systematically undercounting unaccompanied children”, resulting in dozens of them to sleep rough and unable to register for accommodation because of lack of facilities in the wake of the dismantlement. Many had already left the camp before the camp was destroyed.
Also, most relocated children didn’t know what would happen to them next: some were promised they would be transferred to England, while others didn’t receive any kind of information from the authorities. In addition, some of the centres put in place to host them were in poor conditions and lacked qualified personnel, translators, and staff to assist and inform children about their options.
As a consequence, during the months following the destruction of the Jungle, many children remained in a state of limbo, unsure if they would go to England or not, stuck in inadequate centres, with no access to information about asylum procedures in France.
The French government expected the UK to accept most unaccompanied minors who used to live in the camp. However, Britain has only taken a small part of the total unaccompanied minors stranded in Calais so far. Thus, since October 2016, only a small part of the children has been transferred to the UK; others reached it on their own; some have just disappeared; and many are still stuck in Calais, in a state of hopelessness and squalor, traumatised and depressed.
“The night is very cold, Jungle is not good”, says Faisal*, a young 14-year-old boy from Afghanistan travelling with his older brother, who is 17. The two had just arrived in Calais, and were exhausted after two nights out in the cold. They were carrying only a tiny backpack for two, and neither of them had a sleeping bag for the night.
Charities estimate there are approximately 200 minors in the Calais area now, in situations similar to that of Faisal and his brother.
“We have been here 3 days, we don’t know where to go, our uncle is in the UK, we want to go there”.
I direct them to Refugee Youth Service (RYS), the charity taking care of the unaccompanied youth in Calais, which can bring them to the reception centre for unaccompanied minors in St Omer, 40min by car from Calais. In the centre, minors can rest and have a safe shelter, and are helped with their asylum procedure in France. Most young refugees, however, don’t want to stay in France, so they usually leave the centre after a few days.
Also, RYS regularly reports that the St Omer centre is at full capacity, and is incapable of coping with the increasing needs and number of young refugees present in Calais. As a consequence, the conditions of the centre are getting worse, and the support provided to young people is declining.
“The centre cannot cope with the number of people needing help”, says Arthur, one of the organizers of RYS, at the weekly meeting between local charities.
“Unaccompanied refugees are being sent back to Calais or have to sleep at the doorsteps of the centre, outside in the cold, for lack of space”.
Many of these children, like Faisal and his brother, have a legal right to be transferred to the UK because they have members of their family that live there. Under the family reunification scheme of the Dublin III Regulation, minors with family in another European country are eligible for reunification. However, as a Refugees Rights Data Project’s (RRDP) report explains, “many have been denied the chance to join their family under this legal mechanism, some are still awaiting the outcome, while others have not yet had the chance to apply”. The report highlights a “striking” absence of “recourse to information, advice and support”. Young boys and girls in Calais are very often not aware of their rights, of how asylum procedures function in Europe, or don’t know whom to consult if they need assistance.
The report also says “many vulnerable children on the streets of Calais should be granted protection in the UK under the ‘Dubs’ scheme”. The Dubs scheme should, in theory, enable unaccompanied children stranded in Calais and elsewhere in Europe to reach the UK safely and legally, even if they do not have a family link there. However, only a few hundreds minors were transferred since the scheme was passed in April 2016, before it was halted by the British government in February of this year, resulting in the UK not taking in any child refugees so far in 2017.
Another report by the British Red Cross that came out last year found, in accordance with RRDP’s conclusions, that there is a “lack of human resources, including administrative staff and interpreters, to enable children to access asylum services”; a “shortage of safe accommodation for unaccompanied children, despite the state being obligated to provide it”; and “inadequate shelter, nutrition, healthcare, education or psychosocial support” for children. The report also documented the “lengthy waiting times” and inefficient bureaucracy, which “leaves children disillusioned and losing hope”. Finally, the report stressed the lack of public resources injected in the processing of Dublin III cases, which leaves voluntary groups examining the cases “saturated”.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that a lot of disillusioned children and teenagers left the accommodation centres during the months following the destruction of the old camp, feeling betrayed and let down, once again, by the French and British authorities, and decided that the only way to escape the nightmare in which they were was to reach the UK on their own, whatever the risks.
Ahmad, 16 years old, from the Kurdish region of Iraq, is one of the many let down by the unjust and inadequate system regulating asylum in Europe. Ahmad lived in Sulaymaniyah, one of the main Kurdish cities in Iraq. In 2015, his parents and three siblings had to flee Iraq. He remained behind, working at his uncles’ clothes shop. In 2017, because of political instability in his town, Ahmad had to leave Iraq as well; he traveled for 6 months on his own, across Turkey, Greece, and Eastern Europe, until he reached France. The rest of his family, who fled two years before him, is now settled in Peterborough. According to the Dublin Regulation, Ahmad should be allowed to reunite with his family. However, it’s not as easy as he thought it would be.
“When my dad arrived in England in 2015, he told British officials that he only had three sons, because he didn’t think I would need to come to the UK too”, Ahmad explains.
Therefore, in order for Ahmad to be able to join his family, his parents have to prove that he is their son, and have a valid justification of why they didn’t declare they had another son in Iraq when they arrived in 2015.
“They don’t have my birth certificate anymore, and it would not be recognized probably anyway. My parents have pictures of me, but our lawyer said it’s not enough”.
“If my dad had declared that he had another son when he arrived, he would have had less chances of having his asylum claim accepted, because the fact that they left me behind could have been interpreted by Britain that the situation in Sulaymaniyah was not really dangerous”.
I ask Ahmad what proof his parents need to provide to be able to initiate the procedure of reunification.
“Our lawyer told us that I have to do a DNA test. But he said I can only do it in the UK”.
Thus, to prove his connection to his family, Ahmad has to do a DNA test in the UK; but to be able to do the test, he has to reach England first, which he is not allowed to do until his family reunification procedure is complete and approved, which can only be finalized… in the UK.
Many children in Calais are in situations similar to that of Ahmad. Their condition violates basic human rights conventions. They are being failed by all sides, left with no other option than putting their fate in the hands of smugglers and traffickers.
Frustrated by the lengthy delays and the bureaucratic intricacies, Ahmad gave up and decided to try his luck and reach the UK illegally.
“I traveled 8 months on my own, I don’t want to wait anymore. I just want to see my family”.
UK, the last hope
Border patrolling between Calais and Kent is governed by the 2003 Touquet treaty, which, in essence, installed juxtaposed border controls, meaning that the French frontier has been moved to Kent and, crucially, the UK frontier to Calais. This means that the UK Border Force carries out security checks at in Calais, barring the way to migrants entering the UK before they set foot in the country. Migrants who want to claim asylum in the UK, thus, cannot do so, because they have to be physically present in the country in order to make their demand for asylum.
The French-British border is one of the most supervised on Earth. The port and the Eurotunnel are surrounded by barbed wire fences, and constantly patrolled by border guards. Before being allowed to board ferries going to England, vehicles have to go through multiple security checks: first, French officials scan passports; then, lorries are X-rayed and checked with heartbeat detection equipment and a tool capable of detecting higher-than-normal levels of carbon dioxide due to people breathing inside the lorries; sometimes, security personnel also ask the driver to open the back of the lorry to carry out additional controls with dogs trained to spot human presence; finally, before lorries drive on to the ferries, UK border agents check passports and necessary documents a second time.
When the port is quiet, all lorries go through these security checks, and it is virtually impossible for refugees to hide. At busy times, it becomes a lottery: due to lack of time, some vehicles can board the ferries without undergoing all the controls. Only luck determines the few who will get through and those who will get caught.
When the night falls, migrants roam around the port and parking lots, waiting to seize the right moment to climb inside a truck. Usually, they pay smugglers to help them. It is difficult to understand in detail how smugglers help them in practice, as migrants, when asked, are very reluctant to provide details for fear of repercussions. As the majority of refugees are very short of money, and as they depend on smugglers to have a chance of crossing the border, smugglers often take advantage of their position, creating a very abusive and unequal relation of power.
“He took my money and disappeared”, says a young man from Eritrea.”
“I can’t do anything without money now, I am stuck”.
Another refugee from Ethiopia recounts the episodes of violence and abuse perpetrated on some of his friends he witnessed: “Smugglers are very violent, if we go to them asking for help and we don’t have money they beat us. Some of them have guns. My friend had to run away, or they would have hurt him badly. I am very afraid now to talk to them, but I need their help to go to England”.
By forcing people to rely on smugglers to cross the border, the UK and French governments are fuelling and are directly complicit in the development of human trafficking and exploitation. Their strategy is also ineffective: shutting the border has not discouraged people to try. Also, a small percentage of people actually manage to go through every week, keeping the hope alive for those who have failed that, sooner or later, it will be their turn.
Smugglers are very influential in the informal camps and areas where people stay in Calais. Often, they can be spotted by looking at how they are dressed: they usually wear good quality or new, fashionable clothes; also, they don’t bother to queue during distributions, either because they can buy what they need, or because they can bully refugees and obtain what they want from them.
Smugglers’ negative influence and power, along with the dire overall conditions in which migrants live, has resulted in the formation of informal hierarchies among refugees in the “camps”, in which a handful of tougher and more confident migrants exert their authority through intimidation and dominate weaker and more vulnerable ones (women and children in particular). As is the case in every environment where people have no rights, anarchy and competition thrive, creating the fertile conditions for injustice and exploitation to develop.
At the same time, the level of solidarity among refugees is astonishing, considering their situation. Although there is abuse and unfairness, it is far outstripped by the regular mutual help and comradeship shown by migrants.
A common argument put forward by the French authorities is that people in Calais would have the opportunity, if the wanted, to demand asylum in France, and therefore get an accommodation, food, and other basic services offered by the State. If migrants don’t ask for asylum and choose to go to the UK instead, the French and British governments say, it is their responsibility, and we can’t be blamed for the humanitarian crisis in Calais.
However, social workers and volunteers with actual knowledge of the situation on the ground have a very different version why people stranded in Calais desperately try to reach the UK instead of staying in France.
First of all, there is a lack of effective information and assistance for migrants. The resources put in place by the State are absolutely insufficient for migrants to have a correct and comprehensive idea of how to proceed if they want to demand asylum in France. It is not uncommon meeting migrants having no idea where to go or whom to consult to be informed about their options. A number of local charities, fortunately, complement in part the shortcomings of the State by providing legal advice and support, but they cannot cope with the needs on the ground.
Second, a non-negligible number of migrants have family members in Britain. Even though some of them would have a legal right to be reunited with their family, bureaucratic obstacles and lack of assistance often result in lengthy and uncertain procedures, which demoralize and make those eligible lose hope. Many of them, thus, decide to try their luck on their own. Who wouldn’t?
Then, there is the Dublin Regulation. This EU law determining which Member State is responsible for processing an asylum request is unfair for migrants and peripheral member States of the EU, and is having devastating effects for those stuck in Calais. Many migrants in Calais would be willing to demand asylum in France, but cannot do so because their fingerprints have been registered in another European country (usually Italy or Greece, which are not coping with the number of arrivals and whose reception facilities are overcrowded) in which they did not want to stay because they had no prospects there. Thus, if they demand asylum in France, they would be told to go back, or expelled, to the country in which they were first registered. Others have had their asylum claim rejected in another country, and simply cannot demand asylum in France. If they are caught, they risk getting deported to their country from which they fled. Until the absurd and unjust Dublin Regulation will be in place, migrants will continue to wander around Europe illegally, and with no rights.
Another crucial factor explaining why many people in Calais do not demand asylum in France is fear and distrust towards the French authorities, which are associated with the police. As written by HRW, “police abuses have a negative impact on … migrants’ desire and ability to apply for asylum”. While the French government claims it wants to encourage migrants to stay in France, it renders their life a nightmare, systematically terrorizing and beating them.
Contrary to popular beliefs, the UK is very often only the last option for people that are exhausted, stuck in the intricacies of Europe’s regulations, bullied by the State supposed to welcome them.
The UK represents the hope for a better life, a place in which they can build a future.
Whether that is true or not is a thought they cannot allow themselves to have, because they have nowhere else to go, and nothing else to keep them going on.
Helping refugees is a political act
After the dismantlement of the Jungle, the situation for migrants in Calais has only gotten worse. Surviving in appalling conditions and systematically chased, gassed and beaten by the police, their life is a living nightmare. The French government keeps trying to deter migrants from settling, and fails to offer them the refuge they deserve, while Britain maintains its border shut and militarized.
To end the humanitarian crisis of migrants in Calais, some urgent measures need to be taken:
– the creation of a safe and legal passage from France to the UK, to allow migrants wishing to demand asylum in Britain to do so, as it is their right according to the Geneva Convention.
– a moratorium and profound revision of the Dublin III Regulation in order to relieve pressure from the peripheral countries of Europe, to ensure the fair examination of each asylum claim, and to guarantee the full protection and welfare of asylum seekers and refugees.
– an injection of human and financial resources to the bodies dealing with the examination of asylum claims, and the improvement of the overall process of advising and informing asylum seekers about refugee protection regulations in Europe and their implications for each case, to ensure every asylum seeker receives correct and exhaustive information to make an informed decision.
– the institutionalization of a human and functional system of reception of asylum seekers, based on widespread, small-scale, State-run accommodation centres around the country staffed with professional social workers focusing on the social, economic and legal inclusion of asylum seekers.
– the acceleration of family reunification examinations and procedures, to protect children’s fundamental right to be with their family.
– the application of the Dubs Amendment, to allow unaccompanied minors stranded around Europe to be relocated to the UK in appropriate numbers and within a reasonable period of time.
– an immediate halt to all police abuse towards migrants and interference with the work of local charities, and the establishment of stricter controls and mechanisms to sanction unlawful behaviour by police officers.
– the expansion of the legal definition of refugee, to take into account climate-related displacement, and to include people forced to leave their country because of famine and misery, who are currently not eligible for refugee status.
These are not radical or utopian ideas. Most of them, if put into practice, would simply represent the application of existing laws and treaties. If these are breached and disregarded, it is because our governments feel confident they can continue to pursue their ruthless policies without consequences. This is why they need to be pressured to change. Without pressure from below, politicians will not change their course of action.
Western governments are not only hostile to refugees for electoral reasons, or because they are racist. They reject them, above all, because refugees symbolize the failure and the injustice of the world order they defend; they are the inconvenient “externalities” of the pillaging, the wars, and the misery caused by European nations, of which they are, directly or indirectly, complicit.
As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has said, refugees are the “embodiments of the collapse of … a state of affairs” that is morally bankrupt.
Refugees’ presence is uncomfortable because it breaks the veil of hypocrisy about our sense of righteousness, and makes certainties about our moral superiority crumble. Refugees force us to question our privilege, breaching our comfort zone, instilling doubts in our minds, and troubling our conscience.
This is why helping and welcoming refugees is more than asking for gradual reforms. It is a powerful political act. Fighting for refugees’ rights means repudiating the wars, the economic devastation, the climate disruption that caused them to leave their homeland; it means demanding European governments and citizens to be up to their historical and moral duty of giving refuge to those knocking on their doors; and it means making a statement of unconditional solidarity with every vulnerable and oppressed human being, calling for a more just and humane world.
The global refugee crisis is a horror story of trauma, shattered lives, torn apart families, stolen childhoods, broken dreams. We, the privileged of the world, have the moral obligation to open our doors wide open, and try making this human tragedy stop.
The day is getting dark in Calais. Ermias, 17 years old, meticulously fills his tiny black backpack with two energy bars, a pair of ripped gloves, and a phone charger, preparing for what has become a daily mission for him during the last three months.
“Tonight, chance” he says smiling, zipping up his barely fitting jacket, pointing towards the port, where a long line of stationing lorries prepare to board a ferry.
Thin raindrops and a sharp, gelid breeze make him bury his face into his headscarf.
We exchange a few words before he heads off with a few friends, cheerful.
He looks focused; his eyes are full of optimism. The hope to reach his destination is strong.
He has no other choice; hope is the only thing he has left.
Pictures and footage in this article are the courtesy of volunteers working tirelessly and of refugees heroically surviving in Calais.
* all names have been changed to keep the testimonies anonymous.
© Tommaso Segantini