Aid workers speak out on Calais
Help Refugees is a non-profit organisation working on the front lines of the ongoing refugee crisis in Calais.
Here, teams do what they can with little resources they have, to distribute as many items a week as possible to refugees. 94% of all donations go directly towards fighting violations of basic human rights around the world. Including what is happening right now in the forests of Northern France.
Currently, just under 2,000 refugees live in various areas around Calais, many of them from either Asian or African countries.
According to Help Refugees, at the time of our interview, the Gendarme and National Police had been conducting evacuations every 48 hours. Stripping refugees of basic human necessities that now only seem like unattainable luxury items.
In order to have a full understanding of what exactly was the picture behind the headlines, we reached out for an interview. Laura, a welcome volunteer for Help Refugees, and a part-time worker for Project Play responded.
Originally a Canadian native, Laura found herself working in the Calais camp after a summer of inter railing throughout Europe. She decided to stay in Calais for a few weeks, and without her anticipating it, weeks turned into years.
Laura and I sat down in a makeshift wooden office that reads ‘Welcome’ right outside the Help Refugees warehouse. With the inevitable Brexit just around the corner, I decided to dive in, searching for reasons as to why refugees are so determined to reach the shores of the United Kingdom just in time before Britain’s departure from the EU.
After taking a deep breath, she responds, “Northern France is the most racist and the most xenophobic. There are other reasons as well, so many people have friends and family who live in the UK or friends of friends in the UK. So they’ll say, ‘Oh my uncle’s cousin is in the UK and I can go to him and he can help me.’ That’s the biggest one, that people are going to have some kind of family ties.”
Upon arrival in the UK Laura says a lot of people claim asylum immediately and if they’re lucky they can be put into the system and the asylum process can be started. She refers to her ‘friends’ who have made it in the UK, and how they’re currently struggling.
“They’re in really small places all over England, and they get a card which they’re allowed to buy certain things with every week, and you’re not allowed to use the leftovers, which I just found out. Which is super fucked up, and now they’re waiting, now it’s the waiting game, for interviews, for the thing to happen and it takes so, so, so long.”
When I ask her about refugees being smuggled out of Calais, she immediately looks exasperated. “I don’t know” she says. Then I probe again, but this time bringing up the subject of gang activity in the region.
“I don’t know the difference between gangs and mafia, but they’re the mafia. So Afghan mafia, Kurdish mafia…” she chuckles. “The Africans don’t have a mafia because they don’t have the money for one. I shouldn’t laugh about that, but it is kind of a running joke with the Sudanese guys.”
“So yeah, the mafia in Dunkirk is really, really bad. They control pretty much all of Dunkirk. Most of the sites other than the ‘Jungle’ and Calais are controlled by the mafia. They even try and charge people for our distributions.”
When I ask how Help Refugees handles such situations she notes, “We try where we can to make stuff accessible to everyone. So we target the groups that we know are particularly vulnerable by doing smaller distributions at another site that make it safer for them to be able to come and access things. We do different things during distributions like making sure everyone is in the lineup and making sure that someone isn’t controlling it.”
Brexit has been doing its job of confusing the general public by presenting the idea that refugees are trying to lead the UK into chaos and havoc. However, Laura says that the population actually trying to reach the UK from Calais, is teeny weeny.
Before our interview, it had been reported by Express that 100 refugees had stormed a ship heading for Dover at an attempt to reach the UK.
Also, the night before Laura and I spoke, a man had died after sneaking onto a lorry and was suffocated.
Laura insists that the situation is getting more and more serious. “Yeah there are people here trying every single day but they’re failing. And now people are doing the most unbelievably desperate thing, which is dinghies, (or lifeboats). It’s so dangerous, it’s the busiest channel in all of Europe, it’s fucking cold. So if you fall in the water you’re going to get hypothermia, people don’t know how to swim, but people are terrified and desperate. I think maybe the mafia is organising more of them but I totally could be wrong with that one, so I don’t know.”
One of Laura’s colleagues, Otis Kirby-Dunkley, works with the distribution service with Help Refugees in Calais, Human Rights Observers and Project Play. We were able to meet up with him on a boat in Central London and ask him a few questions about his work there and what the average eviction is like for refugees.
According to Otis, “Evictions happen every 48 hours for each camp in the whole north of Calais, because otherwise displaced peoples will receive squatters rights and with that they, [The National Police] ,won’t have any legal right to lead them on as they do at the moment.”
“They take all of their belongings and everything they own and move it out of the perimeter. Everyone moves outside the perimeter and they arrest between 3-6 people on average and take them to the station to be processed. They clear up the whole of the camp and once they are done, they move on, and all the displaced people are allowed to go back onto the place that they were living. But a lot of them, without their stuff, and having to start again essentially. It’s horrible, so we record all of it to try and create a case in the future to stop the police doing what they’re doing.”
According to Otis, most of the living facilities consist of wasteland that isn’t being used by anyone, and some of it is privately owned.
“Displaced people will come to Calais, Dunkirk, or the surrounding areas and they’ll look for someone to share a tent with. Or when aid teams come out they’ll ask, and if we have a tent, we can give them a tent, and blankets, and sleeping bags, or other sort of material needs they have.”
“Unfortunately, we have a limited supply and donations are not very regular at the moment, because what was a crisis but is still a very desperate situation in Calais and Dunkirk, is not really fed on the media anymore, and that’s a really big issue for our organisations. Because we don’t have enough money, and we don’t have enough donations to be supporting the amount of people coming to Northern France.”
“They’re living in bad situations because both the English and French governments aren’t doing enough to support them. We are sort of hopeless to even help, which is a stress of our own and not even a stress of the people, because what they must be going through is far, far, worse. Displaced people do have certain rights but I don’t think they are being fulfilled. Which is why there’s organisations like Help Refugees that are there to sort of fill that gap.”
Over the course of recent months, intimidation by the French police has escalated. Such interactions have been reported in the past by Human Rights Watch, who claimed that police had been abusing adult and child migrants in Calais.
With this information in the back of my mind, I ask Otis to tell me about the most recent evictions that seem to be leaving refugees more and more devastated.
“At the moment there’s been a lot of change in protocol, especially with the ‘New Jungle’. They, [The National Police], have just evicted it permanently and they’re going to be putting up fencing all around this wasteland field to stop the refugees from staying there anymore. But that’s obviously not going to solve any problems, because there’s still displaced people, just having to move around to different areas.”
“A lot of the refugees know about the evictions before they happen. So they’ll hide their belongings, but the ones that are left there, are then pushed out of the perimeter, and told they can’t take their stuff which frustrates the refugees or displaced peoples, because everything they own is like, in a backpack, and they can’t even take it.”
“It could have their legal documents in it, or personal photos from home that they’ve carried with them the whole way, but they’re moved to the edge of the perimeter and their belongings are put into the clearance van, and that gets sent off to something called a resourcery, which is kind of like a charity shop, and they sell their belongings.”
“Typically there’s a lot of violence during the evictions because people are so frustrated being asked to move or they don’t even know what’s going on, and language barriers make it hard to understand why they’re being pushed away, and why their stuff is being taken.”
“So there has been incidents between the displaced people and the police. In an average eviction, there will probably be 50 police officers for camps that either hold 20 or 200 people, it can be really intimidating. Then the next morning they come again, and the next morning, and the next, and it never stops. So there’s this constant tension between the displaced people, the police, and then the organisations trying to help because we aren’t even allowed to go into the perimeters to help these people, or even to retrieve belongings.”
Upon asking whether or not Otis still considers this to be a human rights crisis, he retorts, “I mean you put those words into my mouth. Three years ago, it was a crisis, and now it’s been deemed as not a crisis. But when you’re out in the field, speaking with these people, where their mental health is deteriorating because of the treatment they’re getting or not getting, to me, it’s one-hundred-percent a crisis.”
Towards the end of my conversation with Laura, it’s clear that recent obstacles have left her exhausted and frustrated, but her sense of perseverance hasn’t diminished.
I ask her how it is that she remains so hopeful when the entire world seems to be anti-refugee- and closer to home, anti-Calais.
“The reason I’m hopeful right now is because I had to take six weeks off, and I spent the entire time studying how to be hopeful. I swear to God.”
“Like I messed up my ankle so I couldn’t walk around, or anything like that, so all I did was read the Dalai Lama and think about being hopeful. Because when I left, I didn’t have anymore hope, I was just like ‘the whole world is fucked up and people torture each other and my friends have been stuck here for so long, and they want to kill themselves.’”
“So now, everything is still hard in the moment, but I worked really hard being like okay, in the future, we don’t actually know and maybe that means that I can be hopeful”.
After a sigh of relief, she says, “Yeah, I’m holding on really tightly to that”. And begins chanting, “Compassion not hatred, compassion not hatred”.
Help Refugees continues to fight against human rights abuses in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France.
Though evacuations have persisted, and the situation has increasingly become more appalling, aid workers like Otis and Laura, are just not ready to give up yet.