FOLLOWING THE ATTENTION focused on the demolition of the Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in October 2016, there appears to be a media blackout on one of the biggest humanitarian crises continuing on our doorstep.
There is, of course, the occasional flurry of negative coverage stirring up fear and racial hatred towards the so-called mass of people making their way to the UK to scrounge our benefits, jobs and British way of life.
The same hateful divisive language is heard from the American President describing ‘the caravan’ or invasion of bad people heading to America to threaten the American Dream, ironically built by immigrants. Demonising desperate people fleeing to safety seems to be the order of political top tables everywhere, with much appetite to create and extend the hostile environment for immigrants.
There is the occasional voice raising awareness of how this government has reneged on promises to support the most vulnerable refugees. In 2016, almost 100,000 people signed a petition calling for Britain not to turn its back on the vulnerable child refugees in Europe. The Dubs Amendment was passed with an agreement to take 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe into the UK. But ministers controversially set a limit of 480, despite councils saying they could find space for far more and the latest figures show less than half that number - 220 - have been transferred to the UK. Campaigners are rightly calling the government response “completely inadequate”. So, what happened to all those children? And to the people we saw vilified in the news on a regular basis? I was very keen to see for myself the situation in Calais and Dunkirk first hand.
Labour activists, particularly Labour women, are a determined lot and through NHS campaigning, I had met Cathy Augustine, women’s officer of Wantage CLP and co-founder of Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity (ORS), along with David Matthew Bailey, Gwynne Reddick and Norman Wood - all Labour members and activists. Cathy soon had me signed up as a volunteer on the next ORS trip. I could think of no better way to honour the memory of my dear friend David who died earlier this year and left us with clear instructions to “stay angry and keep on doing what you’re doing.”
Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced - a sea of desperation, frustration and the inhumanity of further harassment and persecution by the authorities. Menacing van loads of gendarmerie (regular police) and CRS (riot police) watch all the goings on in the presence of the charities, only to return to terrorise refugees as they settle for the night with their meagre possessions.
The refugees we met are mainly men but in many of the distribution trips I met women, sometimes with children. Each had their story of how they came to be living rough in the woods, under bridges, on industrial estates, behind suburban garages, anywhere that could afford some shelter.
Some had settled in the UK but left to attend a family funeral in their country of origin and then found themselves locked out of the UK where they have family, others trying to reach siblings after becoming separated when they fled persecution. Nobody would live in these conditions out of choice.
One young man I spoke to, Absalom (pictured), had survived these conditions for 13 years, from the age of 17, before being eligible and applying for French citizenship. He is currently working and contributing to society. He told me he still comes to distributions when he can, to catch up with friends and to give them all hope and encouragement to carry on.
You can almost smell the frustration of it all. Yet nowhere did I hear of anyone being helped to get their paperwork in order, or get applications processed so that they can begin to be resettled properly and permanently.
Currently both French and British governments follow the hard line, hostile environment policy, and refuse to deal with the people and families in perpetual limbo.
UK taxes go to the French government to police the border in northern France in the most brutal but ineffective manner - pepper spraying belongings, clearing small and large camps, throwing tear gas canisters into sleeping areas, while providing no long-term human solution.
While this continues, the work of ORS and similar groups, made up of many Labour members and who volunteer and take supplies over to the small charities on the ground, provide a vital lifeline.
Small acts of humanity like providing clean pants and socks, charging phones, providing the means to have a haircut and a conversation over a cup of tea are more important than ever. These simple things keep people going and are why we raise funds to visit on a regular basis. So please give what you can so we can keep doing what we can until a Labour government delivers a more humane solution.
is a Labour councillor in the London borough of Ealing, women's co-ordinator for Ealing North CLP,
co-founder of Ealing Labour Women's Forum and outspoken NHS campaigner