The closure of the Calais camp is an act of barbarity, but solidarity with refugees remains strong, argues Shabbir Lakha.
The evacuation of the refugee camp in Calais has begun today. Scenes from the camp that were being live streamed this morning showed refugees queuing up in a fenced off area, waiting to be processed. The French government’s plans involve up to 2,400 refugees being processed and shipped off on buses today with the aim of transporting all the refugees in the camp before Friday. Demolition teams are on standby to begin dismantling the camp from tomorrow as portions of it are emptied.
Volunteers took to social media to vent their exasperation at having to tell refugees to trust the process and that everything will be alright when in reality, they don’t know that. There has been little to no information provided by the French authorities as to what is to happen to refugees in the 60 odd ‘asylum centres’ they are going to be dispersed between or what the next steps will be for them.
Reports of clashes with French police last night have been followed by an incredibly chaotic evacuation process and tensions are high in the camp. The line for registrations was supposedly closed off at some point without any information that left refugees huddled at the gates surrounded by police. This has led to confusion and panic and several fights have reportedly broken out over the course of the day.
Because the UK government has taken so long to begin processing children who have already been identified as having a legal right to be in the UK, part of the plan for the day was to allow the Home Office to continue processing unaccompanied children. However, this plan has apparently become a shambles and HelpRefugees issued a statement that 49 unaccompanied children under the age of 13 have been identified by their team on the ground who are trapped in the chaos of the evacuation and have not been processed. The unaccompanied children were supposed to be accommodated in the emptied containers that had been housing refugees up till this morning – but apparently this hasn’t happened and the Home Office haven’t been able to process any children so far.
There has rightly been much attention paid to the plight of children, and particularly unaccompanied children. However, there are other vulnerable groups of refugees in the camp – such as pregnant women, disabled and elderly refugees – who have not be given much attention or support (apart from that offered by volunteers). Whilst there is still concern for the unaccompanied children who are stuck in the camp, volunteer organisations also worry for the safety of these other vulnerable groups, who currently don’t have a chance of being brought over to the UK and the process and priority they will be subject to is unclear.
“European crisis” and people to people solidarity
There are currently 65 million refugees and displaced people in the world, which means that the less than 1.5 million refugees who have arrived in Europe since 2014 constitute little over 2% of global refugees and IDPs. Yet, it is this 2% that has been termed a “refugee crisis” and has had a huge impact on political and social discourse all across Europe.
The reason is simple: these refugees can’t be ignored. In the past, hearing about 300,000 Somali refugees in Kenya was sad, but it wasn’t our problem. Neither were the Burundians or Congolese refugees in Tanzania or the Afghan refugees in Iran or any of the others. But now they are here on our shores, dying on our beaches and asking for rights on our soil. We cannot ignore them if we tried.
But the European governments did try. Greece was left to deal with the refugees arriving on its islands and the French and British governments refused to acknowledge there was any situation in Calais. But what they didn’t expect was that the broken humanitarian response system that relies on ‘declarations of emergency’ and ‘permission to operate’ would be overtaken by individual solidarity.
Hundreds of thousands of people from across Europe and even from other parts of the world poured into Lesvos and Idomeni and Calais and numerous other refugee settlements around Europe. They wanted to express their solidarity and defied both the antipathy being preached by their governments and the traditional structures of humanitarian response. The xenophobic rhetoric seeking to justify allowing human beings to drown in the sea was largely ineffective on the masses. This is evident in the successful boycott of the referendum in Hungary – a country who’s Prime Minister has been at the forefront of anti-refugee propaganda in Europe.
Hundreds of thousands of ordinary British people of all ages and demographics have been directly involved in supporting refugees in Calais and millions more believe the government should be doing more to help. Amnesty International’s Refugee Welcome Index from earlier this year, ranked the British public as the third most welcoming in the world towards refugees. This demonstrates a huge disparity between government policy and public opinion. Theresa May might be hopeful that short of actually helping refugees, the destruction of the camp in Calais is the best way to bridge (or minimise the prominence of) this gap by removing it from people’s consciousness.
We must ensure we are loud and firm in our commitment to supporting refugees long after the last structure in Calais is demolished.
It won’t go away
Wherever the French government take the refugees from Calais, the current global crisis we are facing won’t go away. The War on Terror is showing no signs of slowing down and Western governments are only ramping up militarisation and interventions. As long as this continues, the numbers of people around the world displaced because of violence will only grow as will the influx in Europe.
The experiences of people who have been involved in supporting refugees across Europe are not going to be erased. People are all too aware of what is going on now, and the strength of the solidarity that has grown over so many months will not disappear. We must continue to challenge our government in support of refugees as well as opposing war.