By Caroline Lucas
On a grey day last week I crossed the Channel and entered a different world.
Upon arriving at the camp at Calais – commonly known as the ‘Jungle’- it became immediately clear to me just how grim the reality of the situation is. It is common knowledge that the camps at Calais and Dunkirk are home to an estimated 6500 refugees, and NGOs widely report that people living in the camps are exposed to squalid and often dangerous conditions. But what you don’t hear is how difficult it will be to walk away once you’ve seen it for yourself.
I was asked to join the Hummingbird Project, a Brighton based organisation, at the refugee camps at Calais and Dunkirk.
When we arrived we were met with scenes which, I can only imagine, resembled a war zone.
Lines of police with riot shields were blockading large sections of the camp. Behind the blockades, bulldozers were systematically demolishing flimsy wooden huts which were home to two thousand people.
Medicines, children’s clothes, nappies and shoes were strewn in the mud, abandoned by refugees who were forced to leave their homes during the evictions. Smoke and flames rose sporadically into the sky as parts of the camp burnt.
As we made our way through what still exists of the camp, we passed the accommodation provided by the French authorities. These shipping containers are now full, and are cordoned off within the site which is caged in by barbed wire fences. Refugees who have moved into these containers have to sign into the compound with an electronic handprint.
We were shown the Women and Children’s Centre and Youth Centre where volunteers have created a safe space for women, and for children to play and learn. An art therapy tent and a library called “Jungle Books” provide creative outlets. This is testament to the work that British and French volunteers have carried out – providing not only vital services, but small pieces of normality.
One of the most harrowing moments of the day came as we visited 12 Iranian men who have sewn their lips together in protest at the poor treatment they have received as refugees and against the demolitions taking place at the camp. 11 days into their hunger strike, their desperation was evident. I was extremely saddened to see such young men forced to take extreme measures under our watch, and whilst demolitions continued around them. Again, volunteers from Hummingbird and MSF have taken responsibility for these refugees, ensuring they have access to medical care.
Indeed, aside from the desperation of the refugees living in the camps, the thing that struck me most was the stark contrast between the devastation and chaos caused by the French authorities and the compassion, tenacity and organisation of the volunteers at the camp. People ranging from builders, medics, teachers and artists have done everything they can to care for the people at the camp. They have stepped in where the French and UK authorities have failed to do so.
It is estimated that over 10,000 British volunteers have donated their time over the last year, and that doesn’t include the numerous funds and donations collected from British citizens. The British public has shown their willingness to aid and support refugees, and the spirit of volunteers at the camp is a shining light in the darkness. In my home city of Brighton & Hove, where Hummingbird is based, the dedication to helping those in need has been truly uplifting.
In this same spirit, the Green mayor of Dunkirk and MSF should be applauded for their efforts to create a safe and protective space for refugees.
The camp at Grande-Synthe in Dunkirk has previously been considered far worse than the camp at Calais, although this was hard to imagine. Volunteers described the Grande-Synthe camp as "lawless" and a "swamp". Run by people smugglers, the French authorities refused to allow NGOs and volunteers’ access, meaning the conditions at the camp were appalling. Shockingly, Dunkirk was full of families and children.
Last week, the Green mayor of Calais and MSF went against the French authorities and created a new permanent site for refugees. This is the first and only camp in France to stand up to international humanitarian standards, and you could feel the hope in the air.
For the first time, residents of the Dunkirk camp have access to permanent structures, clean toilets and washing machines. Whilst it is a long way from paradise, it clearly shows what can be done with government funding and intervention.
Throughout the day it struck me that almost everyone we spoke to had a genuine reason for wanting to come to the UK. We spoke to refugees with brothers, sisters and even parents in the UK. We spoke to unaccompanied minors with parents and siblings in the UK, and many who had relatives who are British Citizens. We spoke to people whose spouses and partners live in the UK. Yet they are stuck in the limbo-land of the camps, without the legal and financial help they need to make their claims.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve secured a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament today calling on the UK government to support a UNHCR meeting which is taking place at the end of this month, which is designed to secure pledges for safe and legal routes for refugees, particularly from Syria. I’m asking ministers to assure us that the government will take a strong leadership role at the UN meeting on the 30 March.
Ministers urgently need to:
1. Give refugee children the same rights to be with their family as adult refugees: The UK is one of very few EU countries not to allow unaccompanied refugee children to sponsor their parents in order to be safely reunited in the UK. Family reunion should be expanded to allow children to be reunited with their parents in line with the best interests of the child principle and the right to family unity.
2. Widen rules to allow adult refugees to be reunited with their parents, siblings and adult children in the UK. As it currently stands, an 18-year-old girl cannot be reunited with her family because of her age. Similarly, a woman who has lost her immediate family to violence can only join her brother in the UK if she embarks on a long and dangerous journey.
3. Afford British citizens and those with indefinite leave to remain the right to bring to the UK their family members with international protection needs. This should be done on terms that are no less favourable than those on which refugees can be reunited with family members, save in the matter of recourse to public funds.
What’s clear is that the government needs to take a lead from the British volunteers at Calais and Dunkirk, and bring a measure of their compassion and empathy to Parliament. I believe that this is the true spirit of Britain and that the government needs to take urgent action to provide real solutions for those seeking safety and security.
Caroline Lucas is the former leader of the Green party and MP for Brighton Pavilion.
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