Like most people, I’m often immune to tales of refugees, travelling across the world, taking huge risks, desperate to find a better life. Human tragedy is normalised by the constant images and reports from wars and famines and disease across the globe.
But I have just returned from Calais, where I saw that human tragedy up close. It brought reality into sharp focus. Thousands of people fleeing war and persecution are being denied even the most basic human rights just beyond our border. I urge anyone who can, to go and see for themselves.
Our Government is going to extreme lengths to avoid helping. A Court of Appeal ruling yesterday found the Government’s reasons for refusing asylum to child refugees were “patently inadequate”. However, the cap on children taken under the Dubs scheme was upheld, and so far only 280 have been accepted by the UK. My constituency contains Lunar House, where child refugee claims are processed, and our Croydon community has been hugely supportive of refugees. So this issue is close to home.
But the eyes of the world have moved away from Calais. The refugee camps in Greece are larger and more desperate, the conflicts in Syria and the Yemen, the plight of the Palestinians and the Rohingya Muslims are rightly making headlines. But the more time I spent on the ground, the clearer it became: we are sleepwalking into another crisis at Calais. A crisis that we hold a shared responsibility for, and we are not responding to. A crisis that will only get worse as winter sets in.
A few things really brought it home. Firstly, the sheer numbers of people and the speed they are growing. We took food to 1,300 people who are sleeping in the woods near Dunkirk. Over 100 people had arrived in since the previous day’s meals were distributed. Even volunteers who had been there for years were shocked.
The increase in women and children is particularly harrowing. Since the ‘Jungle’ camp was dismantled, the refugees staying in Calais have been mostly young men. This dynamic is beginning to shift and we saw families, and many unaccompanied minors. Criminal gangs are operating within the population and there are huge risks for the children who we saw slipping off into the woods to hide, spending the night in the cold. Children at risk of sexual and other exploitation barely a few miles from the UK border.
Another revelation was just how brutal and hostile the environment is. An environment created by the French authorities and being funded by the UK taxpayer. Over 2,000 refugees in Calais, Dunkirk and various sites in North-West France are routinely subject to the kind of police brutality we would never allow here. Increased UK funding for security means we are complicit in the tear gassing of children, of the rounding up of families only to drop them off hours later, on the side of the road because there isn’t any emergency accommodation.
This hostile environment is as psychological as it is physical. Almost every day, the French police conduct what they call ‘cleaning’ – dismantling camps and confiscating all the tents, blankets and sleeping bags. Charities like Help Refugees don’t have the supplies to replace them at this rate so people are left with nothing. Raids in the middle of the night mean that people live in constant fear. Researchers have found that the majority of refugees get just 2-5 hours sleep per night. For people who have already gone through so much trauma, the mental health implications of this are massive.
Finally, people are still taking huge risks to get to the UK, and people are still dying. While I was in Calais, three men tried to jump onto a ferry. Two were picked up, one is still missing. We talked to a man who knew the missing refugee, who told us the police weren’t even searching the waters for him. What value do we hold for these lives? Not much, it seems.
So what can we do about it? The nights are getting colder, we are heading for winter. But just as things get toughest, the number of volunteers and donations is dropping because the world is looking the other way. If you want to make a difference, gather some tents, clothes and sleeping bags and take it to a donation point in any major city. Even better, take them over to the warehouse in Calais and spend a weekend there. Go and help Refugee Community Kitchen make 1,200 meals per day, go and meet the refugees and show them some human kindness.
But also write to your MP, talk about the plight of the refugees, demand that the government acts. Why are we spending millions on barbed wire, on chasing refugees away from their tents and not spending more honouring our commitments to the ‘Dubs’ child refugee scheme. Why aren’t we speeding up family reunification as Theresa May promised this year?
There is a hostile environment that is dehumanising and abusing desperate people a few miles from our shores. We should be ashamed.
Sarah Jones is the Labour MP for Croydon Central
To find collection points for donations or information about making the journey to Calais visit https://helprefugees.org/donate-goods/