Last August I was in Calais volunteering with the charity Care4Calais. On the surface, Calais is like any other port town. But on the outskirts, within the wooded areas and secluded grassland, lie whole communities of refugees from all over Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Most are men, all most likely victims of war and persecution. Yet there are still many women, children and families who also had to flee. At night they sleep in tents and during the day they take their chances in boats or in the back of lorries hoping to make it to Britain. Most times they fail and are sent back, sometimes they die trying.
I am sure you have heard of the recent news about the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos in Greece, where a large fire forced 13,000 people to evacuate. The camp was residence to many displaced children who are now without even the minimal safety of an overcrowded refugee camp. And while France and Germany have announced that they will be taking in child refugees in response to the disaster, I find it remarkable that it takes a literal mass fire for European governments to consider welcoming unaccompanied refugee children into their countries. For me, the fire is just a small part of the disaster that is the mass displacement of people across Europe who are fleeing war and persecution, only to face hostility on their journey to safety.
While I was in Calais, I met the Armeen family from Iran, a young couple with a little girl who had recently celebrated her first birthday. I had first noticed them in the largest camp in Calais next to the local hospital, handing out tea and coffee and had given the mother, Melisa, my number in case she ever needed help. The next day, when I met them again to give them some baby supplies, the father, Majid, told me that the police had evicted them from the camp. They had bought one coffee in the café, waiting until it was safe for them to go back. Although, Majid admitted that, if he had the choice, he wouldn’t go back.
“I really don’t like being there,” he said.
These refugee camps are technically not refugee camps in the legal sense, unlike Moria in Lesbos. Under French law, they are illegal settlements, and the French government thinks the way to solve this is by forcibly evicting refugees who have nowhere else to go. Of course, they eventually filter back to their original settlements. While the French police hope that if they harass these people enough, they will leave Calais, refugees are desperate enough to withstand this hostility. Since, they’d likely gone through worse back home. The UK is their last hope, and they have already made it this far. Why would they turn back?
One Kurdish mother of two, Leyla, told me how she had to restrain herself from fighting a French female police officer when she forcibly confiscated her family’s tent and told her to leave the camp: “’Where the hell do you want me to go?!’ I shouted at her in her face. I said to her, ‘do you not have children?! Would you want them to be wandering the streets with no food or shelter?! How would you feel as a mother?!’”
I failed to understand how one woman could be so callous to another. My friend from Iraq ,Hussein, explained to me: “This happened to me many times in 2018 and the situation was very bad. They used to destroy the tents and I had to go to sleep without anything even though the winter was very cold.”
Leyla and Hussein are referring to the CRS, the French riot police. I saw them often when we were at the camps distributing food and clothes. The Human Rights Watch has previously reported that the CRS have been known to use pepper spray against refugees and contaminate their possessions, food and water with it. Another friend of mine, Ali, recalls that they would pursue him and others in his camp “three times a week”, evicting them with threats of violence: “They would take our belongings, sometimes with beatings, and gave us no time to prepare or told us where else we could go.” The authorities are relentlessly unsympathetic, with the frequent prohibition of NGO’s from providing food and support, meaning sometimes refugees go days without food.
These are unequivocal human rights abuses on the French government’s part. But we must not think that this isn’t our problem just because it is not on our soil. Priti Patel and the Home Office’s visits to Calais earlier this year meant the evictions have been ramped up and become more aggressive in response. Additionally, as a result of the 2018 French-British Le-Touquet agreement, millions of tax-payers’ money have gone into funding the CRS.
On one occasion, I was with the Armeen family on the beach. In Iran, women are not allowed to go to the beach without a hijab and clothing that covers their whole body and this was the first time Melisa and Dana were by the sea wearing whatever they wanted. Dana was giggling away while playing in the sand while Melisa looked on overcome by joy. I think for a rare couple of hours, she felt happy and free. “Is that the UK? Over there, on the other side of the sea?!” she asked me, pointing towards the horizon.
Meanwhile, her husband, Majid, shared his story with me. Showing me a tattoo on his arm of a microphone he told me that, back in Iran, he was a talented carpenter and a singer. I was impressed but he confessed to feeling ashamed: “I can’t use my talents to support my family; like I can’t’ look after Melisa and Dana properly – I feel like a waste.”
He told me they had to leave Iran because they were Christian. I realised then how much fear and persecution they had experienced, and how it didn’t stop once they left Iran. Melisa had to travel all the way through Europe while being pregnant, on foot. They began their journey in Croatia, and then spent some months in Serbia where they were processed. “Two times, when we were in Serbia, she tried to take a lot of pills so she could pass away,” said Majid of his wife’s suicide attempts. Serbia is notorious for its hostility towards asylum seekers, whose main reason for coming to the UK is to avoid being sent back there.
The last time I saw the Armeens was by their tent. I went to escort some journalists to the family so they could take some photographs for a story. The photographer had the family in front of their tend, standing with their back facing him (to hide their identity). He was particularly keen on taking this picture as it gave good shock value to an already dire situation they were reporting on. The Armeen’s were camped within a wooded area, in very close proximity to other family tents. Piles of burnt charcoal and empty water bottles lay dotted around and clothes hung heavy on makeshift lines, tied between the branches of trees. It was surreal to see how people viewed living this way as a normality, but I respected it nonetheless.
I noticed the photographer beginning to cry as he moved the camera away from his face. “I’ve never seen anything like this before, this is shocking”, I heard him say. “I’ve been to literal warzones, but this is the most upsetting thing I have ever seen. These are families, children – how is this allowed to happen?”
The next day I left France with a very heavy heart. I felt guilty that I wasn’t there anymore, spending my whole day doing everything I could to help. I worried that I couldn’t check on my refugee friends every day; to see if any had left to try and cross the channel, if they made it, or if they had to turn back. But most of all, I felt sick that the extent of it all was much deeper than I previously realised.
On the train back from Calais to Lille, I ran into my friend Omer. He sat with me on the train and told me all about the bounty that was on his head back in Iraq because he’d written some satirical books about the government. His voice shook – he was jittery, ecstatic, panicked.
“Where are you going?” I asked him.
“Please don’t tell anyone, but I am going to get the boat”, he whispered. In that moment I realised my privilege; we were heading in the same destination, and yet our situations were so different. He had to risk his life to reach the UK and I had a passport.
I told Omer to be careful and that I really hoped to see him on the other side but he did not seem hopeful; he seemed scared for his life. Before I got off the train, he hugged me, hugged me as tightly as if it was the last time he thought he would hug anyone.
Melisa still texts me sometimes asking for help with money to pay a smuggler, or whether the charity I volunteered with could supply her with some life jackets. I had to tell her that we could not help her with those things. I am frustrated that there is nothing I can do but hope that their one wish of reaching the UK is fulfilled. I hope that a smuggler is kind enough to take them across the channel safely, and that their asylum claim will be accepted upon arrival. I hope that they truly find the safety and freedom they have been looking for so long.
Sadly, I feel things are getting worse. The French police are ramping up their evictions every day. The British government is sending navy ships to divert migrant boats along the English Channel. And every day I have to think to myself that I can only do a few things to help these people. But I have my voice, and I will use it to speak out against the relentless hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and across Europe.