Give A Shit, refugee rights

‘Dangerous migrants’- a portrait of the real former inhabitants of the Dunkirk refugee camp

How many more can we take? The ‘swarm’ on our streets! We must stop the migrant invasion!

These are real headlines from the Daily Mail concerning the refugees that have fled to our shores in increasing numbers in the last couple of years as a result of growing instability in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

There have always been global wars, violence, and instability, but there is no doubt in the last years the world seems to have got darker. Civil war, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and further catastrophic bombing by intervening foreign powers, have forced more people than ever to flee their homes, lives, families, and friends, in search of safety in Europe.

In the mean-time the flux of new arrivals has made many people in the UK and the rest of Europe very afraid. It is understandable. Though I am proud to live in a multi-cultural country, and believe it is an inevitable result of our history of colonialism, followed by globalisation, and modern technology enabling easier freedom of movement, there is no doubt that the landscape of Britain has changed rapidly in recent decades. People have had to adapt to people from different countries, and cultures they struggle to understand, arriving in their neighbourhoods. There is a human instinct to be protective of your territory, and family. This fear is liable to be greater if you are already struggling, and people living in severe austerity as a result of the inequality within our own country are naturally more inclined to be concerned over competition for jobs, local resources, etc. Evidence has shown that refugees granted asylum in the UK are also most likely to be placed in the most impoverished areas, that are least able to cope with the growing demand. And in this environment, the media has capitalised on this anxiety to spread fear, suspicion, and hatred towards refugees. There has been a deliberate language choice to favour the term ‘migrants’; implying that these people have travelled for endless months, largely on foot and unsafely hidden in lorries, because they fancy a change of air, rather than because they are fleeing persecution and death in their own home countries.

daily mail refugee

Having returned from volunteering at the Dunkirk refugee camp on the day it burned to the ground, I wanted to share the stories of some of the people that I met, to put some faces to this seemingly faceless threat, and show that these people are humans with lives and fears, and families, and hopes like all of us. No doubt, there were some very dangerous people on the camp; I have been honest in my previous blog about how afraid I felt of the tension within the camp, and the influence of criminal gangs. The majority, however, were normal people that have been victims of a tragic series of circumstances we can barely imagine having to live through. They include women. They include children. They include teenage boys. Good men trying to get by and keep their head down to avoid the violence in order to protect their families. Old men. All desperately looking for a safe home and to protect their loved ones.

I have changed names where I have known them in order to protect people’s identities.

Ariya is a young mother. She has a gentle, soft demeanour, and speaks English well. She has been married for two years and has a six month old baby; the cutest and most sweet natured thing you have ever seen, with big, questioning eyes, and long, soft lashes. She was forced to flee Iran with her husband shortly after her marriage. After months of travelling, she fell pregnant. Love will out in any circumstances. She carried her baby to term while living in the Calais Jungle. When she went in to labour, she was brought to a nearby French hospital to deliver the baby. After four days, mother and newborn infant were returned to the camp, in spite of the inhumane and unsanitary conditions. After Calais was closed, she was forced to go on the move again, carrying her baby, and ended up in the Dunkirk refugee camp. She always had a positive attitude considering everything, even though she worried for her baby, who cried at night and sometimes became ill in the cold conditions of their shelter (no more than a small and dark shed).

One thing that moved me was the way in which people still looked out for others, even though their own conditions were so bleak. Roza is a large, middle aged Kurdish lady, with a cheeky gleam in her eye and a wicked smile, in spite of her only having three remaining teeth. One day she grabbed my arm in her large hand, seemingly very concerned, and insistent to drag me off with her into the camp. Her husband joined us on the way to the shelter and with slightly more English, explained ‘not able work man, not good’. They took me to a disabled man who had become ill because he was so cold at night. Through signing they requested blankets to keep him warm at night, and we went back to the centre to find some. Roza was insistent that he must have the best of the ones we had.

A young couple. They sat on the high bank at the edge of the refugee camp looking down to the swampy, filthy water below that separated the camp from the motorway. There was fighting around them, children crying, the smoke from people’s cooking blowing everywhere. They held each other, and rubbed noses, and kissed.

Belen is a very young woman, a few years younger than me, who ties her hair each day into a tidy plait and studies very hard to learn English. Belen is one of those people who is beautiful because their personality and warmth shines out of their face; she has a constant, gentle smile, in spite of everything she has been through. She attended English classes every day, turning up with her pencil and notebook, learned quickly and remembered things instantly, and asked for extra homework to complete herself in her shelter in the afternoons.

A pregnant lady. She was asked if she thought it was a girl or a boy. She said, a boy. She hoped for a boy. She had a boy before, and he was eight. He was shot three times. The third bullet hit his heart and killed him. An eight year old boy.

The children that did make it as far as Dunkirk were very obviously struggling to cope with the trauma they had been through, severely damaging to anyone, let alone at such a young age.

The very small ones were so traumatised that some of them were unable to communicate. A boy of no more than two or three, whose eyes are depths of sadness, and who just stares , silently, or cries. He is unable to interact in any way, no matter how you try to talk to, play with, or comfort him.

The middle aged ones (between about 6 and 11) are sometimes like normal children. They play, and squabble, and are boisterous, and would run around having water fights. But they are also angry. They are frustrated where they are, and apart from the volunteer-run children’s centre, had no outlet for their emotions and energy. They have also not had the chance to go to school or have an education. I was shocked, though I shouldn’t have been, at the level of aggression they displayed when we were not able to meet their demands. But really, it’s not surprising they would demonstrate these behaviours, because violence,  warfare, fear, and a fight for survival, is all they have known.

children dunkirk copyright jamie wiseman

© Jamie Wiseman

The older children (11-16) are heroes. They have a much better understanding of the situation and the difficulties the adults around them are facing, and have undertaken huge responsibilities in caring for their younger siblings, or other children around them. They have maturity far beyond their years and a calm, measured approach to assessing their situation.

I met two brothers. The older, who was 16, told me he was looking after his brother, 14. They wanted to talk to me to improve their English as they were desperate to get to the UK. He asked if he would be able to go to school there. I said I thought he would and would be in around year 11. He then intimated, through motions and broken English, that he would have to start at the beginning, because he could not read or write. I asked, did you go to school even when you were very small? And he said he had started, but then the Taliban came. Motions shooting. Then, schools close. Many of his friends killed. He said he had travelled with his brother for 11 months to get as far as France. They had come with their cousin but had lost him in Serbia. He was going to try to come to the UK soon, maybe by boat, or by lorry. I begged him not to try to come by boat. Tried to motion he might drown.

These are the people trying to reach the UK. They are people who deserve love, and compassion. The media are constantly telling us that people want to come here to change our culture, to bring violence, and take benefits from our hard-earned taxes. Everyone I met wanted to learn English. They wanted to work again, as they had at home, and regain their sense of dignity by providing for themselves. They wanted education, and to contribute to the country they had idealised in their minds as a safe haven. They just wanted a life of safety and dignity, which is the right of us all.

Because people only run the length of the earth, carrying their crying children in their arms, if the alternative is more violent and terrifying than we can possibly imagine. They only leave the homes they love, and the only life they have known, to run with a few possessions on their back into squalid refugee camps for shelter if the alternative is to be killed. See your friends killed. To see your children murdered right in front of you. Wouldn’t any of us do the same in those circumstances?

Love and peace,


Give A Shit, refugee rights

Dunkirk refugee camp destroyed by fire

‘Helen, the camp is burning down’— this is the text I received from a friend a few hours after I had fled home from volunteering at the Dunkirk refugee camp because I felt things were seriously unsafe, dangerous, and poorly managed by the French authorities.  Still a bit shaken from the things I had seen, I told my parents over a strong drink ‘I just have this feeling something terrible is about to happen’.  Within the hour heard the news that a huge fire had broken out in the camp which could be seen from the volunteer residence (a good 20 minute walk from the camp through a lot of forest).

dunkirk fire

Image of the fire shared by media. Source: Getty

My immediate panic was for the people. Have they got everyone out? Where are they going to go? And uncontrollable anger, because if people were killed as a result of this the government MUST be held to account for the gross neglect that led to this situation, which could have been avoided if it wasn’t for the total absence of organisation and humanitarian oversight to deal with the unfolding crisis. In particular I was scared for the many children, and devastated this could happen to them in the place they were supposed to be escaping danger no one should ever live through, let alone at such a young age.

Thankfully I was told that all the residents were standing outside the camp. I’ve now learned from the news that about ten have been injured, some stabbed in the fight that broke out that led to the fire, apparently between Kurds and Afghans. Most of the people that were living in the camp are Kurdish, from Iraq and Iran, but since there have been more Afghans arriving following the demolition of the Calais camp, and the situation had become overcrowded and tensions had increased as people were forced to live in unimaginable squalor.

I am worried that the right-wing media will interpret this incident as a way to further demonise refugees. From my perspective, having spent the last week working in the camp, something like this was inevitable. The conditions in which people were forced to live, and a lack of professional humanitarian management have created and exacerbated a situation that is now extremely dangerous, in which the majority of people, who are harmless, ordinary people forced to flee war and terror on a scale we can’t imagine, have become further victimised and endangered while seeking refuge from one of the most developed and wealthy nations, France, and being denied refuge within another, our own ‘Great’ Britain.

This news report claims that Kurdish refugees were living in ‘chalets’. The reality is that in this camp that is ‘internationally recognised for meeting humanitarian standards’, up to 8 people shared ‘shelters’, that are little more than small, filthy, dark, dingy, and rotting garden sheds, with no heating or electricity. I am amazed they survived the winter. They had no safe way of cooking and so many are going to be permanently damaged from the smoke pollution. Disease is rife and many people suffer from scabies. The huts were packed together, and the camp is so overcrowded, that it’s no wonder that if a fire started it would spread quickly. The people have nothing, and are forced to beg volunteers as we pass by for a pair of shoes that aren’t falling apart, or a blanket to stay warm at night. People are desperate. And in this environment, a mafia group has taken a lot of control. Though the media frequently presents these gangs as typical refugees, the reality is that most people living on the camp are as scared of them as we would be, and have lived in this fear unable to escape for a long time.

refugee camp

A picture of the camp I took before the fire

This is well known to the company that manage the camp ‘Afeji’. I should have taken it as a warning sign that Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), a world leading humanitarian organisation that created the camp, pulled out several months ago (though there seems to be no publically available explanation as to why). Afeji seem to be little more than a logistics and so called ‘security’ operation, with no real interest in managing or preventing the criminal activity within the camp that victimises those with less power, including women and children. It is widely known that human traffickers operate within the camp, but no steps are taken to prevent exploitation of those that are desperate enough to be forced to turn to them for help.  And why do they take such a risk? Because we fail to offer them a safe and legal way to find passage to safety.

To describe the various dangers and failures in the camp would take a lot of words, and I will have to share this at another time once the situation is better understood and there has been more time for reflection. I had intended to write about the people of the camp, and their lives, and share their stories so that people better understand the situation for refugees in Europe. I had intended to stay for a month volunteering in the Women’s Centre. I knew the conditions would be difficult and potentially dangerous, but I had imagined that there would be organisation and systems available to support volunteers, most of which, including me, are relatively young and not trained to deal with humanitarian crisis situations such as this. This proved to not be the case and within the first few days I was unhappy with the situation on various levels. Over the weekend you could feel the tension in the camp rising, and on Sunday we were forced to close the Women’s Centre after an incident and leave. I felt at serious risk for my personal safety and that of my fellow volunteers, who felt the same.  I really felt we were lucky to get away without injury.

There were various other things that had happened, both in and outside the camp that meant even the accommodation provided from the local council didn’t feel safe or secure. I couldn’t sleep for anxiety. I was worried what would happen the next day on the camp and from an awful premonition of danger.  I struggled with the decision to leave all night. A friend made the point to me ‘do you feel like you can genuinely improve this situation?’ and in all honesty the answer was no. I was not equipped to deal with this. It should never have been left to un-managed volunteers to step in where the government has failed, it puts both the volunteers and the vulnerable people on the camp at great risk.

At this point I strongly feel that the camp needs specialist intervention. The volunteers that work there are incredible people-  brave, selfless, and endlessly giving individuals, some of whom have been there for many months and given up their whole lives to support vulnerable people they otherwise may never have met. Those people have my endless admiration. But we were still really only a bunch of well-meaning lefties in our early twenties. What is really needed is for a humanitarian organisation or body to take control and provide the support of staff that have specialist training for crisis situations such as this. An organisation that will work with the authorities to ensure that in handling this situation now, refugees are treated as people, with rights, who deserve respect and support, and safety.

refugee camp 2

Cry for help scrawled on the side of a shelter in the camp before it was burned down

It is well known that the government really wanted to shut down the camp soon, knowing how out of control it had become. As I have written this news has come through that the authorities will not rebuild the camp. My fear is that all the poor people who had lived in the camp will end up homeless on the streets, as has happened in the aftermath of closing the Calais jungle, and victimised by police treating them like criminals. I heard stories from volunteers who had gone to Calais of disgusting cruelty to homeless refugees from the police, who slept at night on the streets with their sleeping bags open, because there had been incidents where they would be sprayed in the face while they slept (with some kind of pepper spray or immobilising agent, I was not clear) and then seized while they were unable to get out and run away.

It was some of these people who were coming to the camp in search of refuge after the Calais ‘Jungle’ was shut down. The situation would never have got this bad if the French and British governments had dealt with that crisis in a responsible and humane manner. As it was, they drove these people into this situation and now should bear the burden of responsibility for de-escalating it and creating a stable environment in the aftermath. I do not believe in all faith that they will step up.

We (British and French), or at least our governments, are complicit in creating this atrocity from our intervention in wars in the Middle East in the last years that has exacerbated danger to the point that people have had to flee to our shores. And our governments are directly responsible for this happening right under our noses, only just over 100 miles from London.

refugee camp 3

Another picture of the camp before the fire

As the aftermath unfolds we must put pressure on them to take a responsible and humane course of action. I don’t know now what will happen, and what assistance will be needed, and if I will need to return to help. I am waiting to see news of some plan of action.

For now people have been temporarily taken to local gyms to stay, and there is an emergency appeal for donations to replace what was destroyed, including food, clothes, blankets and sleeping bags, emergency blankets, shoes and trainers, and backpacks. Please, please donate if you can. I am very afraid for what will happen to these people.

Let us support refugees and demand a different approach from those in charge. We must, for once, act with humanity, and with love. Though I am not religious, I pray for these people’s safety.

I will write more in time. Keep watching the news.

Love and peace,