Behind my colleagues and me stood refugees outside flimsy tents, and ramshackle structures made from tarpaulins and plastic sheeting. Piles of rubbish lay close by, while festering pools of water and mud released unsavoury smells into the cramped mud-swamped wasteland. This was the Jungle – in Calais – home to over 4,000 refugees. In this abandoned stretch of land, refugees walk aimlessly on the muddy streets; young people play with their mobile telephones – possibly communicating with their loved ones back home, and the camp elders tell stories of their precarious journeys – the treacherous waters that threatened to capsize their dinkies, the fear that gripped them, and their loved ones in the silence of the oceans.
The scenes of refugees crossing and attempting to cross French borders is nothing new. In 1999, the Sangatte refugee camp was opened in Calais, attracting many refugees and traffickers. Its controversial closure in 2002 led to riots. Since then, refugees have continued to arrive in Calais, creating makeshift camps in close proximity to the port. Despite walls, fences and dogs attempting to prevent refugees from crossing French borders, numbers continue to soar, and this is not because France is an attractive destination, but because those fleeing their homes, friends and lands have few, indeed if any options. Their countries’ rapid de-escalation has sent them running towards some semblance of security. The recent suffocation in the back of a lorry of an Afghan boy, Masud, illustrates this point powerfully.
Masud’s only crime was to flee the country he loved, Afghanistan, for France. He hoped for unification with his sister, but it was prevented. His case has become a test case in a legal challenge, which began on 18th January against the Home Office, amidst allegations it often ignores the rights of refugees to family re-unification.
Throughout this crisis, the French and British response has been interesting. It seems to me the French have chosen to abdicate responsibility, to wash their hands of the crisis. There are many reasons for this. Among the removal of refugees from near the Tunnel, permitting their departure to the UK is a cheaper option than returning them to their countries of origin. Faced with a crisis that is international in its background, character and trajectory, such national selfishness by France, an EU country, is a disgrace.
Our British Government’s response is even worse. Why am I not surprised that some of the world’s leading economists have launched a scathing attack on David’s Cameron’s response to the refugee crisis, urging Britain to welcome more people fleeing the Middle East? The UK’s current offer of 20,000 resettlement places, spread over five years and only open to those outside the EU and to Syrians, is an embarrassment, and was proposed after being taught a lesson in compassion and leadership by Angela Merkel and by sensing himself behind in the opinion polls again – a response calibrated more by political expediency than actual compassion.
I wonder, too, if the same political strategy has been employed by the Government on the matter of unaccompanied refugees? The fact that the Government has taken so long to provide protection to unaccompanied refugee children from Syria, other regions of conflict, and for those in transit in Europe speaks volumes. The Government is so proud of the substantive funds it gives to NGOs, such as UNHCR to provide shelter, warm clothes, hot food and medical supplies to support vulnerable people, that it appears to have forgotten that it also has a responsibility to care for vulnerable people in its country which, frankly, is a far more sacrificial thing to do. Giving money when you have plenty is easy. Sharing your resources, land, homes, NHS and so forth is not as easy, and creates political fallout. Not good for a Government anxious to win a third term.
It is indeed good that vast numbers of people are calling on the Government to engage the latter (sharing resources), which is possibly the reason why the Government has agreed, at last, to lead a new initiative to resettle unaccompanied children from conflict areas, many vulnerable to exploitation.
Thank God that the Church response to this crisis is nothing like the Government’s politically motivated and half-measured responses. For example, four UK churches are calling on the governments to provide substantial funding to alleviate the suffering of Syrians, as the 2016 International Pledging Conference for Syria is in progress. The Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church are asking for new funding to include refugees in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
Even though some of our Black-majority churches are involved in lobbying the Government on these matters, there is ample more our churches can do to support asylum seekers and refugees. What I find particularly disappointing is the lack of empathy that people of colour have towards migrants. We are seemingly unaware that, not long ago, our parents were also at the mercy of the UK Government and of the benevolence of communities unknown to us. We, too, were strangers in a strange land. Understanding the reality of our parents – and, for some of us, our continued reality – should help us be less cynical and discriminatory and more hospitable towards the stranger.