When the media’s focus – the headline-friendly ‘Calais Jungle’ – was destroyed in October 2016, coverage receded massively, and front pages turned to Trump, snap elections and the EU. Did we think that, maybe, the camp being set on fire had forced a change? That the French government, or the British government – someone, anyway – had stepped up and housed people and that they were steadily processing their claims? Did we think the French police had stopped firing pepper spray into teenagers’ eyes at night because it wasn’t on our Facebook feeds anymore? Or did we just tell ourselves that, so we could turn a blind eye?
The reality of Calais, and Dunkirk, and now overwhelming Paris, is that the situation is still as bad, if not worse, than it was last year. That’s the update.
“In theory, of course refugees have rights,” says Annie Gavrilescu, 26, who’s working on the ground in Calais for the grassroots organisation Help Refugees. “Every person, whether they are documented or not, has the same fundamental rights: They have the right to not get diseases because of the conditions they live in. They have the right to food. They have the right to water. They have the right to shower. They have the right to not be beaten up. In practice, however, there is very little to no accountability for the French police. If a refugee would like to make an official complaint about what’s happening to them, they would have to complain to the police, about the police. The situation is impossible.”
After speaking to long-term volunteers and grassroots organisations based in northern France over the last week, here’s what we know.
1. The living conditions are inhumane
Labour MP for Hackney North, Diane Abbott visited the areas in Paris in April – where many refugees went after the Jungle burned – and wrote about what she witnessed for the Huffington Post, stating that “Conditions in the unofficial Paris encampment are dreadful. In some aspects even worse than the conditions were in the Calais jungle. There is no running water, no sanitation, and no services of any kind, no cooking, heating or washing facilities and many of the inhabitants of the unofficial encampments have diseases like scabies. They are entirely at the mercy of the police who, when they can find them, chase them away and beat them up.”
The flow of refugees arriving in France hasn’t slowed down either. “In Paris up to 40 minors [children] arrive every day, and from that we get maybe a dozen, or a couple of dozen, coming to Calais,” Annie explains. “There are currently about 600 refugees in Calais and at least a third are children. The vast majority are young boys or young men; there are maybe a few dozen girls and young women.”
This number of people – among them unaccompanied children – are sleeping rough every night on the ground with a blanket in the woods. “And the police go into the woods every night and pepper-spray them,” Annie explains. “They even pepper spray their sleeping bags and all of their possessions so they can’t use the same items again, because once an item has been pepper-sprayed it will continue to cause the reaction that pepper spray causes.” Which, if you’ve never been pepper-sprayed, is: swelling of mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and throat, nasal and sinus discharge, coughing, shortness of breath, drying of eyes, painful burning of the skin, hyperventilation, fear, anxiety and panic. The first article the internet throws up on pepper spray says it is used in defence against dogs and bears.
“The police have a mandate to ‘deter and prevent’ any people from settling in the region,” Annie levels, “but that translates into pretty horrific behaviour against the refugees and quite a lot of harassment against the volunteers too because we are seen to be enabling people to stay. As much as I’m trying to understand their point of view, the fact that we give refugees a meal and a blanket every day, does not make people come to Calais. That is not any kind of pull factor, we’re just helping them survive.”
Partnering with L’Auberge des Migrants, and with other French organisations, Help Refugees is taking the local government to court. “We’re demanding minimal provisions for sanitation, hygiene, water and food,” Annie says, “and access to protection for minors. We basically have to force the authorities on both sides of the channel to uphold their responsibility to protect people’s fundamental rights and unless we do that, nothing will change.”
2. Refugees trying to claim asylum are set up to fail
Tamsin Koumis, 24, started volunteering in Dunkirk in February 2016. Then, with a friend (Toto) and a couple of other volunteers, she set up Dunkirk Legal Support Team – initially just to “bring legal information into the camp, because people didn’t know what their basic rights were and some had legal letters but they didn’t know what they meant – papers showing results of appeals or documents from the UK and there was no one to give advice on any of that.”
Tamsin continues: “You really need an organisation or volunteers to help you – you need someone who’s basically going to make it happen. The kids wouldn’t understand the legal system, let alone have any idea how to find a lawyer. And the lawyers of course are based in an office in London or Paris, and they’re not going to spend their time searching a camp for a kid or woman to get her to sign a letter.”
The process, broadly, is that when refugees arrive in France and ask for asylum in the UK, they are given two interviews, which are supposed to take place within a month of arrival, but rarely do. “If you so much as get one fact wrong between those two asylum interviews,” Tamsin explains, “they’ll say you’re ‘uncredible’ and refuse you on that basis. That happens a lot. And often, refugees won’t know the date that they crossed from one country to another, because it’s such a blur, so they’ll say one date in the first interview and then forget it in the second and be struck off on that basis.”
Even if children have family legally resident in the UK, and have a legal right to join them, it’s still a lengthy process getting them there and can take over seven months. “There has been an emphasis in volunteer groups trying now, more than ever, to give people the idea that perhaps France really is the best option”, Tamsin says.
3. The vulnerable children we thought were coming to the UK via the Dubs Amendment Act were stopped in their tracks
Diane Abbott explained this simply in her Huffington Post article, saying:
“British Home office officials visited the children in French centres after the demolition of Calais to determine whether they were eligible to come to Britain either under family reunification provisions or under the ‘Dubs Amendment’ which applied to children who were particularly vulnerable. The public expected thousands of refugee children to enter Britain by this route. But the government closed the scheme in December having accepted a few hundred children. But, since the closure of the Dubs scheme, there has been a surge in child refugees returning to Calais and Dunkirk. There they are vulnerable to people traffickers and sexual exploitation.”
Tamsin further explains that the UK made a commitment to take a number of vulnerable ‘unaccompanied’ children,understood by the public to have been 3000 children, but they closed the scheme in February 2017 after committing to offering sanctuary to only 350 children. Despite new guidance released in March 2017 and an extra 130 places being announced in April following an ‘administrative error’, it is still not clear that vulnerable children are able to access this route.“It now seems like children may only be referred to the Dubs Amendment Scheme if they’re already in protective accommodation such as hostels, which, thankfully, some are. But it’s such a false logic, because the most vulnerable kids are not in protective accommodation [they’re sleeping rough.] It’s so frustrating because the systems and laws they put in place exclude the people who need them most.”
Evelyn McGregor, 67, is a former lecturer in child psychology at Edinburgh University. She started volunteering with Calais Kitchens in January this year, then decided to go back but do something different “because what seemed to be the problem in the camp was that people were just stuck there, and they needed legal advice, they needed to know how to get out”, so she found Tamsin and Toto’s organisation and has worked with them in Calais for the last five months.
“For the kids who are in the hostels, there’s not much for them to do,” Evelyn explains, “they’ve been independent… and wandering… for a long time, so they get very frustrated that nothing seems to have happened with their papers, so then they head off to somewhere else and text us to say they’re in some other part of France and they don’t know what to do. Or else they get themselves to Paris, where they tend to get into problems, and then come back and aren’t allowed back into their hostel. There are a lot of young boys wandering around, not quite sure what to do.”
There’s limited space in the hostels, Evelyn explains, and apparent unwillingness to expand capacity, hence the volume sleeping in the woods. “So we [Evelyn and another volunteer] go to evening food distribution and look out for minors who want accommodation, and then take them to the police station in Dunkirk and say ‘they need a bed’ and the police laugh at us – if they even let us in the door. When the police turn us away, we try to persuade the kids to let us fill out a form to take to the children’s judge to ask for accommodation – which is likely to succeed. But often, the boys don’t want to go to the police station because they’re very frightened of the police and so they go back into the woods.”
In addition to trying to secure accommodation for the boys, and following up on the status of their claims, Evelyn supports them as best she can. “A few boys keep in regular contact with me,” she says, “and I’ve encouraged that, because it’s so difficult for them. There’s a couple who haven’t seen their families for several years – they’ve been refugees in other countries before France. As a psychologist, it’s quite stunning to see, on the one hand, how well they cope, but, on the other... what is the impact of this? What’s it going to be in the years to come?”
“I get a lot of texts about feeling alone,” Evelyn says. When asked how she responds to these texts, she says, “Well if it’s not too late... if I’m awake... then I phone them. We talk things through... but that’s all you can do. You want to just take them all in… but you can’t… so you have to be pragmatic, and talk them down and you, personally, have to accept what you can do and what you can’t.”
Evelyn says the hardest thing is explaining to the boys why there’s been no word on their asylum application in the UK. “They ask very logical questions, they don’t understand what’s taking so long, and so you have to get into the politics of ‘Well actually the UK government isn’t that excited about getting lots of refugees and so they may be finding other things to do in their office rather than processing applications, or there may be a backlog…' You try to explain the ‘real people world’ to them and they struggle to cope with that.”
Evelyn, Annie and Tamsin are all directly – or indirectly through the organisations they work for – involved in legal action being taken against the Home Office. “We have a court date on Tuesday 20th June,” Annie explains, “this is the last chance for the Dubs Amendment. If we don’t win this, it’s over.”
4. Protection, provisions and aid is reliant on grassroots organisations and individual volunteers
Bear in mind that Dunkirk Legal Support Team comprises just three people in France, and two in London – and they’re actively helping tens of children. Help Refugees has five staff in London, funded entirely by donations with no government support, and two coordinating the efforts in northern France. As Diane Abbott put it in her piece, “they [the refugees] camp in the street in Paris, hoping against hope that some voluntary organisation will help them with their asylum claim.”
“The local government in Calais and Dunkirk have specifically said there will be no more humanitarian action from their part of the state,” Annie confirms, “which means everything is left to us.”
It’s grassroots organisations and individual volunteers that are helping these people survive. On the ground, they are fighting for human rights and being met with an aggressive police force. And behind the scenes, they are tirelessly lobbying the government, appealing to lawyers and law firms, trying to make the people with the power to effect change take notice.
Organisations such as Refugee Kitchen make and distribute 2,000 portions of food every day. The Refugee Youth Service leads the multi-agency child-protection scheme with which Help Refugees works, alongside Safe Passage, who work specifically on trying to get minors to the UK safely and legally. Utopia 56 is a small French organisation who do nightly outreach to make sure people have enough food, especially if they are observing Ramadan. Doctors Without Borders is very present in Paris, where there is currently most need, while MDM (Médecins du Monde) is still coming to Calais as often as possible (once a week) to do medical work.
The individual effort, too, is staggering. At 67 years of age, with “a lot less on my plate now”, Evelyn decided to move to Calais while she “still had the energy”. Asked about her motive for doing this, she says, “Well, I’m not responsible for anyone anymore, so I can do things that I might not have done when I was younger and had young children.” Asked if she ever feels vulnerable in her work, she says, “Generally, no. There was a gun episode quite early on… and I weighed it up and thought ‘I’m much more likely to be killed on the French autoroute than I am by somebody with a gun'.”
5. There are a lot of different ways you can help
The positive side to this effort being run by grassroots organisations and not multinational NGOs is that you can donate to them, or volunteer with them, and it has a direct if not immediate effect.
“You can help by donating in whichever form you can to one of the organisations,” Annie says. “You can help us lobby the authorities too by showing your support at the High Court on Tuesday 20th June. And by talking about it on every possible means of social media. And by writing to your MPs, especially new MPs. And you can come to volunteer. Come to witness the situation.”
The refugee crisis 'on our front doorstep' is as critical as it was, and growing worse every day – losing support, losing public interest (and with that, donations), and losing hope. Volunteers and tiny organisations are fighting for the most basic human rights and being met with closed doors, hostility and violence. If the Dubs Amendment doesn't get reinstated tomorrow, our government must be held accountable for the hundreds of children whose lives they are point blank refusing to save.