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In Snow and Solidarity: A Forgotten Crisis at Our Doorstep

Written by Lydia Darby, Social Media Manager & Volunteer at the ACAA

I recently spent 7 days volunteering across Calais, Dunkirk and Brussels with the Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK), Help Refugees and Care 4 Calais. I chopped fire wood, sorted new donations, rolled up sleeping bags, packed toiletries and distributed hot meals. I played volleyball with Eritreans, chatted to Iraqi ex-journalists, lawyers and architects, and made friends with a young Iranian boy who had walked for 15 days through Bulgaria on his way to France. Here are some of my reflections. 

Calais and Dunkirk

The 2015/16 jungle was a desperate situation, but today’s is considerably worse. Without the camp structure, community and services, the approximate 1,500 refugees are spread out around the towns and port. Their already precarious lives are made worse by constant brutality by the French CRS police. They are slashing tents, taking away sleeping bags and breaking mobile phones despite freezing temperatures and recent snowfall. According to a report by the Refugee Info Bus, between November 2017 and November 2018, 389 examples of perceived abuse of police powers were documented. This includes 52 incidents of police violence. Beyond making life intolerable for refugees, this hostility can inflict severe psychological damage.

In 2018, British taxpayers spent £44 million to fund French police hostility and border controls, including a 1km long wall. We are refusing to address the problem, instead turning a blind eye to the suffering going on just across the border. In January 2019, Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced a joint action plan which will see a further £6 million invested in new security equipment and a mutual commitment to return migrants. This funding fails to address two key problems: the lack of legal routes to the UK from France, and the brutality and human rights abuses by the French police. Read more about this here.

The charities working on the ground in and around Northern France are doing some incredible and important work. RCK are providing approximately 10,000 hot, nutritious meals each week. Other charities are giving out firewood, sleeping bags, tents and winter boots. The current priority is Men’s SMALL and MEDIUM (BLACK) winter coats, as this is an item the police can’t physically take away. However, neither charities have the resources to respond to large-scale evictions. They can’t turn up with fresh tents and sleeping bags after every eviction. This can be tough to get your head around as a volunteer who has just seen the police clearing refugee’s sleeping bags on the first morning of snow. It’s a challenging situation, but the charities have to plan ahead and ensure that they will have enough resources to last through the winter. It’s also paramount that they are not seen to show favouritism towards any particular community. Fortunately, with regular donations and different distributions happening each day, refugees will usually not have to wait too long until their desperately-needed items are replaced.  We distributed sleeping mats, duvets and blankets to a community one afternoon when the police had removed sleeping bags just a few hours previous.

Brussels

The diverse refugee community in Brussels are currently taking shelter at the central train station, although this closes at 1am forcing them to sleep in the snow-covered park. The situation is bleak, and the coat distribution to roughly 300 refugees was the most challenging thing I did all week. Despite the freezing conditions, many of the refugees smiled and chatted with us, thanking us for the coats and for coming. One refugee told us that he was so inspired by our work that when he finally reached the UK and had his papers, he was going to come back to help other refugees.

To the UK?

Everyone I spoke to in Northern France is hoping to make the journey to the UK. I met a family with two small children who are so desperate to get across the Channel that they turned down the accommodation that would have kept them out of the snow for a few nights. I had the opportunity to ask some refugees a question that many are wondering at home – why the UK over France? Most stated family connections in the UK and a desire to get away from the brutality of the French police. They recognise Britain as a safe, tolerant country with good opportunities to work. The reality is, no one leaves home unless home is in the mouth of a shark. These individuals have suffered trauma in their homelands and on their journey through Europe. Now they are living in the shadow of their final destination – with little hope for legal resettlement and further danger to their lives in attempting to cross the Channel. I spoke to people who left behind degrees and futures as journalists, teachers and architects. They have a whole host of skills, experiences, dreams and aspirations, so why does British society refuse to see them as anything more than a threat to our ‘culture’ and a drain on our services?

If you can lend a hand for a few days, there is always a need for volunteers in Calais and Dunkirk. The full list of required donations can be found here: https://helprefugees.org/calais/needs-list/

At the ACAA we strongly believe that the UK have the resources to look after everyone. We help to bridge the gap between refugees and the services available to them, building their language skills and confidence in knowing their rights. We encourage social integration and emphasise likeness in people rather than difference.

Like and follow for updates on the on-going crisis: @A_CAA @RefugeeCKitchen @HelpRefugees @Care4Calais

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