Increasing levels of police violence, forced evictions and poor living conditions make for a precarious life for displaced people in Northern France. Aid workers efforts are impeded by abusive use of identity checks, fines and in certain cases, violence. Maddy Allen, Field Manager for humanitarian aid organisation Help Refugees shares with us the difficult circumstances refugees face in Calais and Dunkirk, a mere 60 miles from The Conflict Analysis Research Centre and the University of Kent.
The Hashtag that started Help Refugees
Conceived by a hashtag, Help Refugees has since 2015 grown to become the biggest facilitator of grassroots aid across Europe and Middle East. Concerned with negative developments for refugees in Calais, three women started fundraising efforts on social media with the aim of raising £1,000 within one week. Within their time goal, the hashtag #HelpCalais had attracted donations of around £56,000. Arriving in Calais, the women faced the unexpected absence of aid organisations to whom they had planned to distribute the funds and conditions far worse than expected. They began to distribute material aid, facilitate a range of services and organise volunteers in what grew to become the infamous ‘Jungle’ camp. Within four years, Help Refugees has grown to fund 80 projects across 11 different countries and are now the biggest facilitator of grassroots aid across Europe and the Middle East.
The Jungle Camp
In 2015, the ‘Jungle’ camp began to emerge, coming from the Pashtu word for forest, Dzhengal. At its height the camp had over 10,000 residents. In October 2016, the French government evicted and demolished the camp, sending people off to accommodation centres across France. During these evictions, a large number of children are known to have gone missing. In Grande-Synthe, La Liniere camp burnt down in April 2017, displacing a further 2000 refugees.
Maddy Allen has supported Help Refugees in Calais since 2017 and became Field Manager for Northern France in 2018. Before that she worked in community projects, arts and development within the Criminal Justice sector. Like many others, she came to volunteer for a month, arriving right before La Liniere burnt down. Shocked by what she saw, yet empowered by civil society group efforts on the ground, she ended up staying in Calais. She has a foster brother back home in Bradford who is an unaccompanied minor. He passed through Calais, living in the Jungle camp, in 2016 .
Help Refugees Field Manager for Northern France Maddy Allen pictured with Professor Hugh Miall, former Director of CARC, at the University of Kent during her talk March 1st 2019
A day in Help Refugees
In a warehouse in Calais, eight aid organisations work together to provide anything from food preparation, legal aid, material aid to child protection services. As a Field Manager, Maddy Allen is responsible for providing a strategy for activities in the field, safety and security, safeguarding, partnership building with other organisations as well as general administrative work such as fundraising and finances. Although Help Refugees is primarily a humanitarian aid organisation, advocacy has been increasingly important part of their work. Advocating for political change on both micro and macro level, Help Refugees is amongst other things campaigning for legal routes of passage to the UK, adequate provision of hygiene and state food provision, and more.
CARC sat down with Maddy Allen to learn more about the issues facing refugees in Northern France and about the work of Help Refugees.
What is the most urgent issue facing refugees in Northern France?
The main challenge is the absence of legal routes of passage across the French/British border. Since the British border is in France and the French border in the UK, one cannot claim asylum until on the other side. This means that asylum seekers can only cross that border ‘illegally.’
Secondly, there needs to be adequate shelter provided in Calais. Human Rights Watch did a report on Calais in 2017, which they named Like Living in Hell. Life in Calais for refugees is characterised by desperate living conditions, compounded by high levels of police violence, daily evictions and destruction of possessions by police. These dispersal mechanisms intend to keep people on the move constantly and result in a form of psychological torture where refugees can never think about what options are available to them or future life choices.
Has the situation changed in later years?
– As we edge towards Brexit, the notion that we can retreat back onto our island, batten down the hatches and put up barriers is becoming increasingly evident in Calais. We see new walls, fences and barbed wire appear every single day. There are drones on the beaches and cameras everywhere. The increased securitisation and dehumanisation of the people we support breads fear. This is the same fear that caused people to vote Leave in the referendum. That fear of the ‘other.’ That hostility is evident all across Europe.
What we see in Calais is that refugees are kind of like political footballs, they are being bounced across Europe, they have been victim to the Dublin regulations, they have got their fingerprints elsewhere and tried claiming asylum, being rejected and waiting around in Calais, without ability to claim asylum in France as they have already been rejected there.
With many news stories on police violence, could you share with us what you have seen in Northern France?
Refugees report experiencing high levels of violence from police throughout their journey in many countries. Many other countries don’t have good records of abuse of power from state, Greece, for instance. In France, it is extreme. It takes shape through excessive use of chemical agents such as tear gas, pepper spray, abusive use of identity checks and constant dispersals. Police enforce daily evictions of people’s living spaces to keep people on the move constantly. We can see rapid deterioration of mental health related to these incidents.
Although it is only a fraction of what the people we are supporting experience, aid workers have reported 646 instances of harassment by police in a six-month period last year. This has been through tailgating vehicles, some instances of physical violence, abusive use of identity checks and excessive use of fines. The blocking of humanitarian efforts on the ground is indicative of the hostile environment spreading across Europe and the worrying trend in criminalising solidarity efforts.
What does it (aim to) accomplish, extreme policing?
It is very clear that the government does not want there to be another camp in Northern France following the Jungle. This state mandate of extreme policing comes from a deep-rooted fear that numbers are going to increase. The result is that refugees will continue to live on the margins of society without safety or protection.
It also comes at a huge cost to French and British tax payers who are paying for this policing. Right now, there is no end in sight – where is this going to go? It is not a solution-based approach. And there is no engagement with people on the move themselves. Their voice is silenced whilst politicians argue in their echo chambers. Current European policies on migration struggle to acknowledge that we live in a global society of migration. There are millions of people on the move across the globe. This approach comes from tunnel vision and short-sighted lens that securitization of borders is going to fix this.
This is all happening right across the channel from us, and some on our borders, as refugees seek to claim asylum in the UK. What issues and dangers to they face as they attempt to cross?
Since there is no legal route of passage, these are dangerous journeys. Often, refugees attempt to get into the backs of lorries and we have seen an increase in boat crossings across the English Channel. Being the busiest shipping lane in the world, this is incredibly dangerous journey to take. If one were to fall into the water this time of year, they have got a survival rate of about 20 minutes, which is not enough time for the Coast Guard to get to you.
The irony is that on a sunny day in Calais you can see the White Cliffs of Dover. Through desperation we see people getting into the water trying to swim and someone drowned in the port last October.
This border kills. There have been over 100 deaths at this border over the past 10 years. This is from people being killed on the motorway, being crushed inside lorries, drowning in the port, or disappearing.
Does the UK have a responsibility?
– Currently the British border is in France, so yes, we do have a responsibility to act. On a global perspective, there should be an acknowledgement of responsibility for why these people are fleeing their home countries. The majority of people are leaving countries the West have invaded – we have a responsibility to be proactive, not just reactive, in ensuring we are not pushing people out of their homes in the first place. We have a humanitarian responsibility to provide protection and, first and foremost, must treat everyone as human beings with dignity and respect.
What kind of challenges are you expecting to face in the next few months as the UK prepares to leave EU?
We are as in the dark as everyone else about what is going on. A lot of Brexit negotiations are indeed around the border, but also on how migration is going to work. Immigration was high on the agenda as to why people were making that vote in the first place.
The main thing we are watching very closely is the UK’s relationship with the Dublin regulations. This is going to affect huge numbers of people across Europe who want to come to UK but cannot because they have got fingerprints elsewhere.
Also, around 50% of our volunteers are British. If complications arise from having British volunteers in EU countries, this is going to be a huge issue for all of our work across Europe.
How important is it to share refugee stories and the struggles they face?
It is really important to humanise the situation. People have attached a lot of fear to the concept of immigration, resulting in a support for securitisation measures. This comes down to not understanding people and their individual stories. As soon as you meet people and talk with them, it is very rare that you want to reject them. This fear emerges out of photos we see and the narratives they enforce – ‘swathes’ of people walking across deserts, boats overflowing with people. People become numbers, not humans.[U5] That invasion rhetoric feels very real, that people will come into your country in masses, when indeed numbers are very small in Northern France. They can and should be accepted into the UK or have access to adequate legal information to be able to claim asylum in France. This is going to require France to change its approach in supporting refugees dramatically. It cannot be a safe country of refuge with current levels of police violence.’
‘People must be the champions of their own stories. I’m sat here in this huge position of privilege, and with that comes a responsibility. We have to create spaces and facilitate situations where people are able to have complete autonomy over their stories. But I am also aware that sometimes people cannot share their stories, it is often very dangerous to. You must first be listened to, without judgement, by the government of the country in which you are claiming asylum. And we must be allies to one another to highlight voices on the margins of society.’
How can students get involved with Help Refugees?
There are loads of ways to get involved! Our operations are entirely run by volunteers and we have had over 20,000 volunteers over the last 2 years in Calais. For only £20 you can get a bus across to Calais, come and spend a day, a month, a week with us. See what is going on, educate yourself about the situation. You can put on fundraisers, spread the word about what is going on, gather donations. We rely heavily on donations from individuals to do this work.
First and foremost, it has to be education. Read beyond the headlines, speak to people, have a cup of coffee or tea with that family that has moved in down the road having probably just arrived in the UK and maybe in need of a friendly face. Help Refugees is built on humans helping humans. It does not need to be some grand gesture. Everyone can make a very slight change!
See below for a message from Maddy and Help Refugees on how you can get involved:
All volunteers welcome – whether you are able to stay for a day or a year!
- Please register to volunteer on: https://helprefugees.org/volunteer/calais
- You will then receive a welcome pack with further information about your arrival and accommodation.
- For further information please contact the welcome volunteers on: firstname.lastname@example.org
We desperately need donations! Top of our Needs List is
- Thin socks
- Men’s underwear (boxers, only new please– small, medium and large)
- Sleeping bags and blankets
- Trainers and walking shoes (sizes 40-43)
- Jogging bottoms (sizes small and medium)
- Rain ponchos
- See the Needs List here: https://helprefugees.org/calais/needs-list/
For further information please contact email@example.com