Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
Our convener Alison Phipps recently visited camps in Calais and Dunkirk, accompanied by the SNP’s Justice and Home Affairs team at Westminster. The four-day visit was aimed at highlighting the current conditions and issues affecting camp inhabitants. Here, we have collated two of Alison’s articles about the trip.
For those reading this and concerned to offer support Help Refugees UK are involved in many initiatives including the important census in the Calais Camp
MSF have been involved in the work to improve camp conditions as well as in research and advocacy in Calais & Dunkirk
Right to Remain provide resources for human rights education to empower people to know their rights
This includes a Toolkit we have previous featured on the blog.
Day One: Listening and Learning
THE catastrophe that is the European failure to uphold its own convention unfolds palpably before our eyes.
We see at first hand the tenacity and courage of the aid workers, the courage of a local mayor against all the odds, the acute need for legal information and advice, the urgency of trauma support and the woeful inadequacy and failure of imagination for unaccompanied minors.
We had arrived in Calais earlier and had our first briefing meeting with MPs from Home Affairs Select Committee and MSF HelpRefugeesUK.
The briefings with local and international NGOs tell of the hard work to co-ordinate and systemise the incredible influx of British volunteers after the publication of the moving and disturbing photograph of the body of young Aylan Kurdi on the beach on the Greek island of Kos.
Being in the presence of activists and veterans in the struggle to manifest compassion against a system designed to obstruct, brutalise and confound is familiar to me.
The politicians ask question after question using every moment of what they are acutely aware is valuable time. Their questions about legal cases, about precedents, about management, about resources, about the humanitarian horrors, about the need to act with dignity and decency … their efficiency in these meetings is very impressive.
There is anger and admiration among those assembled here. There is incredulity and at the same time an abiding lack of surprise. Of course the policies of the United Kingdom have led to this.
There is talk of the work back home, in communities of new arrivals in Scotland, and of the disgraceful housing conditions for asylum seekers in Glasgow. There are the harrowing stories of those struggling with the agonising injustice which is killing the spirits and the bodies and the souls. We, the people of Europe. We did this.
ON a stone in the middle of the bulldozed ‘camp sud’ is graffiti with the words ‘veni, vidi, vici’ … famously deployed, so history has it, by Cesar after a rapid and complete victory. “I came, I saw, I conquered.” So it seems with the “victory” of the security state, with its barbed wire and container-style camps, its sterile, lifeless systemising and the constant activity of bulldozers and diggers uprooting every tree, levelling every dune, steam-rolling every tent.
I look down into the mud and there is a child’s shoe and a broken pot – signs that people were given no chance to take their belongings.
The people we meet in the Camp Nord are entrepreneurs, cooks, bakers, accountants, professors, geologists – and then there are so many children and young people. They are people on their knees in a small, beautiful sanctified Eritrean church, praying.
These are the people we are keeping from entering the UK, greeting us with smiles and gratitude simply for having made the effort to visit them and to bring love and greetings from people back home.
The people we meet, and who are kept at bay by the multimillion-pound border industry, just want to be with their friends and families, as you or I do. They are from countries with long connections to the UK, to its imperial history, victims of the line-drawing borders on maps a century ago.
There is everywhere the menacing presence of violence, overt and evident; the violence of a Europe which has lost its way and is lashing out in fear; the violence of the state as bully; the violence which steps in, in place of the articles and declarations made when we said, in Europe, never again. It is 2016. We, the people of Europe, we did this.
Day 2: The Warehouse
I WALK into the Warehouse and am met by the sights and smells of my childhood – those of the jumble sale. On shelves with neat homemade labels are piles of clothes and bedding. All around are volunteers from the UK. They are overwhelmingly female. What brought them is what binds them in the flow of good-humoured activity – a sense that it is our responsibility to provide basic aid now that the UK and France have failed.
On the tables are orange strips of duct-tape marked “Trousers – small, medium, large”; “Tops, female – small, medium, large.” We get started. Arms and hands moving in a rhythmic dance sort the clothing into sizes, fold it, place it on the shelves and return to the sorting table.
There is a murmur of conversation and a lot of laughter over some items. High-value items are separated for sale and fundraising. It reminds me of the atmosphere in holiday camps I worked in as a student one summer. Only there is a worry here, and seriousness.
The shift finishes and we assemble again outside waiting for rides back. Later that evening, in a cramped room, we push aside chairs and sit on the floor so we can see one another clearly and, one by one, in soft tones, or with anger, or tears, or bewilderment, we tell one another what we have seen.
Day 3: The Kurds
ON the side of the Mairie – the town council building – in Grande Synthe there is a banner opposing TTIP. We sit inside and spend an hour with Maire Careme, learning what a difference decisive political leadership can make. The conditions in the camp refugees set up on the outskirts of Grande Synthe were “epouvantable” – “utterly disgraceful”. When MSF’s Michael Neuman gave a lecture at Glasgow University in February he said he had never seen such terrible conditions in all his years. In coalition with MSF and festival organisers, the Maire had used his limited power to move the people out of their miserable conditions and into sheds which can sleep four, and gave people the right to cook and decorate the sheds.
We arrive at the new camp and it’s not the riot police approaching us with batons and questions, as it was in Calais, but the local Gendarmerie – community police – who check our papers. The atmosphere is markedly different. The camp is only three weeks old but already the difference which good organisation and peaceful ways of working make is palpable. There is not the menace of violence that we experienced in Calais, nor the overweening control. Children ride around on bikes; there is laughter and conversation. As we walk around the camp people ask us questions, request items, or tell us of their situation. Food, tea and coffee are supplied and we stand in the sunshine with a bag of salted sunflowers sharing them with a man from Iran. In Farsi, Turkish, some Arabic and broken English we hold a conversation – one about hope and despair – not about the conditions in the camp but the politics of refugees.
Ninety per cent of the camp are Kurds. They invite us to a meeting and tell us of Kurdistan, its history, the British involvement, the way lines were drawn on a map. They are begging the politicians to act. They are gracious, courteous; they arrange translation and greet us formally. Then the stories begin which I recognise as those I have heard from other desperate nations without a state: the Palestinians. Those speaking with such urgency are desperate to find a way of telling the epic story of their suffering. There must be a way of telling the story, of giving testimony to those who bear witness that will work, that will end the suffering. They try every angle. And I realise how I am utterly confounded, for there is no way of communicating this story to those with power that will work. There is despair and hopelessness in the eyes of one of the men. I have no words.
In Calais we had met a man who had known this despair and overcome it and learned to live from day to day with no hope. He said: “I know there is nothing you can do. But it is enough that you have come to say hello to us.”
There is nothing we can do. Those with the power to make the camp conditions better have done it and done it courageously and in a way which utterly shames what happened in Calais. So here we are, united in a common understanding of the hopelessness of it all, thrown back on the most basic of human activities – giving and receiving hospitality.
Day 4: Calais
IT is our last day and time for a long meeting with MSF workers about camp conditions, the violence, sanitation, legal advice, politics, the well-being of volunteers and what on earth can be done. It’s time for commitments.
There are first-hand reports of random use by French riot police overnight of 500 tear-gas canisters in the camp in Calais and of a young man crushed to death by a lorry.
At Calais-Frethun, the Eurostar station, there is the presence of armed customs officers and dogs as well as sub-machine guns – all part of the menacing atmosphere and the threat of state intervention under emergency powers.
The whole group is engaged in careful, considered discussion of what might be done and how to create a future where the shame and impossible despair and entrapment of the camps is replaced by just futures and humane possibilities.
However well managed and constructed a camp this is, it is no solution, and certainly not a semi-permanent one. They are places that slowly kill the mind, spirit and body.
This article was first published in The National newspaper on the 9th April 2016.
A REFUGEE camp, the Jungle, home – muddy and basic, the ramshackle shelters of asylum seekers on the French coast have become well-known through news bulletins.
From summer 2015, when Prime Minister David Cameron referred to “swarms” of migrants attempting to cross to new lives in the UK, many delegations have visited the Jungle camp and others nearby.
This Easter, Professor Alison Phipps of the Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet) accompanied the SNP’s Justice and Home Affairs team at Westminster to Calais and Dunkirk in a four-day visit aimed at highlighting the current conditions and issues affecting camp inhabitants. The visit came as French authorities continued efforts to demolish part of the Jungle.
Amongst those attending were Home Affairs spokeswoman Joanna Cherry MP, Immigration lead Stuart McDonald and Civil Liberties spokeswoman Anne McLaughlin. Angela Crawley, SNP Equalities spokesperson, also took part, as did “Glasgow Girl”Amal Azzudin & Pinar Aksu both former refugees, and experts on mental health, forced migration and protection issues, as well as GRAMNet member Dr Teresa Piacentini.
Now back in Scotland Alison has written this account of the experience for The National
IT was when I called my family at home and described kneeling on the floor in the church which now stands in the middle of a razed, bulldozed mudbath of rubbish and devastation that the tears came.
The sound of the bulldozers coming ever closer, the presence of the bodies draped in the white Eritean shawls (suria) at prayer beside me, the juxtaposition of the silent petitions of hope and peace alongside the violence of destruction and hopelessness were too much for the words which tried and failed to describe the scene. Witnessing became the witness of tears.
There have been many different fact-finding missions, visits to demonstrate solidarity and concern and humanitarian ventures to the flashpoints on the borders of Europe and also the border between France and the UK in Calais.
There have also been visits designed to threaten and deter migrants and refugees, as well as parachute visits that allow for photo opportunities.
A sustained series of visits from humanitarians and people in the public eye has enabled the situation in Calais to become a matter of public concern after years of obscurity. Those who have visited have included a range of SNP MPs from the Home Affairs Select Committee, academics, clinicians, campaigners and those who have long experience in working with refugees in Scotland.
At times of chronic humanitarian crisis, an active approach is that of bearing witness. Throughout the South African apartheid years courts, media, academic research, creative artworks and government chambers provided spaces for bearing witness to the ways in which justice was undermined and human rights were violated, revealing the structures at work to systematically destroy black lives and undermine resistance.
At times of acute concern and in the face of collapsing systems of justice and law in the European Union, where binding obligations are being set aside by states and local government in favour of security and emergency measures, the space for meaningful action is diminished.
Just this past fortnight, UNHCR and Médecins Sans Frontières have pulled out of working in “reception” facilities in Greece in protest at the policies of refoulement – the enforced return of refugees or asylum seekers to countries where they may face persecution. Visits to situations of conflict and chronic humanitarian need have occurred in various situations in recent years. During the Decade to Overcome Violence, the World Council of Churches organised visits to bear witness to the suffering of peoples in Palestine-Israel, in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, among others.
The visitors included those skilled in observation, writing, reporting, legal understanding, research, poetic practice and medical knowledge, who had as part of their professional practice the ability to document and reveal something of the suffering with credibility and understanding.
In the context of Calais there has been an extraordinary mobilisation of humanitarian aid from the UK, and especially from Scotland, with community groups leading where larger NGOs have been slow to follow and where local governments and states have failed to protect life and dignity.
In addition, politicians and also human-rights celebrities have engaged in awareness raising and solidarity visits which have highlighted the situation, and the BBC held Songs of Praise from the Calais church during the summer of 2015.
Meanwhile, MSF and Damien Careme, Mayor of the Grande-Synthe area , have begun the process of building a camp in the Calais area after the failure of the state and the local prefecture to act in accordance with their obligations. They have done so for a fraction of the cost of the container concentration camp put in place by state authorities under duress in Calais, and have done so non-violently and with a remarkably intelligent and striking approach which is distinctive and deserves the acclaim and interest it is beginning to attract even in these first three weeks.
THE presence of the camps in the Calais/Grande Synthe areas represented contested space for the state, the local administration and for local residents, as well as for the UK.
At times of great human suffering we see extraordinary courage and compassion. Communities across Scotland, and Europe, have led with creativity, practical action and costly generosity in Calais, Lesbos and in receiving communities. The people have led where larger institutions and some governments have been slow, reluctant and mired in outdated thinking and ineffective solutions.
At the same time we have witnessed a vicious rise in xenophobia and structural violence against refugees. This has happened in Europe before and we have much to learn from the lessons of history.
The last time Europe faced such numbers of refugees it failed. Facing its failure, the articles protecting human rights were created and these very articles are now in peril. The last time, the people of Europe said never again. When humans beings are caught up in systems which inflict great suffering upon them, people of conscience have a responsibility to bear witness.
When homes, livelihoods, dignity and lives are destroyed those of us with privilege and mandates should offer solidarity, practical action and learn from those with direct experience, rather than relying on second-hand assumptions.
Bearing witness is uncomfortable and provoking. It changes those who are witnesses, often profoundly, as others who have made such visits will testify. There is a need for us not to flinch from the acute discomfort, even anger and helplessness, of being witnesses to what, wittingly or unwittingly, our policies and voting habits, foreign and domestic, have done.
This article was first published in The National newspaper on the 2nd April 2016.