This article appeared in the Jersey Evening Post on the 26th of August.
The ‘Jungle’ refugee camp at Calais brings a world of inequality right to our doorstep. An unaware tourist might be feasting on moules frites for lunch and then suddenly encounter this site of concentrated desperation, fenced off by huge constructions of barbed wire and surveillance technology. Three thousand people have settled here, sheltered in plastic garbage bags, lacking the bare necessities of human life, except perhaps the feeling of a common fate and a shattered dream. Public pressure has led the French authorities to provide some running water, six taps in total, one for every five hundred people. Britain has recently committed itself to a £7 million investment, to the fortified fence that is.
I visited the camp last week and as I wandered the dirt paths and glanced into the make-shift tents, I was welcomed by smiles and even invited in by a friendly Sudanese man who had made his way across the Mediterranean into Greece. He had journeyed onwards to Italy and Germany before finally coming to France. “I have family in the UK, I speak English and they like the Sudanese there,” he grins. “The English were guests in my country for a long time. We have relations,” referring to the English colonial adventures in the Sudan. He told me he has made fourteen attempts to get onto the Channel train and has been on the run for ten years.
I heard similar stories everywhere. And I saw people with injuries, caused by jumping on trains or lorries. Most men I spoke to will surely try again.
In spite of their fate, people here cling on to hope. They have made it this far, which in itself is a testimony to the strength of their will power, determination and endurance. To me, they symbolize something about the human capacity to survive.
The migration of peoples is something of all ages. But the number of refugees now entering Europe sounds almost biblical. In 2015, 340 000 refugees entered Europe compared to 123 500 in the same period last year. Since July 2014 almost a million people have applied for asylum in the EU. More people are on the move in Europe than at any time since the Second World War. The influx of refugees is quickly becoming one of the defining challenges of our time.
Civil wars, dictatorships and destitute poverty are driving people away from the dry South to the wet North. Of those reaching Europe in 2015, 62% were from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Another 10% were from Darfur, Iraq, Somalia and Nigeria, all places torn apart by strife.
Let’s be honest, it was imperial Europe that shaped the inequalities of the modern world in the first place. The industrial revolution that created our wealth was financed by money made from the largest (forced) displacement of peoples in history: the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. We then colonized most of our planet and used the profits to develop our modern nation states. More recently, Western intervention tore apart Iraq, killing over a million people in the process and setting in motion the Syrian civil war, a conflict the United Nations has called ‘the greatest humanitarian disaster of our time.’
When we consider this history of plunder, a vast influx of impoverished migrants is hardly surprising.
But with immigration comes fear of immigration. Politicians who tighten up security measures are merely opting for short-term political ‘solutions’, limited by their terms in office. Like climate change, the growing refugee flows are a long-term challenge. More fencing and dogs will not keep desperate people out. These measures are for public consumption, to satisfy an increasingly uneasy electorate, which is being beaten down by austerity and frightened by statements from David Cameron, referring to the Calais refugees as a ‘swarm’. To frame the debate on refugees around security, evades the real questions and pushes the humanitarian aspects into the background. Furthermore, it dehumanizes fellow human beings, who have often fled from unimaginable horrors.
We Europeans have experienced these horrors too. We have been refugees. In the 1930s Jews were in desperate need of safety and compassion. Did we turn them away? Jersey women and children were sent to the UK on the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Channel Islands. They were taken in and thus spared the brutalities of occupation. People opened their doors because they saw it was needed. And did we not welcome the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the communist dictatorships? One of the lessons of 1989 is that walls don’t work. Determination and desperation will always bring them down. Can times of crisis bring out the best in people? Jersey has certainly responded to the Calais crisis. More than 200 islanders have responded to a Facebook appeal by the Jersey Calais Refugee Aid Group within the first day. Tents, clothes and foodstuffs have been donated and will be brought to Calais to be distributed to men, women and children by the volunteers on the ground. This is also how Europe has responded. Can we look beyond the barbed wire and owe up to our history?