21 Feb 2020
Working closely with Focus4Hope and the Town Hall Foundation over the past couple of years I’ve followed their work and their support for the refugees in Calais. For those who don’t know, they’ve carried out several aid trips to the refugee camps to collect and distribute emergency supplies, but also to provide emergency dental care and first aid to those who need it – which is a lot of people.
When asked if I’d like to go along on the next trip and help with first aid, I didn’t hesitate. I don’t want to say “it’s something I’ve always wanted to do” because it isn’t something I want to do. It’s a necessary support for people who shouldn’t need it in 2020. I’ve tried to follow the story of the situation in Calais and the poor souls who’ve ended up there since the ‘Jungle’ was cleared in 2016, attracting global media attention, but it’s difficult. Few people write about it. You don’t see it on the news. Nobody wants us to see the extent of the problem.
Thousands of refugees remain in northern France, surviving solely on the support of charities and aid workers. Many of them have fled war-torn Syria, but they are all fleeing conflict and persecution from other countries such as Sudan, Afghanistan and Iran. Nobody would want to live in a place where death, destruction, bombs and gunfire are a daily reality. I just struggle to see how this can this be the only alternative. Calais is now seeing mass homelessness on a really horrible scale. These people, including children, are sleeping rough in terrible conditions. They aren’t allowed to have tents. The authorities are determined not to allow another permanent camp to form.
Akoy is now 16 years old. He was fleeing from a small town in Iran where Saddam Hussein once carried out chemical attacks. He told the Guardian: “In France, the police hit you. They come to the camp, put spray in your eyes and beat you up. The English police were not like that. They were so good. I was so cold. They helped me with a blanket, clothes and food. I didn’t think it would be like this”. Specialist immigration officers interviewed Akoy and asked why he was there. His answer is the same now as it was then: “I come from a dangerous place. I am looking for a quiet place”. He eventually made it to the UK and is now staying with a foster family and going to school. “I need to finish school and college then university. I would be a good chef. I can’t go back, it is too dangerous.” He sighs. “I am glad to talk about this. I want to get all the bad memories out of my head.”
There seems to be some sort of misconception, undoubtedly propagated by the media, that these people are all connected with ISIS and terrorism. The reality is the exact opposite. They’re trying to escape because they don’t want to fight. They don’t want conflict. They want safety, security and stability for their families. They want freedom.
Our local paper wrote an article about Focus 4 Hope’s last visit to Calais and published it on Facebook. Whilst the comments were largely positive, I read some of them and felt a bit sick. I’ll share a few here:
“How about we start helping our own instead of everybody else”
“More free stuff, I wonder why they cross Europe to get here”
“Looking after foreign people before the British folk”
“It’s like sod the English person welcome everybody else it’s a disgrace”
“I am British, work full time and I can’t afford to pay for dental treatment. It’s so wrong asylum seekers get freebies ahead of the likes of me”.
It all sounds pretty horrible. Yet look at Akoy’s experience above. The English police were “so good, they helped me”. All they want is a safe place to be. They want to study. They want to work. They want to build lives for themselves. Who is anybody to say they shouldn’t be offered that chance? There’s nothing to say these people won’t contribute to our society. I don’t understand the sense of entitlement to a piece of land that doesn’t belong to you, or to me, or to anyone else.
We should be proud that we are in a position to be able to offer safety and a better life. To show the world that we in Britain are as kind and as caring as those police officers who met Akoy. Nobody asks to be born and it’s akin to a roll of the dice as to where you’ll exist. Aren’t we fortunate that we have the opportunity to work full time? To see a dentist or doctor at a nominal cost? To not face a beating and a face full of mace on a daily basis for simply existing?
Anyway, I’ll climb down from my soapbox for now, but I hope you’ll all follow the blogs and my journey over the coming few weeks. I’m sure it’ll be an eye-opening experience. Thanks for reading.