asylum, calais, crisis, discrimination, EU, followtherefugees, France, frontnational, human rights, humanitarianism, immigration, Jungle, lepen, middle east, migrant, openeuborders, refugees, refugeeswelcome, syria, uk
I generally don’t tend to head north at this time of year, at most times of year for that matter, and thankfully for my vitamin d levels in less than two weeks I’ll be on a beach in Sydney and temperatures in single digits will seem like a distant memory. But right now I’m on a train heading to northern France, where the forecast is predicted to be rain, cold and wind, three things that I hate. And I’m heading to a place that is so unappealing its been nicknamed ‘La Jungle’.
The Jungle actually refers to several squatter camps that have sprung up around the northern French town of Calais, where the Eurostar tunnel takes travellers across the channel to England. While refugees have gathered here for years trying to jump trucks, trains, cars or ferries to get to the UK, in the past year numbers have substantially increased and there are now thousands of people. Some have lost their lives in attempts to get to Britain, many have been injured by trying or from police brutality, one man managed to walk the length of the Eurotunnel before being apprehended by police at the other end. Many do not speak French, some have family in Britain, and others simply think they have a better chance at a life there than in Europe, but generally refugees stay here for a long time. While some have managed to get to England, most languish in tents in the mud. Conditions are atrocious, and by all accounts the camps resemble townships. In what appears to be a pattern I’ve seen everywhere from Lesvos to Skopje, governments do not want to acknowledge the full extent of this problem and provide the infrastructure and humanitarian services so desperately needed through fear of giving the situation any element of permanency and losing votes.
Such an approach has failed. Coinciding with my weekend is the second round of the French regional elections, where Marine Le Pen, France’s terrifying duplicate of Pauline Hanson or Donald Trump, is poised to win the first region ever for her far right-wing party the Front National. What is amazing to me is how many people in the previously socialist north seem to be voting for Le Pen as a protest vote. Though as someone who comes from a country that elected a buffoon because a politician changed her mind about a carbon price that the majority of the world is now advocating, this probably shouldn’t be such a surprise. I guess I had more faith in the intelligence of the French, and hopefully they end up proving that faith justified. If not however, and Le Pen wins and takes control of a region, she has promised to do whatever it takes to get the ‘migrants’ out of Calais, and one can only fear to what extent that means she is willing to go.
I’ve spent a lot of time since starting this project obsessing over how governments and people can be so dismissive of refugee’s human rights. Rights that we are all internationally recognised to possess for no other reason than the fact that we are human. You’re not entitled to them because you’re white, rich, male, Christian, straight or born in the west. You’re entitled to them because you are a human being. And it’s dawned on me that the reason some can be comfortable with this is because for many these people are not considered human. While it’s easy to argue that refugees are different, the ‘other’, or even a threat, such arguments don’t justify denying them human rights. It’s harder to get your head around the fact that for so many they are just not people, and this allows us to treat them accordingly. It’s the type of thinking that allows Israel to dismiss war crime accusations for the indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian civilians. It’s the type of thinking that allows the majority of the Australian population to not even blink while the government locks up desperate innocent people on remote pacific islands and denies them the most basic of fundamental freedoms. And it’s this type of thinking that allows France to treat the people in the jungle as an inconvenience rather than people screaming out for help and dignity.
But, however much we may choose to ignore it, these people are human beings. Believing otherwise may make it easier for you, but it doesn’t make it any less of a fact. They are the same species as you and your children. They catch the same diseases. Their bodies function in the same way. They have the same physical, civil and social needs. They could be your kidney, blood or bone marrow donors. A brilliant Banksy that popped up today emphasised the reality that this could be any of us. If you believe that you are entitled to human rights, and most people do, you cannot simultaneously support the deprivation of them for someone else because they are poorer, darker or less fortunate than you.
It’s now been almost a month since I left Serbia and in some ways the world is a different place, particularly my world. There are more military personnel in Paris then I care to see in the city I live, I’ve been patted down before walking into a big store, it takes an absurd amount of time to get into the building at work, and for several weeks any noise on the metro made people jump. Travelling with the refugees through the Balkans gave me a unique perspective after the attacks happened. When Macedonia announced it wouldn’t let through anyone who wasn’t from Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, I was relieved that ‘my friends‘ had got through when they did. When US governors and a certain presidential candidate started calling for a halt on any humanitarian intake from Syria I was filled with a rage more violent than it would have been 6 weeks ago. And as each country along the way started to build a fence, I wanted to be there to see what it would look like and how it would feel now, with a very physical barrier to increase the terror, isolation and loneliness these people are already dealing with. To increase the sense that no one wants them.
Many people asked me why I didn’t take more photos, or even video footage. It’s important to remember that these people are refugees, which by definition means that they are fleeing persecution, and most likely do not want their identity to be revealed to authorities back home before they have found safety and a durable solution. In Syria there have even been stories of Assad’s government identifying individuals on social media and raiding their property, or worse, punishing loved ones they have left behind. To add to this, many journalists operating in the field have acted unethically in the taking of photos, particularly of children. I witnessed myself on Lesvos questionable media practices. It goes without saying that permission should always be sought before a photo is taken, and from parents if the subject is a minor. But even in these cases a personal judgement must be made as to whether this is the right thing to do. While photos have played a powerful role in this crisis, they can do so without the exploitation of grief, the invasion of privacy or putting refugees and their families at risk.
Thank you all again for your support, so many people responded to my call for clothes and put me in contact with people they knew who have helped at the Jungle. Many have asked me about visiting themselves. The following pages contain very useful information on the situation in Calais and how you can help;
Please think twice before you make a move, as there is a chance good intentions can compound pre-existing problems.
Peace, Kate x