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The human beings trapped in Calais

ANYA COOK travelled to the refugee camps in the north of France to support the work of Care4Calais and listen to the stories of Sudanese, Afghan, Eritrean and Iranian refugees all desperate to claim asylum in Britain

FEEDING people is not a crime. Ensuring people have food and water and basic shelter is to be human. That is not politics, that is humanity.

In the heatwave last week at an unofficial refugee camp not far from where we were in Calais, friends told us the local police had punctured their communal water tank.

On that day there were two crop fires on the outskirts of town. In 40˚C heat, hotter for some friends than their homelands, with limited shelter, unable to get a drink, this was torture.

These people, these human beings, could have died from dehydration. They had to wait 24 hours to get drinking water from Care4Calais volunteers.

Camped in tents and rudimentary structures with no basic hygiene, no toilets or washing facilities, people fleeing persecution and torture are frequently moved on often with their possessions and cooking facilities seized. Running an endless gauntlet between the local police and criminal gangs, refugees are really not welcome in Calais.

There are no Ukrainian refugees living rough there as French authorities deemed the area unsafe and moved their processing centre to Lille where they are provided with food, accommodation and an allowance whilst their applications for asylum in Britain are processed.

“That’s just not right,” said Tahir, a Sudanese man who had been studying medicine on a scholarship in Russia until the war started. He hopes to meet up with his sister in Middlesbrough. “You cannot say this refugee is different to that refugee. You cannot separate them.”

It is blatant racism: if you are seeking refuge and you are black and from Africa or the Middle East you are left to die or survive alone — and if you are white and from a place proximal to Western Europe, you are supported to thrive.

With comrades from Newcastle, in a trip delayed by the pandemic, we were taking funds donated when Covid struck, and our practical solidarity to Care4Calais in memory of our staunch socialist and humanitarian friend, Bernard Pidcock, father of Laura Pidcock.

At unofficial sites outside Dunkirk and Calais we helped provide services — drinks, barbering facilities, phone charging, crafts, English lessons, clothing repairs — to 150-250 Eritrean, Iranian, Sudanese and Afghan refugees.

“Picking up litter, cleaning a space for people who have nothing, is humbling,” said volunteer Tony Pierre. “There’s something about restoring dignity. I can give them that.”

Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “We rely on fundraising to support the vital work we do, providing food parcels and essential services to international friends in difficult circumstances. Thank you so much to everyone who supports us.”

Our group was told stories of pimping at gunpoint, death threats from families and authorities, persecution over people’s sexuality, war, terror and tales of survival, of navigating the camps and the criminal gangs that operate in and around them. There were also some stories of economic migration — but most of what we heard was, heartbreakingly, of killing, loss and separation.

Having worked with Esol students who had escaped Syria or passed through Calais, I had heard similar stories, and for some I had made referrals to agencies who work to heal trauma. I thought I had prepared myself for this visit and for what I might hear.

But I had not readied myself for stories that were not complete — of my anticipation of endings yet to come and potential harm.

“My mother cries on the phone. She thinks this is dangerous,” Mohamad gestured with his head to take in the camp. He has internet access and I tell him he must Whatsapp her every day. He shrugs, his eyes not lifting from the ground.

Wearing trousers too short for him and an anorak he has yet to grow into, Mohamad is just a child. “I am 16 years, and — don’t forget — seven months. It’s important.”

A quiet lad, my colleagues would probably describe Mohamad as sensitive. His father paid traffickers for his passage from Iran when his life was threatened. This was the only way his family could keep him alive.

Mohamad has paid €980 for a place on a boat from France to Britain, where he will claim asylum. He was due to sail the night after we meet. Can you swim, I asked?

More animated now, Mohamad said it was fine. “Look. I take my coat off and put up here,” With an arm over his head, he mimed treading water, “I don’t go to bottom.”

I felt numb. I don’t want him to do this. I fear how this journey might end. This boy has a name, a face and a family who love him. If he could make his asylum claim from outside Britain, he need not risk his life in open water.

With an uncle waiting in Manchester, Mohamad wants to go to Glasgow University to read engineering. “I like Glasgow University. It is good for me. I can have good life.

“I don’t want to go to Rwanda, that’s a problem. I don’t want them to send me there. That’s my life gone.”

Shame on the hostile environment. Shame on immigration rules that deny safe passage. People seeking refuge, people in need of asylum, are welcome here.

Anya Cook is a UCU and NEU activist and the Socialist Educational Association national executive’s FE lead.

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