The demolition of the Calais refugee camp last October did nothing to improve the lives of so many desperate refugees, who now find themselves living destitute on the streets of France and are arriving back in Calais every day. These refugees, many unaccompanied minors, are now living in far worse conditions – the latest punishment inflicted on those living in the streets being the ban on the distribution of food.
The Calais mayor supports the ban on food distribution in key areas of the town, “even if it is difficult to say so, on a human level”, according to the French press. Earlier this month, a French farmer and activist known for helping and providing shelter to refugees was given a suspended €3,000 fine for aiding illegal arrivals. In Italy a man has been prosecuted for “aiding illegal immigration” when he attempted to drive a pregnant asylum seeker and her family across the border into France.
In Paris, too, there are reports of bans on food distribution in areas of the city, as voluntary organisations are told to move on from certain places. The message is clear – refugees, and those who give up their time and resources to help them, are not welcome. Volunteers’ desire to help will now see them fined or prosecuted, as we witness the criminalisation of aiding the most vulnerable members of society.
The state is not only turning its back on those who need our support most – it can now even be criminal for the public to offer food and shelter. This is the latest in a series of austere measures that go against the basic principles of humanity.
As the charities in Calais know, food distribution points serve more than one purpose. Refugees also receive clothes and blankets from our volunteers so that they can survive the freezing nights. They are advised on asylum and immigration, and children receive crucial information about their rights. Refugees with medical issues are given the help they are denied elsewhere.
This is not the time to take a hard line on those ready to help refugees in France and Britain. The obstacles put in the way of dedicated volunteers in Calais and elsewhere highlight the role the UK should be – but is not – playing in helping those in dire need. The UK government has a moral and legal responsibility to follow the Dubs scheme, which was agreed and passed by MPs last year. Yet we have seen the government fail to honour its commitment to take in 3,000 lone children from European refugee camps, only accepting 350 under the scheme.
The UK must play its part to ensure sustainable and long-term solutions are in place for refugees, and that this humanitarian crisis does not worsen. We must not stand by as the most vulnerable people are deprived of the basic human rights to food and safety, when we have the means to help them.
Organisations such as my own, Care4Calais, provide on-the-ground, life-saving support to refugees, and estimate that up to 200 are sleeping rough on the streets of Calais. Every day, our volunteers are confronted with heartbreaking moments when refugees share their hopes for a better life. They see Calais as a springboard to a safer home. Many want to reach Britain as their final destination – some because they have family there; while others have fought with the British army in Afghanistan.
Charities warned the authorities that the demolition of the Calais camp would never be a long-term, sustainable solution to this crisis. The past few months have proved us right. Demolition was not a deterrent to refugees who, by definition, have no choice but to flee their homes; rather, it caused them to live in worse squalor on the streets of the town.
The reason charities such as Care4Calais still exist and work hard every day is that the government’s argument about pull factors has been proved wrong. When fleeing war or persecution, it does not matter if refugees are fleeing to a camp haphazardly housing thousands, or a town that criminalises helping them. Anything is better than the prospect of death.
Demolishing the camp has not caused refugees to stop striving for a better life, and nor will banning volunteers from providing them with vital necessities. It will just cause more unnecessary suffering to those in need. It is our collective responsibility to secure the dignity and future of those who depend on us.