“The ‘Jungle’ smelled of freshly baked bread and CS gas. I could not breathe and went down. An Afghan who was running in the same direction grabbed me and supported me to the back garden where there was a bit of air”, says Chiara Lauvergnac, one of the activists in Paris from London. In the final days of the Calais Jungle demolition, over 10,000 refugees were ordered to relocate in one week by riot police squads armed with flashballs, gas grenades, rubber bullets, automatic rifles, water cannons, armoured vehicles, truncheons and gas spray bottles.
“Usually the camp got gassed towards the end of the day – you could climb the hill to try escape the gas clouds and watch the sunset from there, with gas grenades falling all around,” she continued. After the destruction of the camp, she says there are thousands of refugees sleeping in the streets, with no shelter, not enough blankets, warm clothes, food. “The temperatures here are below zero, these people are literally at risk of dying from the cold in Calais, and the government has no plan!”
In the aftermath of the ‘Jungle’ demolition, a few smaller camps have sprung up in its place. The French government has authorised a helicopter to look for tents and squats in the woods and ditches where people are hiding. “I am trying to trace where everyone has run away to after the Jungle, especially unaccompanied minors. Most have gone to Paris, or the Rome camp, or other French cities. Refugees are still coming in from Dunkirk and they have nowhere to turn to as the Jungle is gone,” Chiara explains.
In an interview with Euractiv, the UNICEF deputy chief called 2016 ‘one of worst years in history for children’. The Orientation centres where the refugees are supposed to register have no qualified personnel to provide legal support, she informs me. “The temporary accommodation is to facilitate the process of deportation. They don’t want to apply for asylum in France because they want to go to the UK.”
According to Eurostat, in the second quarter of 2016, the number of asylum seekers applying for international protection in EU went up by 6% to 305,700 with the intensifying conflict and bombings in Aleppo and other parts of Syria, with 50,300 Syrian applications. At the end of October 2016, France had 45,640 pending applications for asylum, while the UK had 33,905. France rejected 14,065 applications of the 21,845 it received, granting asylum or subsidiary protection to only 35.6% refugees. In the UK, the rate was 33.02%.
Last month, the French government announced that it will be offering €2,500 to refugees so they could “voluntarily” deport themselves, as “forced deportations” were costing taxpayer money. The Office for Immigration and Integration in France (OFII) has called it “a form of compensation” for asylum-seekers in Europe. This operation, described by the French government as a “success”, comes about a month after the demolition of the Calais Jungle camp, which displaced thousands of refugees who had been coming in from war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan.
Meanwhile the UK Home Office have stopped the transfers of unaccompanied minors from the Jungle camp in Calais, according to a report published in the Guardian. This leaves 1,000 minors displaced, who seek sanctuary in the UK. Robert Goodwill, the UK Immigration Minister, has said that the “remaining children are safe and in the care of the French authorities”. However, ground reports suggest otherwise.
Nowhere to go: Stranded or deported
Chiara, who is from London, used to work with Calais Solidarity Network and is currently collaborating independently in Paris with ground networks. “My focus changes based on what is most urgent. Right now, it is to stop deportations to Sudan, and so-called ‘safe countries’ like Norway from where they are deported back to Afghanistan Sudan despite assurances to the contrary.”
Since 1955, Sudan has been experiencing civil war, which ended with the referendum in 2011 and the creation of the South Sudan state. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, over 3 million civilians remain displaced in 2015, with over half a million in refugee camps. The UN data states that 6.3 million civilians need aid in Sudan, with a two million growth in the number of refugees from 2015 to 2016.
“I stepped foot in a refugee camp for the first time in January: Dunkirk in northern France. It changed my life completely forever. I came home, worked for two months and bought a van and went to coordinate camps in Greece, Italy. I have been in Paris for three months now”, says Heather, 34, from Wales, of the Paris Ground Volunteer Support.
The Ground Support, which is a team of two, coordinates with Care 4 Calais, L’Auberge des Migrants, and Help Refugees to secure supplies of food, clothing, medication that are then distributed to the food camps that have formed in the last 5 weeks after the evacuation. They also drive around Paris, tracking down refugees living in hiding or newcomers. “We give them blankets, food, water and tell them there is somewhere they can go where they don’t have to be on their own, sleeping in a doorway in the deepest darkest crack-ridden horrible corner of the city.”
The orientation camp, which Chiara mentioned, admits only 40-50 refugees per day, when there are at least 100 new refugees arriving in Paris everyday. Heather estimates that there are about 500 refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan in the street camp, who have come from camps in Calais, Italy, Spain and other parts of Europe. They have set up base in the new camp which has sprung up in Paris. “The street camp is like a carpark in between two main roads,” says Heather.
The stories of the refugees arriving, she says, are all the same. “They are all tragic, awful, full of horror. There is no point appealing to the government for anything anymore when it comes to refugees,” she says bitterly. “This government is just about fear mongering the general public and taking their money. There’s enough money and technology on this planet to make everything OK for everyone. Our governments aren’t doing it so the people need to, all of us. We all have an equal responsibility to every other human being on this planet.”
In the UK, Pam Derwin of Refugee Support East London and Essex echoes the same sentiment. “There is no support here, the local council does nothing for the refugees arriving in the UK. There are only two of us working together and still have not had a chance to get organised as someone always needs help.” She has two refugees living in her house, and has been collecting basic supplies and fundraising for the refugees who have arrived in London. Currently, they are looking for a storage facility and a meeting place where refugees can come to them for aid. Their work involves finding solicitors, filling forms, distributing clothes, attending hospital appointments, organising English lessons and promoting jobs advertised for refugees.
“The government need to accept more refugees and stop sending failed asylum seekers who have good reasons for coming here back to countries that are just not safe. They need to provide safe passage to avoid millions of Euros going into smugglers’ pockets. They would be better off donating funds to grass roots organisations because for all the millions they say they donate, I can’t see much evidence of where the money is spent”, she says angrily.
EU countries, under the 1951 Convention on Refugees and the subsequent 1967 Protocol are obligated to offer refuge and protection to people fleeing conflict or persecution. With the refugee crisis, however, the EU has been bickering over how many refugees they can take. The pledge to resettle 160,000 of the one million refugees that entered Europe in 2015 only amounts to less than 0.25% of their combined population.
Connections: Networks and love
One of the critical problems for displaced refugees after the ‘Jungle’ demolition has been connectivity. A UNHCR report concluded that mobile connectivity was a lifeline for refugees for the “need to obtain vital information, communicate with loved ones, access basic services and link to the local, national and global communities around them.” Connect Refugees has been providing monthly £20 top up services for the past 10 months, which is as critical as food, water and shelter for refugees. “This helps them keep in contact with family members still trapped in war torn regions around the world, especially unaccompanied minors who want to stay in contact with youth work volunteers trying to reunite children with family members currently in the UK”, says Éamonn Liam Maguire, of Connect Refugees.During the demolition of the Calais Jungle camp, the French and British authorities failed to register thousands of children, who were then forced to sleep on the streets. “Many children have now left official centres in an attempt to fend for themselves. This can only be presumed to be a result of a broken system which has failed them on more than one occasion. Conveniently this will serve the needs of the UK asylum system as they will no longer be responsible for processing children who will be deemed as having absconded”, adds Eamonn.
“Perhaps one of the most striking facts about the Calais Jungle was that this shanty town of 14,000 souls or so was entirely funded by ordinary people with no government help whatsoever, and built by volunteers and migrants,” says Chiara. These gestures of human solidarity is the spine of the support network, and has led to enduring bonds between support workers and refugees.
“I was not prepared for the love that I would receive – it bowled me over from day one. They know there is only two of us trying to get them whatever we can get our hands on but they tell us to stop till we’re ready, ‘Have a cigarette, sit down, sit down’. They tell us to stop even though there’s 30 people waiting in the freezing streets for the past week with no warm clothes”, says Heather, her voice charged with emotion.
Eamonn mentions too, how refugees would offer to cook or make tea for him, even though most of them were very uncertain as to when they would next have access to food. “Those with nothing are the ones who give the most”.
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