As the Syrian refugee crisis escalates the plight of Eritreans fleeing persecution goes unnoticed. But Eritreans account for the largest group of those seeking asylum in the UK.
I joined a group of young London volunteers with the International Centre for Eritrean Refugees and Asylum Seekers (ICERAS) and the Comboni Missionary Sisters who have been offering support to refugees since 2012.
The situation in Calais is part of a wider refugee crisis across Europe with huge numbers stranded in the Mediterranean and never reach their final destination.
The international concerns over human rights breaches in Eritrea, include the forced conscription of children and elderly people into military service and the rape of female conscripts.
As refugees come and go, the actual number of Eritrean refugees is unknown but 3,726 Eritrean nationals applied for UK asylum in the year ending September 2015.
Despite the United Nation’s Commission of Inquiry (2015) acknowledging the continued regime of systematic human rights violations in Eritrea, the UK has dramatically decreased the number of entrants seeking asylum in the UK.
With international recognition that Eritreans are fleeing political persecution, torture and forced labour, the UK Home Office changed its guidance about Eritrea in early 2015 based on a now discredited report by the Danish government in late 2014.
But the Home Office’s view is that asylum-seekers who have left [Eritrea] illegally are no longer considered “to be at risk of harm or mistreatment” amounting to persecution on their return based on a discredited Danish report in 2014.
In the centre of the Jungle stands a Church – St Michael’s – built by the Eritrean refugees that may be caught up in the “clearing up” operation as French Authorities move to create a buffer zone for refugees living closest to the motorway.
The Eritrean Church, built in the summer of 2015, is the place where dozens of Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis worship every Sunday.
Most Eritreans are either devout Catholic Christian Orthodox or Muslim.
In Eritrea the government persecutes citizens who practice religions other than the four it recognizes —Sunni Islam, Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran churches.
Prayer meetings that is not recognised are disrupted and participants will be arrested. A condition for release is usually a signed statement by the prisoner recanting his religious affiliation.
Has anything changed for these desperate people who are persecuted wherever they go?
Will bulldozers demolish St Michael’s Eritrean Christian Orthodox Church in the ‘Jungle’ in the planned “clearing up” operation by French authorities?
It was the first Sunday in January, the day before the bulldozers were set to move in to demolish the refugee camp, when I walked the mud streets of the ‘Jungle’ in Calais.
The Jungle camp sprawls out from under the motorway flanked by two chemical plants pumping out noxious-looking clouds.
The makeshift structure of wood and tarpaulin is a short walk from the motorway bridge.
In the distance, riot police could be seen in vans; lights flashing at the entrances to the site with the razor wire perimeter fence that encircles the camp.
“1,500 of the camp’s residents are to be moved into sheltered housing,” said Christian Mesnil, a French aid worker who is well known to the refugees and call him “Papa”.
No one knew whether the church would be demolished. The greatest concern for the refugees was to safeguard this sacred space – a symbol of resilience and hope. It was on this Sunday, the chosen day to celebrate Christmas, that I stood beside displaced young girls from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan – as they sang together in thanksgiving and prayed solemnly.
I was struck by the stark contrast; by the lightness; airiness and that out of nothing the refugee community had built this beautiful sacred space.
But my feet were numb from the cold standing barefooted. I had left my shoes at the entrance, as is the custom. Would I find my shoes when I came out? This was my act of faith. I had been told that shoes were the most valuable commodity and often stolen. But I believed shoes were not taken from the church.
I thought of the men, women and possibly children who had built this church – who were they? Where were they now? And where would they go?
— Sally Hayden (@sallyhayd) August 5, 2015
Sister Natalia, a Comboni Missionary and aid organiser said: “they simply yearn for a future in a land where they can experience safety and have access to the basic necessities of life.”
Life in Calais Jungle
It is left to charities and volunteers who return week after week to provide aid to the refugees in with trending #CalaisJungle. Following the Orthodox Christian calendar, Eritreans celebrate Christmas in the first week in January. The London group prepared Eritrean Christmas lunch for 500 refugees after the Sunday service.
It seemed the refugee crisis marked and defined 2015 . The pictures that dominated in the media were of the perilous journey of women, children and men fleeing war and persecution from Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, and arriving on European shores and borders.
But the true resilience and positive spirit of the neglected and suffering refugees are rarely portrayed in the media. It is mud that dominates life in the Jungle and until very recently, there was no proper sanitation but three cold-water standpipes for an estimated 5,000 people.
As we wended deep into the camp, Mesnil pointed to the ‘new camp’ consisting of shipping containers situated on an industrial, toxic wasteland. Built by the French authorities at an estimated cost of £20m, the containers have been converted into homes with electricity, heating and bathrooms.
To date, France has provided little by way of security or humanitarian assistance, according to Mesnil. But this is a humanitarian crisis that cannot be resolved either by a single European government.
The UK Government’s solution is to pay for the razor wire security fence between the motorway and Euro Tunnel.
“Riot police sit in vans at entrances to the site and block these off near the perimeter fence. There is much fighting,” said Mesnil.
Where do refugees originate?
But without a proper asylum process it is very difficult to tell how many refugees come and go. Abdi Gure, Project Coordinator of the Hayaan Project for Somali refugees based in London admitted: “The number of Somalis has dramatically reduced.”
According to the Red Cross more than half of the world’s refugees (52%) came from just five countries with Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia being in the top three. Gure indicated that some refugees were recently stranded in Italy at the Mediterranean crossing point.
The UK Home Office has cut off legal aid for asylum seekers. An estimated 500,000 Somali refugees are said to be in the UK, with many settling in west London boroughs of Harrow, Brent and Ealing.
Eritrean Church survives first “clearing up” operation
Recent news from Calais is encouraging: “Since one week ago, the dwellings that were less than 100 meters from the motorway has been removed or destroyed and they start to level the ground with big bulldozers. Fortunately the Church is not concerned for now,” said Mesnil.
The crucial question now is whether the church will still be standing by Easter when Christians come together to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Today, a crucifix rises from a scaffold of wooden beams symbolic of the resilience and courage of those who have survived this journey, live there now and for those who have nowhere to go.