Eyewitness: July updates from Seeking Sanctuary

  • Phil Kerton, Ben Bano

Seeking Sanctuary volunteer in 'Love Knows No Borders tee-shirt

Seeking Sanctuary volunteer in 'Love Knows No Borders tee-shirt


It's not often that we seek to be over political in our updates but the current political discourse in our country is particularly worrying for all who have the interests of asylum seekers and migrants at heart. The race by the current Conservative leadership contenders to do to outdo each other and in turn outdo Nigel Farage does not bode well for an enlightened approach to asylum and migration in the future - quite the opposite. Will asylum seekers and migrants become victims in the ping pong battle of the extremists ?

Meanwhile the political discourse further afield in Italy and other Mediterranean countries is even worse. We watched with horror as a boat-load of migrants in a desperate state were refused entry to Lampedusa for three weeks before the captain of the German rescue ship took matters into her own hands. We also learnt of the dire and inhuman conditions of the Libyan holding camps alongside disturbing reports that the guards within the camp camps open fire at migrants seeking to escape. And there are similar disturbing reports of inhuman conditions in holding centres in other countries such as France and Belgium.

We also acknowledge the grim reality of the migration crisis on Mexico's northern border, as emphasised by photographs showing the lifeless bodies of a Salvadoran father and his daughter, drowned when attempting to cross the Rio Grande into Texas, just half a mile from a bridge. They decided to swim when they discovered that it could be weeks before they were even able to start the process of applying asylum in the USA. They are just a dramatic illustration of the fate of Central American migrants who attempt to escape violence, corruption and poverty at home, but the Trump administration has tightened the USA asylum system, creating a growing backlog of cases. People are routinely forced to wait for months to start the asylum process; and those who despair of waiting turn to ever more remote and dangerous routes across the southern frontier.

One of the few world leaders to consistently speak up for displaced people is Pope Francis. He stated on 8 July - the sixth anniversary of his visit to Lampedusa: 'They are persons. These are not mere social or migrant issues! 'This is not just about migrants, in the twofold sense that migrants are, first of all, human persons. They are the symbol of all those rejected by today's globalized society.'

In and around Calais today?

People are pretty much cleared out of the town centre, and there are no stable settlement like the old jungle. People are scattered and hidden in very precarious camps on the fringe of the town. A 'jungle' has become just a few tents hidden in the bushes. These camps are clustered around three main sites along the highway: the two roundabouts by the hospital and by the stadium, and the turn-off close to the old 'jungle' (which, coincidentally, was cleared by police as we were writing this Update). After a long legal struggles, the state has eventually set up official amenities at these spots - water points, toilet cubicles and a few showers. These official spots are also the distribution points where the associations come at set times to give out food, clothes and so on.

In Calais itself, the number of displaced people is probably around 500, but fluctuates a lot. There are many hundreds more along the Channel coast, especially near Dunkirk. The nationalities follow the same patterns - people from war zones and dictatorships with a historical connection to British colonialism. People may speak English, or have family connections, or may have grown up with some idea of the UK as a safe haven and a beacon of democracy. There are many Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Kurds, Eritreans, Sudanese, and also a few others now from as far afield as Nigeria, Chad and other African countries.

There are not so many children and women now, and they are often sheltered by charities. There are more families in Dunkirk, where the mayor is more sympathetic and provides a gym where vulnerable people are allowed to stay in the winter. There have been around 300 people living inside, including at least 30 families and some 100 unaccompanied minors. Around another 300 people live in tents nearby, more or less tolerated by the authorities. A lot of these are Kurdish people from both Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. There are also more informal Pakistani and Afghani settlements in the woods outside Dunkirk, which are more badly treated and attacked on a daily basis by the police, as in Calais.

It has always been the case that vast majority of people on the French coast are there because they expect to get fair treatment over here and be able to make a living. A report from Caen suggests that most of the exiles there have been 'Dublined' in Italy, and have later applied for asylum in France. Once the authorities discover they have been fingerprinted in Italy they are told to return, or are forcibly taken there. In Italy, some may get 'accommodation', while most live on the streets - in both cases with no financial assistance or food. They come to believe that their asylum claims are not being processed. Being brutalised by the police they drift back to France to end up in towns where there are concentrations of their fellows, usually ferry ports. Here, they are again intimidated and brutalised by the French police and the whole process starts again. Consequently, they have a new reason to try to get to the UK: to escape violence in continental Europe, and obtain some kind of "normality".

Amnesty International

At the start of June, Amnesty published a new report into police harassment of volunteers helping the displaced people in northern France. This reveals that reveals acts of intimidation, threats of arrest and abuse have become part and parcel of the daily work for many of them. Tom Ciotkowski, a British volunteer used his phone to film French riot police preventing volunteers from distributing food in Calais. He was charged with contempt and assault after he challenged the violent actions of a policeman against another volunteer and faced up to five years in prison. Remarkably, he was found guilty and it took two appeals to get that verdict overturned.

The prosecution of people providing humanitarian aid has given birth to a new oxymoron, 'crimes of solidarity', which has been the subject of much legal wrangling. A 2018 ruling by France's Constitutional Council acknowledged that the 'crime of solidarity' was not in line with the French Constitution and declared that the principle of 'fraternité' protects the freedom to help others for humanitarian purposes, regardless of their immigration status. Despite this, the authorities have continued to target activists.

Marking World Refugee Day in Dover

Those of us involved in this work must keep ever vigilant as the criminalisation of solidarity is likely to get much worse in our 'hostile environment' and touch the lives of all those of our brothers and sisters eking out a precarious existence while their claims are heard or while they are in detention. It was with this in mind that the new Anglo-French initiative 'People not Walls' was launched on the 20th of June. On a lovely summer's day we gathered near the sea in both Dover and Calais to demonstrate our solidarity and launched our initiative.

Here in Dover we had a series of moving events starting at lunchtime with a service near the newly inaugurated migrants' memorial off Marine Parade, followed by a silent witness at the busy entrance to the ferry terminal, concluding in the evening by a beautiful service in the ancient church of St Margaret of Antioch at St-Margaret's-at-Cliffe, the part of the Dover District nearest to France, followed by a walk of witness to the cliff top above the bay, where we unfolded our new banner proclaiming Love Knows No Borders - see attached photo

The UK event was a collaboration between the Justice and Peace commissions of the Westminster and Southwark dioceses, the London Catholic Worker, Seeking Sanctuary, the Samphire Project and the diocese of Canterbury. It was particularly encouraging to see the ecumenical work and preparation as well as the cooperation between all the various organisations involved to make the event such a success. You can find a video about the day here.

… and in Calais

Several hundred participants gathered to enjoy a picnic with music and dance on the Plage Blériot, with many exiles among them. Our joint declaration was read simultaneously on both coasts, and you can find a copy of it here - please distribute this further in your organisations, churches and networks.

In Calais, thirty people from Sudan, Iran and Ethiopia met with a media trainer from London to learn how to deal with reporters, and marked World Refugee Day by organising their own press conference. They pointed out that they have not left Calais, having fled their homes for the same reasons as in the past: wars, violence, injustices, poverty. The journeys have become more and more dangerous due to mafia action, sometimes slavery, the dramas of desert crossings, shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and life on the streets in Europe. And now there are the added enormous risks of Channel crossings in tiny boats. They arrive expecting to find equality, dignity, justice, liberty and peace; but in fact they find fear, disrespect, an absence of both justice and safety, and death.

Going Forward

The events on the 20th of June have given us a firm basis to go forward together and find ways of addressing the hostile environment which is getting worse in both the UK and France.

In addition to the banner we have also produced t-shirts marked 'Love Knows No Borders. A photo of one of these is attached: if you are interested in buying any please let us know. They come in M, L and XL sizes and the cost including postage and packing is £8.50.

Meantime, our renewed thanks for your messages of support and for all the work that you do to provide assistance and to spread the word about what is happening. If you want to volunteer with one of the support groups working in Calais, or to collect and deliver donations, you can find a list of the current needs on our website.

Ben + Phil.

'Seeking Sanctuary' aims to raise awareness about people displaced from their homes and to channel basic humanitarian assistance from Faith Communities and Community Organisations via partnerships with experienced aid workers. Our special concern is for the 1000 or more exiles who are stuck north-western France, mistakenly expecting a welcome in the UK. They need food, water, good counsel and clothes, which are accepted, sorted and distributed by several organisations, including two Calais warehouses which also supply needs further afield.

For further information visit: www.seekingsanctuary.weebly.com

Tags: Seeking Sanctuary, Calais, Dover, Refugees, Migrants, Ben Bano, Phil Kerton

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