Phil Kerton and Ben Bano write:
It's a strange time to mark or even to celebrate our 5th anniversary but at the same time we did not want to let the occasion pass.
It was in Spring 2015 at the height of the crisis which marked the growth of the 'Jungle' camp that we felt that we needed to take an initiative which could bring together all those in the UK who wanted to show their solidarity with those in Northern France who were desperately trying to meet the day-to-day needs of our exiled brothers and sisters.
Our early efforts were marked by our enthusiasm although not always by thinking through how we were going to operate effectively.
We were overwhelmed by offers of help often, but not always, from Churches and Faith Communities, and then for some months we were not able to to ship over all the goods that we received.
Our thanks go to the Bruderhof for their help in storing goods as well as to Care4Humanity, based at the Church of the Latter Day Saints in Canterbury, who came to the rescue in organising the transport logistics. From our inception we took to speaking to the media about the conditions facing migrants, and at times we felt that we were one of the few voices to speak up on behalf of these exiled brothers and sisters.
We were also pleased to be able to channel offers of help - both goods as well as financial help - to those who needed support and our most satisfying memories are of Churches and Faith Communities mobilising their people - often driving to France with much needed goods and teams of volunteers.
And what of the future? Some of us felt that when the "jungle" was cleared in 2016 the need for our services and those of many other NGOs would come to an end, but it was not to be and in fact conditions worsened in Calais. Soon, the need for direct help was even greater. Meanwhile we were pleased to be one of the founder members of the new cross border organisation 'People not Walls'.
And so we will continue alongside other organisations for as long as we are needed. Thanks to all of you for your encouragement and support. After each update we get positive messages which help to sustain our our motivation. We hope that that when the Covid-19 crisis has passed we can get back to work and continue making sure that support reaches those who are so vulnerable.
How things look now
What can we report from the coast of Northern France in this strange life of virus avoidance? The situation gets worse every day. Covid-19 is now prevalent and the few remaining volunteers try to support the homeless while wearing significant amounts of personal protective equipment to distribute water and basic food rations from dwindling stocks.
Those seeking sanctuary put their lives at risk by attempting crossings of the English Channel, which remains one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. The situation is so desperate that people at risk still choose this way to escape. These vulnerable people must not be abandoned to the global pandemic. We urge the British and French Governments to provide places of safety where the exiles spread along the Channel coast can safely practice isolation and receive food, clothes, shelter and medical support.
In normal times, well over 100 volunteers work in the camps in Calais and Dunkirk to provide for people's basic needs. Now there are probably only a dozen or so charity workers on the front line, stretched deadly thin as they try to support 1,500 people living across multiple sites. We continue to admire the hard work and energy of the volunteers who spend time in and around Calais and the patience of the refugees who are persistently harassed and humiliated by the authorities. The aid associations who soldier on during this time of crisis deserve both our our financial support and our prayers.
Food in Calais comes in the form of picnic bags from the state-funded La Vie Active, and breakfast from Salam, who a offer a few extra ingredients to prepare a meal, when possible. A small grass-roots organisation has sprung up, the "Calais Food Collective", working under the auspices of the Auberge des Migrants. It aims to distribute ingredients and cooking equipment so that the displaced people have the means with which to cook hot nutritious meals. Under the strict quarantine measures in place, without proper paperwork, migrants cannot visit supermarkets to buy food for themselves.
Different camps are dismantled every 48 hours, continuing to reinforce distrust of those in authority. Police supervise these operations, confiscating tents and personal property at the times when people have gone to get breakfast rations from La Vie Active. Rather than encouraging self-isolation, this repeated destruction of camps prevents people from staying in their tents and pushes them together, one on top of the other.
In Grande-Synthe, food is distributed three time a week by supporters of the national charity Secours Populaire, assisted by Salam. Social distancing is required and face masks and gloves are worn. They were joined at the end of March by members of a new group, "Solidarity Border" who bring hot meals prepared by Emmaus in Dunkirk. They also distribute blankets, sleeping bags and tents. For months, there have been no toilets or showers, just a single standpipe at one site and a daily delivery of a water bowser (with liquid soap) at the other. However, as evacuation began (see below) sanitary services and medical checks were established and arrangements for a refuse skip were promised.
To remove the need for trespass upon the tracks, the national rail company provided 24-hour access to electric power for people to charge their phones at La Linière in Grande-Synthe. A great solution, but one that was rendered useless after a few days' use: we do not know its current state. .
On 27 March, Prefects were instructed to look after vulnerable people during the pandemic. The state has proceeded on the basis that there are about 1300 people in need of care, whereas the aid associations consider the number to be more like 1800. About a third of these are at Grande-Synthe, including some 50 families with small children and expectant mothers. Official figures indicate that five migrants in the Nord/Pas-de-Calais region have contracted coronavirus, two of whom have recovered, while three remain in isolation.
The Prefecture contacted the heads of voluntary aid associations to say that they must accept strict restrictions upon their operations. A curfew prevents any distributions between 10h00 and 08h30, claiming that this is necessary to "respect the sanitary conditions for combating the spread of Covid-19". In particular, this would allow associations to intervene only "at favourable times of the day". Alongside the time restrictions, geographic limits have also been imposed. For example a prohibition against distribution of food in the Calais town centre where there are a number of homeless people. This decision is allegedly justified by the fact that the associations must intervene "as close as possible to the migrants, on their camp located in the industrial zone". However, humanitarian work is also applied to the homeless, wherever they are. Many prefer to be in the town to avoid the unsanitary conditions in camps, which could well encourage the spread of the virus.
The police have issued numerous verbal warnings to those volunteers who are said to be breaking these rules or not respecting the principle of isolation..
The stated intention is that everyone is to be moved away to places of shelter. From 3 April, several times a week, buses have moved people to one of six accommodation centres some distance inland, where it is proposed that they can live in compliance with the appropriate health rules. The capacity is 659 places.
The authorities initially said that only the sick would be moved away from Grande-Synthe, but the operations have become more widespread. By 23 April the official figure was 322 voluntary departures from Calais, with no figure given for Grande-Synthe, though certainly several lightly loaded coaches had taken people away.
The forced operations of removal to shelter are extremely violent towards the exiles. First of all a moral violence since no information is given them prior to these operations: they do not know when things will happen and, when the buses are there, no one tells them their destinations. Secondly, because they are sometimes rightly reluctant to get on buses during evacuations, they are subjected to violence from the police. Finally, confinement in collective accommodation is far from optimal in times of health crisis, especially since many exiles have complained about the inadequacy of the meals distributed in these accommodation centres. For example, people returned 50km on foot from St Martin Boulogne to Calais on the night of April 16, having only just arrived.
(Similar evacuation measures are being taken in Dieppe and Cherbourg, among other places, while at Ouistrahem and Steenvorde there are already buildings in which people can, at least to some extent, self-isolate.)
Reports from Grande-Synthe suggest that most of the departures have been voluntary, although sometimes helped by rather "muscular" incentives. The presence of dozens of vans of CRS (riot police) has often been enough to scare people away. They hide and sleep elsewhere to isolate themselves and move away from existing services to avoid evacuation. They see police inviting them on to buses wearing the same uniforms as those who harass people. The necessary confidence does not exist: quite the contrary!
During the morning of Wednesday 22 April, gendarmes came to remove tents from a closed petrol station on the Rue des Garennes (leading to the former "Jungle", which is partly re-occupied by camps), and woke up some who were still asleep. Arguments degenerated into a riot that left the road strewn with broken glass, stones as big as tennis balls and a portion of completely blackened tar, all thrown by several dozen migrants. A passing delivery van owned by the Auberge des Migrants was intentionally set on fire. It has been a very long time since such tension has been experienced and the situation remained fraught for several further days, preventing some regular food distributions from taking place. Two gendarmes and two CRS officers received hospital treatment.
Reports eventually emerged in early April of the death a month earlier of 15-year-old Baqer Muslem Abdulaneer Al-Haddad, struck by a train on the line in Metz. He had spent some time in Dunkirk, looking forward to being reunited with his mother and sisters in the UK. The press hardly bothered to report his death, but as with with others, we will do so: a needless death, when he should have had no problem and no delay in being granted the right to join his family.
People ask what happens to those who reach the UK, especially unaccompanied minors. The county of Kent has for many years been one of the most experienced at catering for the needs of these people. At least 450 under 18s arrived last year and 145 so far this year. There are also around 900 post-18 young people in Kent who previously arrived as asylum seeking children. They get the same treatment as local children who are put into state care.
A large number of over-16 males are placed in independent living housing, eg a shared house with three or four others. After bills have been deducted they get around £49 per week to live and budget on. They very rarely have TV or WiFi access in their accommodation, but in 'normal' times they can access free WiFi in town centres. However, in the virus lock-down they run up costly data charges and have nothing to do all day. Many of the recent arrivals have very limited English and need WiFi to easily learn English on-line. Children and young people are going stir crazy, desperate, struggling with lock-down rules and with nothing to occupy their days.
As we sent out our last Update, immigration statistics appeared for the year ending December 2019. They make for fascinating study. The total number of people granted protection increased to 20,703. This was up 30% on the previous year, reaching a level last seen in 2003 and consisted of:
12,565 grants of asylum (up 64%), with notable increases in grants to Iranian (up 1,603), Sudanese (up 1,018) and Eritrean nationals (up 947)
1,285 grants of an alternative form of leave (up 11%)
1,241 grants of Humanitarian Protection (down 4%) over half (695) of which were granted to Libyan nationals
5,612 people who were provided with protection under resettlement schemes (down 3%), mainly Syrian nationals granted under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.
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And these figures for initial grants will typically become on average some 25% larger after appeal. And in this context it is interesting to note that a leading immigration law practice, Duncan Lewis Public Law, has just reported that since 26 March, their team has secured the release of around 25 clients through bail applications, pre-action correspondence and high court unlawful detention claims. They comment, "A total waste of resources and unjustified deprivation of liberty".
Seeking Sanctuary - www.seekingsanctuary.weebly.com
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