Echoes of the 1930s: A warning from Calais
We must stand up in solidarity with refugees and migrants argues Maz Saleem.
We are facing the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Several million people are fleeing war and persecution. More than one million reached Europe in 2015. Yet our government remains brutally cold, callous and racist in its response.
I witnessed the refugee crisis within Syria first-hand when I volunteered with Unite4Humanity. We went to camps where tens of thousands of Syrians had fled fighting around Aleppo and made their way to the Turkish border to the Bab al – Salaam camp we also visited the camps on the Turkey borders – Kilis camps in December 2013. I saw thousands of widows and orphans in refugee camps living in absolutely squalid conditions. Sadly I had expected to see such inhumane conditions in Aleppo. I was shocked to see the self-same conditions in the Calais refugee camps, where I stayed over for short periods to build relationships with our brothers and sisters in the camp.
In Calais, some 5,000 people are living in squalid conditions. They are mostly men, but also include women, young children and some with serious medical requirements. Most are asylum seekers. More arrive each day, having survived traumatic journeys of thousands of miles, fleeing the devastation, perils and trauma of their lives in Syria, Iraq Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Libya. Many arrive desperately hungry, in need of urgent medical attention and without basic necessities such as warm clothing or even shoes.
In the past week the French authorities have begun inhumane evictions. According to Care4Calais, an NGO run by Clare Moseley: “The French authorities started at 7am going door to door, telling the refugees they have one hour to leave their house or it will be destroyed and that they will be arrested”.
On TV, French officials promised this would be done humanely and with the cooperation of the aid workers. However Care4Calais witnessed a brutal and terrifying show of force by over 200 police officers in full body armour with batons and shields, firing tear-gas and using water cannon. Homes were destroyed and burnt. The French authorities should be held accountable for this disgraceful action, and the UK government must also be held accountable for its refusal to help the refugees.
Clare Moseley said: “If the intention was truly just to move people to better accommodation why is there such a rush to destroy these shelters left behind rather than leave them here for new arrivals? The dismantling of the southern part of the Calais camp was supposed to be a gradual process, to be done in a humane way, respectful to the dignity of the people living in the camp.”
Eyewitness accounts from aid workers in the camp describe terrified people and scenes of panic. Hundreds of refugees were taken from their homes by armed police.
To make matters worse, according to a report from Care4Calais on the day the demolition began, only 1,156 alternative accommodation places were available in Calais and throughout France. There is nowhere near enough alternative accommodation being provided for the numbers that are being made homeless.
Refugees from Iraq sewed their mouths shut in a heart wrenching protest against recent events in the Calais jungle. Why did they do this? Because they have no voice. Because they left countries where they were being repressed, and in Europe, the birthplace of the Human Rights Convention, they have found they still have no human rights.
This is not supposed to happen. It is surely time to ask serious questions about the actions of our government and the French government when people are so desperate they feel they are forced to resort to actions like these on our doorstep.
The eight men have said they won’t remove the stitches, or eat or drink, until the destruction of homes stops. They have no hope. Will these governments give them some hope?
What is the response of our own government? David Cameron has refused to let more refugees in, instead the Tories have resorted to racist rhetoric and policies.
The UK government has even deported thousands of child refugees back to the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria (and even to the heavily bombed city of Aleppo). Just a few weeks ago, on Holocaust Memorial Day, of all days, David Cameron referred to the refugees in Calais as just a “bunch of Migrants”. Previously he had called them a “swarm” as if they were insects spreading infection.
The UN’s most senior human rights official has compared this “dehumanising language” with that used about Jewish people during WWII. She added: “This should raise alarm bells in people’s ears.”
Despite the fact that the refugee crisis has largely been caused by Western interventions, occupations and subsequent wars. The wars are the main driver of the flows of refugees, but the elite’s policies of cuts and austerity mean they can barely imagine a planned, humane response. Islamophobia, also largely a product of war, victimises even the children who had to flee their countries due to Western intervention.
We must never forget that our country was built and nourished by immigrants. Our island population is formed of a succession of immigrant waves going back thousands of years. Since the Middle Ages there have been large Jewish immigrations, the Huguenot settlements of the 17th century and important migrations from Ireland. Irish labourers built much of nineteenth century London. Including the railways - providing London’s essential infrastructure. Caribbean and Asian migrants arriving between the 1950s and the 1990s comprised a very large proportion of essential services in many parts of the country including transport, the NHS and a whole range of local services
In the prelude to the Holocaust, minorities – especially Jews, Gypsies, and political opponents – were scapegoated and blamed for all the problems in society. They were then targeted for violence and ultimately mass murder. Many brave people, who were not members of these minority groups, made a stand in solidarity with those being victimised, but so many more remained silent bystanders.
In the appalling statements of politicians and the media, as well as the callous actions of parliaments in many European countries, it is hard not to hear the echoes of the catastrophes that took place in the 1930s.
What can we do? We must be up-standers instead of silent bystanders. We must hold out a hand of practical solidarity and unity with our brothers and sisters all across Europe who are enduring such horrors, and campaign for rights, for dignity, for equality for all.
We must counter the offensive against refugees, migrants and Muslims being conducted across the continent. We need to stand in solidarity by joining the Stand Up To racism demonstration on Saturday 19th March and develop more initiatives. As well as confronting the government’s racist policies, we need to challenge the wars and the economic policies that give rise to this barbarity.
Maz Saleem is travelling to Greece - Athens / Lesvos refugee camps in April 2016