DAY 191: October 24th

October 24th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Will be remembered by many as a day of misery, uncertainty, chaos, violence. By some, it’s true, as a day of hope – let’s remember them: the first children who qualify for admission to the UK under the ‘Dubs amendment’ to the Immigration Act; a handful of girls, mostly from Eritrea,croydon have just arrived at the sinister Home Office’s Lunar House in Croydon to begin what will certainly be a lengthy process of interrogation before they can satisfy the authorities that they deserve to be admitted to this country, having just been ejected from France.

This could indeed be seen as a double beginning. On the French side, it’s the beginning of yet another attempt at containment; 10,000 non-Europe inhabitants of France are to be removed from their present homes, graded and sorted, and dumped in some unknown destination: as Passeurs d’hospitalités points out, they will allegedly be divided into three categories , ‘children’, ‘vulnerable people’ and ‘others’. What are the criteria for this sorting – and what is to become of those in each category? It’s a parallel of the Last Judgment, of all judgments beyond the grave where souls are weighed and the saved lastjudgseparated from the damned.

At the most basic level, our own, let’s note that these refugees which Britain is congratulating itself about are children and children only. Adults, no matter how much they may have suffered in war, famine, repression, childdon’t qualify under any of our government’s criteria to escape the consequences of the camp clearance. Why not – under the 1951 Convention they should have the right to protection given their well-founded fear of persecution. If you lived in Raqqa, wouldn’t such a fear be well-founded?

Even the children are instantly suspected of fakery, of lying about their age – as any duplicitous Arab (or other non-European) would. What a long way we have come from the spirit of generosity which informed the movement for refugees of a year ago. Racism and xenophobia pollute the public discourse on all sides; reading the poisonous comments of many internet users one must ask if any of them  have ever spoken to a refugee, looked one in the eye, let alone shared a cup of tea? That plain human contact which is the enemy of prejudice seems to have been lost in a virtual world of suspicion and hatred.

As usual I have to return to Izzy for a reminder of the values which we – and thousands of others – share.

“52 people arrived to Chios this morning, on their way they told me how they cried as the Turkish coastguard circled them, making waves and trying to push them back.

On arrival, authorities shouted at them, encouraging their tears and fear.

But dry clothes soothed their cold and bubbles and sweets brought smiles to the children’s faces again.

Sitting with single mothers, making this dangerous journey alone, tired but relieved, clutching babies as the sun rose they showed me videos of the camps in Turkey. Scenes of utter inhumanity filled the screens of their phones, rubbish tips which had become homes.

I didn’t have the heart to dash the expectations they clearly held close to their hearts of the camps they were bound for on the island. I wish I could have reassured them that what Europe has in store for them is better than the scenes they were so keen to show me – unfortunately, I know what awaits them is much the same.

Shame on you, Europe.”

Izzy Tomico Ellis's photo.

I recall that faith leaders (Christian, Muslim and Jewish) joined in welcoming the refugees on arrival. Of course faith is no guarantee of decency, and the most decent souls may well be those with no faith. It’s the ability to see the other’s humanity as deserving respect which will save you – or not – in this crisis.

Let us, then, record this day as the one when the institutions of power in Europe, in their blindness, took a step further towards their own destruction. ‘Calais’, the institution where I’ve worked off and on for a year, may have been extinguished. But its extinction is temporary; and not only because there will constantly be more refugees arriving. There is a ‘Calais’ of the heart which is not going to die.

In the meantime, there is, constantly, work to do in helping those people who have arrived here to make it their home. Britain is, currently, disturbingly not a place where the stranger can feel at home. It must be a priority to transform it, to make it so. We have a great Muslim population, often dating back several generations. Why should the arrival of a few thousand more threaten us?

But perhaps to answer this would take us into the question of who we are and why we have, ceaselessly, been fighting wars against these people – people who have now come back, paradoxically, to claim that Britain is their ‘home’.

DAY 190: And at the last minute…

October 19th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

What sort of a world are we living in – where, in the Middle East, in Aleppo and Deraa and Mosul the Western powers are using extreme violence and competing with each other at the expense of the civilian population; while in that same West, in Calais and Paris, in Lesbos and Chios, the same Western powers are doing all they can to deny the victims of these wars the right to asylum, to escape the horror? If you’ve been following the lives of people in the jungle camp in Calais, it’s been a dreadful year since I first visited in September 2015. The population of the camps  has grown – more hunted and frightened people arrive all the time – and so has the repression. Along with this we’ve seen repeated demolitions of parts of the camp and police violence against its residents. And many have found our lives changed in the course of this year, as we were forced, through choosing the option of solidarity for the victims over indifference, into a new understanding both of others and of ourselves; and trying (difficult though it is) to understand what’s going on in Europe this year. The story of this struggle has thrown up its variety of underclass heroes and heroines,

Liz-CleggLiz Clegg and chiild

both among the refugees and among those who have worked tirelessly to help give decency and humanity to their lives. Many have worked to develop friendships across  the boundaries the state has put in place – scandalous, unlikely friendships often; and many lives have been enriched. Others, refugees, less lucky, have often found Syrian woman from Dar'aa struck while trying to reach the UKCeremony for Nawall Al Jende, a 26-year old Syrian women from Dar’aa in Syria, struck by a speeding taxi at 9:30 PM on Oct. 14, 2015, near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel in Calais.

death in trying to realise the elusive dream of friendship, or simply to reunite with their separated families the other side of the wire.

Now at the year’s end, as mass expulsion threatens every day, – is it to come at the end of October? – a small handful of children from the jungle have finally been reunited with their families in Britain. No, that’s not true; 14 children arrived in London and were taken to Croydon ‘for processing’. They may be allowed to join their families, or they may not. There are no signs that these small beginnings will be more than a symbolic attempt to overcome the crisis that the refugees are facing. And, as I keep repeating, what sort of a ‘solution’ is this, when it is certain that more, many more refugees will arrive in the next months? The battle for Mosul is starting, and if I were living in Mosul I’d leave, and quickly, and head – if possible – for Western Europe.

Don’t tell me of the ‘solution’ offered by the shameful deal with Turkey which forces refugees back into still more inhumane conditions; or about the ‘success’ of new barriers across Europe in keeping migrants out Are these something to boast of? These solutions cannot be permanent as long as the West continues to turn the Middle East into a proxy battleground.

I have to quote the Guardian’s comments (Suzanne Moore) on these latest developments in Calais:

‘It is small relief in the grand scheme of what needs to be done to help the immigration crisis, though. They [the 14 children] will be taken to Croydon to register and see their families for the first time in churches. The church at least recognises our moral obligation to these people as the French and British government turn away.

These children – who are mostly teenage boys – have been fast-tracked by the Home Office as having a right to stay in the UK. Fast-tracking is hardly the right phrase, as so many of these refugees have been festering in squalid conditions for months. Lily Allen burst into tears when she saw what was happening recently, not because she is a popstar but because she is a human being.

To see other human beings live like this is partly shocking because this humanitarian crisis is unrecognised by the UN, and one of the most frightening things about the camps is their lack of structure. There is a desperate lawlessness with no protection for women or children and unaccompanied minors. There is simply a patchwork of different voluntary groups doing whatever they can for traumatised, ill and depressed people. When I was there I saw kids as young as 10 totally alone with men who claimed to be their “protectors” lurking in the background.

This “fast-tracking” – because the camp is be torn down very soon – did not come fast enough for many. Volunteers have estimated that there are about 400 unaccompanied minors in Calais. Some have disappeared and others are dead.Raheemullah Orvakhel was 14 and had the legal right to come to England and join his brother in Manchester. His friends said that he lost faith that this would happened. He died last month falling off a lorry.

In March, when the south section of the camp was demolished, 129 children went missing. What will happen when the whole camp goes? Officials talk of “dispersal”, as if they are clearing vermin. A fortune is being spent on a wall. It is as though nothing has been learned.

Just as the Calais camp is about to be cleared, a team has been sent there to identify the children who are eligible to come here: children that we have known existed for months. While the Home Office has been dragging its feet, Stella Creasy, Yvette Cooper, and Lord Dubs have been trying to speed up the process. When you are there you realise there is no one to help these kids process their asylum claims.

The language around migrants as we know it has become so debased we cannot even see these youngsters as children. Until they are dead. (A particular irony, which Isis Mera has pointed out, is that the miseries and trauma of flight so often age children prematurely; and lead the sceptical Europeans to accuse them of being adults masquerading as children.) Then we hear how they wanted to be an engineer or a footballer. When you chat to them you see so clearly that behind the big dreams are tiny hopes: a home, shelter, family, safety.

The French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve has said he is merely asking “Britain to assume its moral duty”. Our moral duty is bigger than 10 children. More may come next week. I hope so. I hope we see their smiling curious faces on our TV screens. I hope that we welcome them. I hope they find home here’.

This year has taught us, if we didn’t know it before, the value of compassion and how far governments will go to turn a blind eye to it and to enforce misery. But can we learn how to counter their bleak agenda?

Poetry

The themes of refugees, children, death at sea have been drawing a number of writers to meditate on what’s going on. Here, almost at random, is one.

Caroline Davies

The wine-dark sea

In this sea there are many lives,
all the men who sailed to war
to bring home a stolen woman.
What they lost was themselves.
The few who returned were changed
like iron smelted in the fire.

My grandfather crossed this sea,
a young man in another conflict,
his wife and daughter at home.
His ship laden with supplies of war,
designed to explode and burn.
He was one of the few who returned.

What if he could see today’s wine-dark sea
and the small fishing boats unfit for the high seas
with their cargo of women and children.
He would be dismayed to witness the water
awash with human flotsam
and would say the world has gone mad.

And blind Homer if he were alive
would tell of every drowned child
including the brown skinned baby boy
whose mother clutched him to her breast
but the salt water did for them both.

Homer would remember their names
that even in death she held on to her son.
All we know are the numbers of deaths.
Like waves that lose themselves in the sand.
Who can count the waves?

I suppose it’s time, cashing in on BobDylan’s elevation to the ranks of Nobel laureates, to post not of his rabble-rousing ballads. I think it has, in the current context, to be ‘The Times they are a-changing‘; and we hope they are.