• Take Them In

    All over the country, people are winding down and clocking off, the lights of pubs and restaurants loom large as we try and put another year behind us, as we look to the new one ahead. But it hardly needs saying of course that others are keen in our minds; all of those driven by wars, part of the huge tide of humanity that have been moving north since at least this last spring and, further south, for much longer.

    It can be hard to know how to respond. We can throw money at the problem, as our government have with more than £800 million allocated to refugee camps in the Middle East. But we know too they are effectively ignoring manifestations of the issue much nearer to home, namely the camp that has sprung up and swelled on our border, just over the Channel at Calais. Just reading about the conditions at such camps is harrowing. Peter Sutherland, the UN special representative on migration said after visiting Calais in the Autumn that it would take him some time to recover from the shock of seeing the reality on the ground there, while Leigh Daynes, director of Doctors of the World, who has experience in Haiti, described it as “a humanitarian emergency of the first order.” The numbers of refugees in the place have almost doubled since those statements were made.

    It barely needs rehearsing but, lest we forget, it’s worth noting what those conditions actually mean. Around six thousand men, women and children are camped out in summer tents and tiny, knocked-together shanty huts, largely dependent on the one meal a day provided by volunteers, prone to gastric and respiratory infections and scabies, where water sources are contaminated by human faeces, where the sense of any order can be aggravated by gang culture, where it is hard to get warm in the damp and the cold and people stoke fires with plastic.

    It maddening to contemplate that - so close to us - ordinary people, who left what once were good homes and jobs are facing a European winter without the very basics of adequate shelter and warmth. And maddening too that so many in authority seem so intent on ignoring the problem. “Let’s not encourage them,” goes the thinking, “let’s not pave the way for thousands more by the signals we send.” And so the people there are classified as regrettable statistics the UK is unwilling to do anything about.

    It’s a duplicitous policy at best, as made clear by the fact we have spent some £15 million on fences for the tunnel and ferry terminal at Calais, effectively a huge sign to keep out. Meanwhile there has been next to no support from the British or French governments, not even to provide the basic conditions you might expect to find in refugee camps. There are some 40 toilets, or one for every 75 people; way short of the one for every 20 cited as necessary for emergency situations in refugee camps by the UNHCR. Children are arriving unaccompanied and many are subject to illness and infection due to the camp expanding over what was the old unofficial latrine.

    Volunteers and a few charities are attempting to pick up the slack but it’s a huge task with not enough co-ordination and it’s clear we are failing the people camped there. Where are the resources that such a humanitarian crisis should ensure? Is this the new reality for people fleeing war, persecution and hunger all over Europe; a cold shoulder and indifference from on high? A drawing up of borders for lack of political will? A hope that somehow the problem will go away if only we ignore it long enough, manage expectations and keep the trucks rolling to and throe untroubled?

    It would be easier to understand if it didn’t seem so casually harsh, if it didn’t take its place amid an austerity where the poor should be silenced and brushed under the carpet so long as shopping and drinking goes on for the rest of the population. The migrants in Calais are part of the new destitute, part of a cold calculus of winners and losers, where sympathy from governments is hard to find.

    Are we really prepared to accept this? Can we really stomach looking on as people slowly fall apart before our eyes? Can we take no lead from the time of that last great migration in the wake of the Second World War when millions of refugees were given succour by international aid and the will of Western countries, buoyed by victory but staring at a financial landscape no less sobering that the one we face today?

    In the absence of such help we know that we must do what we can, as everyday people, to help. But let’s not forget that our governments ought to show responsibility here as well, beyond meagre steps to take in a few thousand a year. We cannot continue to ignore such tragic conditions only one short stretch of water away. This country has been made up of waves of immigration down the years and we should not look the other way when so many people need help. At the very least we should be helping ensure a standard of living expected for refugee camps.

    These are the times of great crisis and we will be remembered in history by the caliber of our response. As ever in Britain in these times it seems, it falls to the people to act while a ruling elite bathes in the spoils of electoral carnage. We can do better as a country and we should expect those in Parliament to respond to these times with a greater compassion. That isn’t high-minded thinking; it’s a cry for basic human dignity. It stands as a test for us all.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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