When I was coming back from Holland last month the bus passed through Calais to board the ferry. I looked to my right and saw the infamous “jungle”, the migrant camp where thousands of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Darfur camp out while they try, night after night, to get to the UK.
There were hundreds of tents pitched in the middle of a wooded area, where apparently there are very poor sanitary conditions and food is provided by French charities. I had seen pictures of this place, but seeing it right there by the side of the road while I zoomed past able to hop on the next ferry was quite sobering.
The other day I came across a list of the most powerful passports in the world to have, and apparently a UK passport (in joint place with a US passport) is the top one. I have always had a flippant awareness that having a UK passport is a good thing, but this migrant crisis has made me appreciate my nationality a bit more. Looking down the list also made me sad to think that people are divided into more or less desirable humans depending on which piece of paper we possess.
Just this morning I was reading about how Hungary and other countries are tightening their borders to keep migrants out. The sense of desperation that these people must feel is probably like nothing I’ve ever had to experience. I am currently reading a manuscript of a book about a German Jewish family’s experiences during WWII and how they all tried to obtain visas to migrate to different places: UK, USA, Palestine among others. It is incredible to read about how the UK had quotas back then to regulate the amount of Jewish immigrants that came here. If any Jews made it here illegally the British government would take that number away from the permits they gave out to legal migrants. This is the same cold calculation we are seeing now with migrants from conflict zones in the Middle East. The parallels with WWII don’t stop here. I came across this video of a refugee camp in Austria where police are tossing food at desperate people. Yes, these people are being given food, but how are they being treated?
Red Magazine, which is normally one of my favourite women’s magazines, ran a feature recently about what Syrian refugees carried in their bags. Although this initiative is run by the International Rescue Committee to help refugees, I question the way in which the meagre contents of these people’s bags are being displayed for the Western gaze to examine. These people are not commodities for us to round up like cattle and throw food at or examine their belongings as objects of fascination.
Each migrant, refugee or whatever you choose to call them has an individual story and experience, and I feel that they are being grouped into a mass of people to be herded around as we please. Back in August David Cameron spoke to The Guardian about the ‘swarm’ of migrants that were arriving,
…what we can’t do is allow people to break into our country. A lot of people coming to Europe are coming in search of a better life. They are economic migrants and they want to enter Britain illegally, and the British people and I want to make sure our borders are secure and you can’t break into Britain without permission.”
Of course there are a lot of economic migrants to the UK, but I don’t think the migrants that are coming from Syria at the moment just want to come here for economic reasons, but rather because they are fleeing for their lives. I am not sure if the solution is to open up our doors like Germany is doing, but what is clear is that these people cannot be ignored. Can we stand by and watch while other human beings are drowning and starving in desperation? The question I guess is to what extent are we compassionate? Do we want to help them but just not have them in our country?
Under the European Convention of Human Rights migrants are protected and theoretically should “enjoy asylum from persecution”, so our own laws require us to help protect these people’s lives. Last Saturday in London thousands of people marched in solidarity with refugees. I wasn’t able to go as I was working but I definitely supported the sentiment. As Jeremy Corbyn, the brand new leader of the Labour party said,
“They’re human beings, just like you, just like me. Let’s deal with the refugee crisis with humanity, with support, with compassion to try to help people who are trying to get to safety, trying to help people who are stuck in refugee camps, but recognise that going to war creates a legacy of bitterness and problems.”
Corbyn encapsulated what I really wanted to say in this post, that these people are desperate, and somehow, we need to be compassionate and help them to reach safety.
Here is a picture of the white cliffs of Dover, which I’m sure is a view that offers a lot of hope and possibility to many.