Refugees are being driven to despair in Calais

With so many still suffering on our doorstep, what's the point of World Refugee Day?

An Iraqi Kurd peeps out from under a pile of blankets on a wet pavement in Calais. “OK you journalist,” he says sleepily. “Tell me where are the human rights in Europe? There is nothing. It’s all a lie.” Suddenly he is awake, arms waving, shouting angrily about the policeman who kicked him awake at 6am and asked to see his papers (the same one who arrested him the day before, and the week before that:  “he sees me every day”), and the people who spit at him in the streets.

Other homeless asylum seekers and migrants nod in agreement, and confirm his story. The police in Calais operate a policy of daily harassment; they target the dishevelled, dark-skinned migrants wandering the streets in the small port town. The police destroy the meagre tents they build, chase them out of derelict squats where they seek shelter, and despite seeing them every day constantly harass them for identification papers. These papers are usually official letters from the French government ordering them to leave France, or ID to show they have entered the asylum process. Regardless of what the paper says, they all are treated the same by the police; like criminals.

They can have no peace here, says Celine Dallery, a local nurse. “It is written on their heads – immigrant. They are judged. The police arrest them because they use the squats, but they have nowhere else to live.”

This is why the fanfare around World Refugee Day rings hollow. Yes, it is important to celebrate the accomplishments of host countries that provide protection and the refugees who build new lives; but what does it all mean if we still degrade others seeking asylum?

Where are the human rights in Europe? Shortly after the Second World War, all of Europe promised 'never again'. The opening preamble to the European Convention on Human Rights was drawn up to reaffirm the continent’s “profound belief in those fundamental freedoms which are the foundation of justice and peace in the world … best maintained … by a common understanding and observance of the human rights upon which they depend.”

So why, little more than 60 years after Europe promised, are refugees being racially abused in Greece, living in destitution in Italy, assaulted by the police in France and imprisoned in the UK? The European Union’s common asylum and immigration system espouses the importance of humanitarian protection, but its member states systematically flout the rules. In Calais the tragic consequences of Europe’s flagrant disregard for the rights of those seeking sanctuary on its shores are played out.

The one hundred-odd asylum seekers gathered in the unassuming port town have tales of horror from across Europe; one spoke of destitution in Italy, another of violent attacks in Greece, prolonged imprisonment in Hungary, and deportation back to warzones by the British. They are from Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and Egypt. As they said over and over, “You already know about my country”. In other words, they are refugees.

25-year-old Manjit Singh says he is stopped by the French police two or three times a day. He bitterly regrets selling his farm in Bangladesh to find work in the UK. Since leaving home, apart from a brief spell working at a convenience store in Birmingham, he has either been destitute or locked up in prison or immigration centres in Slovakia, Austria and England. “I don’t want to spend my life here. Nobody likes to sleep on the streets. Sometimes I feel angry. I made a mistake, I sold my land, I don’t like life in Europe. People talk about human rights but there is nothing.” The last time I see Manjit he is being dropped off by the police after being caught clinging to the underbelly of truck bound for England. I ask if he is OK; his face crumbles in despair.

A 20-year-old Eritrean man wearing an assortment of charity clothes is visibly worn down by his precarious life in Calais. When we met more than a year ago, he was bright-eyed and full of hope about a new life in England. He left Eritrea, where English is the second language, to escape a lifetime providing free labour in the government army.  Now his eyes are stained red, the conviction drained from his face, all hope of reaching England lost. He has applied for asylum in France instead. So far he has waited eight months for a response; meanwhile, he lives in limbo, his life on hold at the mercy of European bureaucracy. And he is not exempt from police harassment. “I’m tired,” he says, his expression empty. “If there was no problem in my country, I would prefer to live there.”

When months of suffering turn into years, the faith that drives refugees to pin all hopes on European hospitality switches to despair. Lily Boilet, an activist and campaigner from Isbergues, a small village in northern France, says: “They can become depressed, alcoholic, and we can’t help them. Five years on the streets is not good. Even when they get papers, they can become crazy.” Last year she was forced to commit a sub-Saharan African refugee to a mental clinic. He had started hearing voices; they told him black clothes were bad, white were good. He only possessed dark clothes so walked around naked desperately afraid.

It is a tall task to end the bloodshed in the Middle East or bring peace to warring tribes in Sudan, but the countries of Europe must not drive refugees to even greater despair. Instead, the European Union must strive to create and enforce a fair, coherent, and humane asylum system, fulfilling liberal aspirations set out many years ago.

A refugee looks out across the English Channel from Calais. Photograph: Getty Images

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi reports and writes on immigration, women and economics, housing, legal aid, and mental health. Read her latest work here. Her blog rebeccaomonira.com was shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize. She tweets @Rebecca_Omonira.

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Despite his “strong female leads”, Joss Whedon's feminism was never about real women

Many men in TV and film praised for their powerful women are still writing with the male gaze.

Kai Cole, the ex-wife of Joss Whedon, has written an essay alleging that the director isn’t quite the feminist he appears to be. Colour me unsurprised. There’s only so much good-guy posturing a feminist can take before she starts to become a little suspicious.

It’s not that I’ve any particular beef with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor that I think men shouldn’t speak out against sexism wherever possible. But I’ve long harboured a mistrust of male directors – Whedon, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar – who gain a reputation of being “good at doing women”. Who are they, these magic woman-whisperers, who see through woman’s childlike, primitive exterior and coax out the inner complexity? How do they manage to present women, these blank, mysterious objects, as actual human beings?

True, these men are working against a backdrop of extreme sexism, in which film dialogue is dominated by males, while females become increasingly silent as they age. Perhaps one should be grateful to anyone who allows a female character to have some glimmer of an inner life, let alone exist beyond the age of 30.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this isn’t enough. We all know the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it’s set so low. It’s all too easy to be “good at doing women” when all it takes is granting female characters the same desires and contradictions we’d grant to any other human being.

Women are not a specific type of puzzle for mankind to solve. The idea that it should take some noble, generous leap of imagination to empathise with us is an excuse men have been using to mistreat us for millennia. When responding to us as though we’re actual human beings – or at least, as though an interesting Real Woman subset of us are – becomes a USP, we should all be worried.

Whedon did go a little way to addressing this in his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, in which he mocked the way in which he was constantly asked: “Why do you always write these strong women characters?”:

“Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honoured.”

If this sounds a little like a humblebrag, it can probably be excused. What’s harder to excuse is this idea that a man who boasts of surrounding himself with women like his mother – “an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman” – is doing womankind a favour.

I’m glad you appreciate your mum, Joss, and that you apparently don’t feel threatened by other women like her. There’s a fine line, though, between valuing women and presenting them with a whole new list of impossible standards to live up to. This is why I could never quite buy into the liberatory potential of Buffy. There’s nothing impressive about a man failing to be intimidated by his own strong girl fantasy.

In E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman, the hero Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, a doll whom he believes to be a real woman. Once the truth is exposed, the men around him become concerned that they, too, may have unwittingly fallen for automata:

“Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.”

There’s something about the director who’s “good at doing women” that reminds me of this. There’s a recipe for dropping in just the right number of quirks, inconsistencies and imperfections to create a Real Woman Character, without making her so unsexy as to be instantly distinguishable from your Hollywood doll. It’s not that her actual thoughts and feelings matter; it’s all about where she’s positioned in relation to you.

As Sophia McDougall noted in her excellent essay on Strong Female Characters, male characters have complex personalities as a matter of course; female characters, meanwhile, are occasionally permitted to be strong, hence anomalous. The more nuance we see, the better. Even so, I’m tired of the veneration of men who fetishise Real Womanhood just as much as others fetishise the plastic variety.

According to Whedon’s ex-wife, the director’s declared feminist ideals never filtered through into real life. Whether this is true or not, this would be understandable. Real Women are not the same as real women. Equality isn’t a matter of men feeling “engaged and even attracted” to a more diverse range of females. It isn’t about the male gaze at all.

Whedon’s final response to the “why do you always write these strong women characters?” question – “because you’re still asking me that question” – has been seen by many as an explicitly feminist statement. But perhaps all it really meant was “because there’s still a gap in the market”. Because men will always find ways to benefit from other men’s sexism. If Real Women didn’t exist, some man out there would have to invent them. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.