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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear