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“A matter of political will”: There’s no end in sight for the refugee crisis in Calais

A visit to sites in Calais and Dunkirk with Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley shows the crisis is far from over.

Inside a sprawling refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, a woman introduces a visiting filmmaker to her cat, Taboush. She has carried the animal all the way from Syria and his presence is drawing a small crowd of onlookers to her tent: “I was so worried about Taboush!” says one onlooker, visibly cheered.

The cat is part of artist Ai Wei Wei’s new documentary about the refugee crisis, Human Flow Its presence is a small reminder of what many refugee’s lives once looked like - and may yet look like again, somewhere beyond the cold, rubbish-strewn tents. 

It is also a reminder that behind the vast statistics (each day, 34,000 people around the world flee famine and war, the film tells us) are individual human lives.

The message is a particularly timely one for UK politicians. Since Theresa May’s call for a clampdown on “uncontrolled migration” last Autumn, the issue has slid out of the headlines: debate over Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster has been replaced by debate over Brexit’s terms; the refugee camps at Calais and Dunkirk have been closed; and the numbers applying for asylum have fallen from their 2015 peak.

Yet despite falling visibility, the humanitarian emergency on Britain’s doorstep continues. When I visited Calais and Dunkirk with Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley last week, the situation in many ways appeared worse than ever.

In a small woodland behind a Calais industrial estate, kids as young as ten were preparing to spend the night outside in the freezing cold. One boy from Afghanistan showed me to his particular patch of trees, where he only has a sleeping bag and a foil survival blanket to keep him warm. He was just thirteen.

More disturbing still is that, every few nights, French police arrive to confiscate or destroy these scant possesions. According to a Human Rights Watch report released this July, such night-time raids are also often accompanied by physical harassment, including the use of pepper spray on both adults and children – even while they sleep.

“I’ve never seen people behave like this in my life - they give us no rest”, a middle-aged man says of the police’s approach. He has fled Afghanistan and showed us his chest, which is covered in scars from Taliban bullets.

The confiscations mean charities are having to hand-out new sleeping bags on an almost daily basis, says Annie Gavrilescu from the charity Help Refugees; “It’s a huge waste and it genuinely breaks our heart to see stuff we distributed yesterday end up in the skip.”

According to Gavrilescu, the police want to discourage people from settling near the Channel Tunnel. They are obsessed with avoiding the emergence of new “fixation points” that could build up into a new camp or “jungle”, she says. These seem to include anything from makeshift wooden shacks, to simple tents and bedding.


Some might argue that the deterrence is working: before its demolition last year, the camp at Calais was home to around 10,000 people, now there are only 700-800 in the area at any one time.

But the lower numbers come at a terrible price. All support for refugees now has to be mobile: even portable toilets and water-taps have to be wheeled into place each day, greatly reducing the level of care charities can provide. “Horrendous” is the word Gavrilescu uses to describe the conditions in the woods behind Dunkrik’s famous sand-dunes, where, among a clump of trees and campsite debris, we spot a small child’s abandoned shoe.

“How the support has had to change and adapt is quite striking,” says Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley, who last visited the area just before the camp at Dunkirk was struck by fire. Both the sleeping conditions and the stories of police intimidation appear to have worsened, he observes, and fears that “there now seems to be an institutionalised abuse of refugees.”

Unaccompanied minors appear to be hit particularly hard by the changes. ‘In the Jungle camp there was a children’s centre where children could come, learn and play in a safe space – and now that’s all gone,” Bartley notes. The only thing left is the “School Bus” project, an adapted double-decker bus where volunteers provide English lessons and a chance to get out of the biting cold.

So with such hostile treatment from the local authorities and the British government taking in so few applicants, why are people still coming to Calais and Dunkirk at all?

Those I speak to at a food distribution point have set their hearts on applying for asylum in the UK, either because they have personal connections or because of the English language. In order to do so, however, most must first make it onto UK soil.

They might stand more chance of success if they apply for asylum in France instead, Gavrilescu says (the average number of claims approved in Europe is over 60 percent, compared to the UK where it is only a third), but slow French bureaucracy is not helping. Cuts in funding mean that you can’t apply to enter the French asylum system from Calais. Instead you have to travel to Lille, where one man we spoke to said he’d been told it was going to take a further three months to process his application.

Asylum applicants can opt to stay in state-run accommodation while they wait to be processed. Yet there are problems here too: according to a report from the Refugee Rights Data Project, many leave these shelters after experiences of racism, lonliness, a lack of translators and fear that no progress is being made on their asylum claims.

All these factors help drive people back to the coastline and into the hands of the people-smugglers, says Gavrilescu; “There are just blockages everywhere”.

The labyrinth of uncertainty is adding its own layer to the crisis: last year a 14-year-old boy from Afghanistan was one of many killed while attempting to board the roofs of lorries at the ports. According to charities he had a right to travel to the country legally via his brother – he just hadn’t believed it would happen.

Gavrilescu’s plea for aid is thus three-fold. Firstly for urgent donations of winter-proof shoes and clothing to charities working in Calais (especially shoes in men’s sizes 7-9).

Second, a crack-down on the police harassment, which she fears is pushing refugees away from staying France and towards the UK.  

And lastly, an urgent expansion of the UK’s asylum processing system, including a Calais-based office: “If the UK authorities could facilitate meaningful family reunification for both adults and minors from Calais, there would be less pressure on them to take illegal routes,” she says.

Support for unaccompanied children also needs urgent attention, says Bartley. At present, a piece of legislation called the “Dubs Amendment” requires the UK to take in 480 unaccompanied refugee children directly from France, Italy and Greece. Yet so far only 200 of the scheme’s 480 places have been filled and the charity HelpRefugees is arguing in court that the UK is capable of taking even more.

“It’s clear that in Calais we’re going round and round in circles and we’re not solving the problem,” Bartley says. “There is only one way to solve the problem and that is a government with the political will to embrace those that need our help and put resources into it, and to work with other countries to make that happen and create the security they need.”

Thankfully, possible solutions exist. The Irish government in particular has shown great speed and efficiency in its recent re-homing of child refugees, says Gavrilescu. Meanwhile in Calais, charities have banded together to come up with a plan to foil the police confiscations. All large items are now labelled with the charity’s logos and legally signed for by each refugee. This means that when the police take them away, the organisations can both claim them back and more confidently challenge the practice. Such examples give Gavrilescu hope: “It is possible it’s just a matter of political will,” she says.

Hope is also present in Ai Wei Wei’s powerful film – but it is accompanied by a warning: “Either we move forward as a Europe of tolerance, of human rights […] Or we split into a xenophobic Europe that will never manage to overcome the trauma caused by the wave of refugees,” the Greek Migration Minister, Ioannis Mouzalas, tells the filmmaker.

Sadly, as the Brexit process attempts to “take back control” over Britain’s borders, the fate of those on the French coast this Christmas shows how far we are from taking control of this crisis. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.