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migration” last Autumn, the issue has slid out of the headlines: debate over Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster has been replaced by debate over Brexit’s terms; the refugee camps at Calais and Dunkirk have been closed; and the numbers applying for asylum have fallen from their 2015 peak.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.