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Three years ago, a Calais eviction left 129 children unaccounted for. Where are they now?

On the last day of February in 2016, the eviction of the southern half of the Calais “Jungle” began and residents were evicted. Authorities had said that there were only 800-1,000 people living in the south, so that’s how many accommodation spaces were made available.

Our team on the ground knew that in reality the number was much higher. Two weeks earlier, Help Refugees volunteers had counted 5,497 people, including 651 children – 423 of whom were unaccompanied – in the camp. Over half of these were in the south.

Associations in Calais warned authorities that children would go missing in an eviction without adequate safeguarding measures. In the census after the eviction, volunteers found that 129 unaccompanied minors were unaccounted for.

In the months that followed some of these minors returned to northern France, and our partners were able to track a small number of them down and offer their support. For the most part, though, we don’t know what happened. Many of them will have been at huge risk of exploitation and trafficking. Many will have joined the reported 10,000 missing unaccompanied children in Europe.

Today there are more than 150 unaccompanied minors in northern France, living in flimsy tents, on the streets, under bridges and in forests. They wait for the UK government to provide the legal routes it promised them. Instead of legal routes, they have been given more walls, fences and barbed wire.

Slow, inefficient and unfair

Under the Dubs Amendment, many of these kids have been eligible for transfer to the UK for nearly three years. If proper systems of support had been put in place by the French and UK governments, those children could now be living in safety.

An incomprehensibly slow, inefficient and unfair asylum system has left thousands of children living in limbo. In the time it’s taken for the Home Office to start the process of filling the 480 spaces it has committed to,  hundreds more have gone missing.

As February temperatures hit new highs in the UK, it’s easy to forget about the threatening cold of a winter’s night. It is still winter, though, and children are still homeless and ignored. We can’t let another year go by while they remain in this condition.


What can you do to help?

If you have one minute you can write to your MP:

To ask them to ensure the spaces available to unaccompanied minors under the Dubs scheme in their constituency are filled as soon as possible. You can use our template here – it only takes 30 seconds!

If you have one day you can arrange a meeting with your MP:

To speak face-to-face with your representative regarding the situation in Calais and the conditions these children are living in. Ask them to confirm their commitment to bringing them to the UK and to offering spaces in their constituency, as well as to bringing up the issue in Parliament.

If you have one week (or longer) you can head to Calais to volunteer:

While they are waiting to be offered the protection to which they are legally entitled, these kids – as well as the many adults sleeping rough in and around Calais – need support from people like you. Head over to the volunteering section of our website or drop us an email via contact@helprefugees.org to find out more about how you can help.

Photo: Beatrice Lily Lorigan/ Refugee Info Bus

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Why are so many people fleeing Eritrea?

“I go UK,” he says, “And I have job, I work.  And I have house, and bed. Maybe television.  But house, and bed.  Here, three people in tent for one people.  In UK, I have bed.”

 

I’m sitting in a waiting room in Calais, France with three young men.  They’re fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen – all here to see the doctor, all refugees. The oldest, Eferm, continues: “Is no good have money.  Money no good.”  His friends laugh and punch his arm – “No, is good be rich!” – but he shakes his head and tells me gravely that money is not important.  “Important is be happy.  I be very happy, have job and bed.”

 

Eferm was born in Eritrea, a small country on the Red Sea, bordered by Sudan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia.  Of its population of 5.3 million people, more than 480 000 have been forcibly displaced.  The majority flee to neighbouring countries, but tens of thousands have made it to the European Union, hoping for asylum.  There are just under 50,000 Eritrean refugees in Germany – in 2017, the tiny country came just after Syria for the number of refugee applicants in Europe.  If the same proportion of the UK were to be displaced, there would be over 7 million UK asylum-seekers in the world.

 

Why are Eritreans fleeing their country in such staggering numbers? 

“What is no good in Eritrea?”  I ask Eferm.  “I know that everyone has to go to the army.”  He counts on his fingers: “No work, no food, army, bad government.”

 

Bad may be a misnomer.  Eritrea has a totalitarian government that has been in place for 25 years.  There are no elections, no constitution, and no independent press.  The slightest rumour of political activism, or even sympathy with dissenters, is grounds for immediate arrest and indefinite detention.  The United Nations Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea is a horrifying read, as is the US 2017 Human Rights ReportEven the most clinical language cannot soften the list of human rights abuses: arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions, the widespread use of torture in prisons and during military service and training, complete government control of movement and resources, and compulsory, indefinite national service.  The government maintains complete control by forcing its citizens to spy on one another – if they refuse, they might be disappeared; if they have nothing to report, they can be jailed.  Any journey, even to the next city, requires a yellow travel pass. Coupons are used to buy foods in government stores, and can be frozen at any time. The average wage during national service is equivalent to €52 a month; in a government store, a litre of sunflower oil and half a kilo of pasta cost €5 each.

 

Eferm was lucky to have gone to school until he was seventeen, but like all  Eritreans, at eighteen he was to transfer to a military barracks where his national service would begin.  “That’s why you left?” I ask Eferm. “So you didn’t have to go to the army?”  He shrugs. “Some people, they go fight Ethiopia people, Sudan people.  My brother, he go.  Very bad.  Fighting, very bad.  I say, better try go UK.”

 

Ethiopia and Eritrea have been fighting a bloody border war for twenty years.  Peace was officially and unexpectedly declared in July of last year, but the Horn of Africa, which includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somali, is the site of economic and political power struggles between China and the USA, and European and Middle Eastern influences.  I spoke with Eferm in June, before the peace declaration, but since then, other Eritrean refugees have told me that they are doubtful that the peace will last, or that there will be other problems soon with Yemen and Sudan. And in any case, they say, there is no future for them in Eritrea. Returning refugees are often jailed and tortured, and the government shows no signs of considering democracy or changes to the mandatory national service.

 

“Eritrea finish.  I love Eritrea, my country. But Eritrea, me, finish,” says Eferm matter-of-factly.  When I ask him if he has family or friends in the UK, his eyes drop down to his hands.  He shows me a small black heart, clumsily tattooed between his finger and thumb.  “My mother, one month no phone.  Calais is very bad.  I tell mother is okay, no problem.  Not true, no good.  So, no phone.”

Eritrean refugees in Calais

Two people living rough in Calais comfort each other outside the Refugee Info Bus, a mobile information and wifi service enabling people to connect with loved ones and access information about the asylum system in France.

 

I have no comfort to offer Eferm. Calais is, indeed, very bad. We are at the clinic today for the boys to use the shower: they need to wash off the scabies cream applied yesterday. The treatment may offer them relief for a short time, but they will be back to the clinic again soon; the boys are living outside in tents, and the cold weather forces them to share their infected shelters.  The organization I volunteer with distributes clean tents, blankets, and sleeping bags when we have enough donations, but we can’t keep up with the scabies – we barely manage to replace the tents and blankets taken by the police during the daily evictions.  Their clothes are likewise infected.

 

I sit with Eferm in silence until the nurse pokes his head in the room and beckons him to the showers. He comes back with wet hair, looking sheepish in flip-flops and a baggy t-shirt.  He holds out a plastic bag: “Doctor say, new shirt, new jean, new sock.  This no good.”  I glare at the nurse as the boys run ahead to the van – Étienne knows very well that my organization doesn’t have the resources to provide clean clothes for every refugee with scabies.  But today I’ll go to the hoppers where we keep the donations and choose a good jumper and jeans for Eferm.

 

A laughing, teasing crowd of young Eritreans swoops down on the van as I drop Eferm and his friends back at their tents.  They pile into the van, turn up the music, fuss with their hair in the mirrors.  Each of these boys defied Eritrea’s shoot-to-kill border policy and crossed into Ethiopia or Sudan.  They survived crossing the Mediterranean, evaded or escaped kidnapping for ransom by human traffickers, crossed through Europe, and have ended up here in Calais: so close, and so far, from  their dream of a safe haven in England.

 

The vast majority of displaced people and asylum seekers stay as refugees in neighbouring countries.  80% of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries, most in Africa. It’s a small percentage that decide to make the long, dangerous journey across hostile borders to reach the safest and richest countries in the world.  These boys are amongst that minority.  Many have family or friends that have been resettled in English towns and cities, but most of them know very little about what to expect in the UK.  They tell me that people are kinder there, less racist, nicer to refugees.  I’ve asked some of the boys if they’ve considered claiming asylum in other countries – here in France, perhaps. “France, no good.  France police, all day beat, spray,” Eferm says. He’s not wrong.  Last November the organizations I work with released a report on police violence against refugees in Calais.  Some of the hundreds of testimonies of human rights abuses were ones that I recorded myself.  After having held the hands of a crying sixteen-year-old Eritrean as he described being beaten by five police officers, I find it hard to love France, let alone tell Eferm that the asylum system is England is no better than in other European countries.

 

I never ask any of the refugees that I accompany to the clinic if they regret leaving their country.  I want them to look to the future, to focus on their goals – many of which are as simple as a job, and a bed.

Eritrean host countries

 


This article was written by Help Refugees volunteer Laura Heit, who currently works out of our warehouse in Calais. You can support our work here.

Header photo was taken by David Levene for the Guardian.

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Lift the Ban: busting some myths around asylum seekers and work

Alongside more than 150 organisations across the UK, Help Refugees is calling on the Government to give people seeking asylum in the UK the right to work. At the moment, asylum seekers are banned from working while they await a decision on their application and have to survive on a little over £5 per day.

There are some common misconceptions about asylum seekers and work that appear in the media. These are often used to argue that people seeking asylum should not be allowed to work, but they do not stand up to scrutiny.

 

Allowing people seeking asylum to work does not create a “pull-factor”

A common argument for restricting work rights for people seeking asylum is that allowing people to work would create a “pull-factor” – an extra incentive to come to this country. But research by the University of Warwick shows this is simply not the case .

Studies, including one commissioned by the Home Office, have shown that access to work has little, if any, affect on where people seek asylum. The Lift the Ban report shows there is not one piece of credible, published evidence of a long-term link between labour market access and asylum destination.

Often, people have little choice in where they seek asylum. In cases where people have some degree of choice, it is primarily based on language, colonial links between their home country and the host country, having family or friends in the host country, or a belief that the host country is safe, tolerant and democratic.

Furthermore, the report shows that people seeking asylum often do not have knowledge of the host country’s policies on working rights prior to their arrival. And research has shown that restricting the right to work has no effect on the number of asylum applications a country receives.

Allowing people seeking asylum to work does not encourage “economic migrants”

Some go further and argue that such a policy would lead to more “economic migrants” applying for asylum in order to work. This, too, is not borne out by the evidence. It also makes little sense.

Our coalition is calling for asylum seekers who had been waiting for a decision on their application for over six months to be allowed to work. Researchers have widely discredited that this would encourage people to come to the country solely for economic reasons.

For people who arrive in the UK without a visa and intend to work, research suggests it is easier for them to remain hidden and work illegally. It is unlikely they would put themselves through the asylum process and bring themselves to the attention of the authorities, putting themselves at risk of deportation, in the hope that their application will be delayed and they won’t be able to work for at least six months.

The benefits of giving asylum seekers the right to work

If the UK were to adopt a six-month waiting period, it would go from being an outlier to joining the international mainstream.

Spain, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium and many more countries across Europe have already shown that giving asylum seekers the right to work after six months or less can bring benefits to both the local community and people seeking asylum.

Our coalition of charities, think tanks and faith groups argue that giving people seeking asylum the right to work would:

• Strengthen people’s chances of being able to integrate into and contribute to their new communities.
• Allow people seeking asylum to live in dignity and to provide for themselves and their families.
• Give people the opportunity to use their skills and make the most of their potential.
• Improve the mental health of people in the asylum system.
• Help to challenge forced labour, exploitation, and modern slavery.

It’s time for a change. Join us in urging the Government to move rapidly to grant the right to work for people seeking asylum by reading the full report and signing our petition demanding the government #LiftTheBan.


This article was written for Help Refugees by James Burgess.

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We need 3,000 sleeping bags in Calais!

Our stock of sleeping bags and blankets for Calais & Dunkirk is running desperately low, and right now we’re unable to keep up with demand. In the next 15 days, we need your help to collect 3,000 sleeping bags and 5,000 blankets.

Thanks to incredible public support in December, we’ve been able to distribute bedding every week of winter so far. But with over 100 evictions last month, people are once again being left in the cold with nothing to protect themselves. Our stocks are running low, and we need help to make sure anyone sleeping rough in Northern France, at the very least, has a blanket or sleeping bag to keep them warm at night.

 

What can you do to help? Don’t have a spare sleeping bag or blanket?

On 26th February, we’re sending a truck to all the drop offs in London to pick up donated sleeping bags and blankets. For the rest of the UK, all donations will be picked up in the coming weeks!

So if you have any spares (or would like to organise a collection), please please please send to your local donation drop-off point before the end of the month!

A sleeping bag isn’t a bed. It’s not enough. But in the freezing cold of night, it can be the key to preventing hypothermia. Find out any and everything you’ll need to know about organising a donation in our information pack. 

 

Where is my local drop-off?

PLEASE NOTE: If your local drop-off is an Emmaus location – please make sure to label your donation “HELP REFUGEES – CALAIS” 

If you have any questions at all, feel free to contact us at calaisdonations@helprefugees.org. Thank you so much for your continued support – we love you!


If you don’t have a sleeping bag or blanket, but would still like to help, buy one from our Choose Love store, and we’ll get them to where they’re most needed!

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We’re hiring! Apply to join Help Refugees as a Programmes Officer

Help Refugees is looking for a Programmes Officer to join its London team on a full-time basis. This is a unique opportunity to gain experience working for one of the fastest-growing charities in the UK. You’ll operate within a small, dynamic and hard-working team, with the chance to make a real, tangible impact on the lives of thousands of displaced people across the world.

We are looking for someone who is excellent at prioritising and multitasking to support the Help Refugees Programmes team. You will be excellent at building systems and working with the team to ensure the smoothest process for grant administration. You will have the ability to prioritise according to the changing needs in the context and the team, whilst ensuring that the everyday tasks are complete to the highest standard. You will use your initiative when faced with new or complex problems. You will use your positive attitude to work out a way to move forward, and you will also know when to check in with the team.

The Programmes Officer will be line managed by COO and Head of Programmes, based alongside our other core team members in our East London office.

Role and responsibilities

  • Travel arrangements and diary management for Head of Programmes and COO
  • Additional admin support for Head of Programmes and COO including inbox management, meeting preparation and expenses management
  • Writing reports on programmes for donors
  • Writing social media content based on programmes reports
  • Preparing grant proposals and budgets for potential donors
  • Grant administration
  • Providing regular updates to the team based on policy and geo-political changes
  • Minute-taking at meetings
  • Internal communication across Advocacy and Communications teams
  • Field new enquiries to Help Refugees Programmes team
  • Supporting Help Refugees’ field team in Calais and Greece with ad-hoc needs
  • Assisting Head of Programmes and COO with due diligence and compliance for new grants


Essential skills:

  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills
  • Ability to communicate effectively with the team as well as external contacts in a confident and professional manner
  • Highly IT literate with an ability to learn new software quickly; excellent understanding of Microsoft Office and G Suite (Google apps)
  • Excellent administrative and time management skills
  • Meticulous with a high degree of accuracy and attention to detail
  • Highly organised and structured, but also willing and able to adapt to changing priorities and different team members’ needs
  • Interest in migration and refugee issues, with a passion in supporting effective grassroots organisations and long-term solutions
  • Enthusiastic and positive attitude, flexible and adaptable
  • Collaborative team player who is willing to support whatever the greatest needs are in the Help Refugees team
  • Ability to use own initiative to ensure all tasks are met

 

Desired

  • Experience writing grant proposals
  • Experience with programme budgeting
  • Language skills
  • Experience using a CRM system e.g. Salesforce

 

We are committed to providing equality and fairness for all and not discriminating on grounds of gender, marital status, race, ethnic origin, nationality, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, mental health, religion or age. We encourage and celebrate the different qualities that our colleagues, and others we work with, bring to our work. And we believe that seeing things from a wide range of different perspectives helps us to resolve problems, adapt our approaches and develop as an organisation. We want to bring greater diversity to our team and we are keen to receive applications from people who believe they would do this.

 

To apply for this position please send your CV and brief cover letter to projects@helprefugees.org with the subject line “Programmes Officer Application”.

Applications close on 28th February 2019

Start date – ASAP

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Women in Calais

According to the UNHCR, women and girls make up around 50 percent of refugee, internally displaced and stateless populations. Those who are unaccompanied, pregnant women, heads of households, the disabled and the elderly are especially vulnerable. 

 

On their journeys to safety, displaced women and girls are likely to have faced abuse, sexual violence, and exploitation. The UN reports that 60 percent of preventable maternal deaths take place in humanitarian settings, and at least 1 in 5 displaced women are estimated to have experienced sexual violence.

 

For the past few months I have been working with several women and families living in camps around Calais. Although there are only between 5 and 10 women, and a handful of families living outside in Calais, they camp alongside hundreds of men all trying to cross the border to the UK.

 

Added to the daily turmoil people face living outside in makeshift camps – staying warm, accessing food, water and showers, avoiding police harassment – women here are vulnerable to gender-based violence, exploitation and everyday misogyny. As a female volunteer, the experience of being surrounded by large groups of men can, at times, be intimidating. It is impossible to fathom how it must feel as a woman living in such a disproportionate setting.

 

This is not to overshadow the experiences of the displaced male population in Calais. A recent report published by the Human Rights Observers team in Calais documents that between 1 November 2017 and 1 November 2018 there were 972 incidents reported relating to disproportionate physical violence, the use of teargas, destruction of personal property and other rights abuses by French police.

 

Lack of shelter and adequate sanitation, forced clearances occurring every other day, and police abuses of power such as the use of chemical agents and arbitrary arrests, combine to make the camps’ living environments impossible for both men and women – severely damaging their mental and physical health. But women and families face an additional set of challenges in comparison to men in the hostile environment, and must not be forgotten in the story of Calais.

 

In France’s official accommodation centres for asylum seekers, living conditions are similarly inadequate: we have heard reports of cockroaches, a single room for a five-person family and no food provisions or follow-up support. There is also a lack of information within the registration process, so many women and families are unwilling to put themselves forward because they are uncertain of where it will place them legally or of what happens if they are evicted from a centre (or indeed if they leave of their own volition).

 

A family from Kurdish Iraq refuse to go to an accommodation centre, knowing that to go through the process would stall their journey to the UK. Instead they stay, as the only family in a camp of 100 men, steeling themselves against the fast approaching winter. The four children regularly fall over in the mud as they run around playing, and their mother has no access to clothes washing facilities. Her youngest, just three years old, repeatedly stands in human faeces. They camp next to a busy road, and both parents are always watching out for their kids running across, at risk of seriously injuring themselves in an accident.

 

I play a game with the 8-year old daughter. She runs off, and I can’t find her for a minute. I panic, and later realise this panic must be a constant for the parents, and how this must shape their interactions with their children, and their own mental health. The oldest son, 13, has stepped up to watch over his younger siblings, and he speaks English incredibly well. He should be in school learning, not carrying the responsibility of being the translator for his family’s interactions with charity representatives.

 

 

Five Ethiopian women meet us on an unlit street in winter’s afternoon darkness, near to the toilets used by two camps of over 300 men. According to international guidelines, male and female toilets in refugee camps are supposed to be separate and marked as such. The doors are also supposed to have locks to prevent sexual attacks. But in Calais, with no formal refugee camp for those attempting to reach the UK, women must share toilets with men, and have no access to proper washing facilities. This increases an already higher risk of experiencing gender based violence or sexual abuse. Without the money to pay off a smuggler, the women regularly attempt to jump on lorries, just as the men in their community do, and all have travelled independently from their country.

 

A woman from Iran draws a love heart in the sand. She writes two initials inside it; the first letter of the names of her husband and her child. She left them behind in Iran, and hopes to be reunited with them when she reaches the UK. But for now she is trapped in the purgatory that is Calais, pretending her friend is her husband, in order to protect herself in the male-dominated camp. She will have the option of family reunification only after she arrives in Britain, but it is impossible to know when that will be, as she must first risk her life to get there, denied the option of claiming asylum from this border.

 

These stories highlight the need for the UK to offer a safe passage for all people where the border is controlled in Northern France. At the moment, people risk their lives jumping on trucks, climbing aboard ferries, even, in recent weeks, sailing across on small boats. In 2015 a Syrian child washed up on Greek shores and made international headlines. Must we only accept responsibility when the same happens on the shores of Kent?

 

Though very little statistical information on refugee women is available, those statistics that are accessible indicate the depths of indignity, fear and violence that vulnerable women face in their journeys to safety:

 

  • Sexual and gender-based violence: GBV in refugee camps, though also under-reported, remains a key concern for vulnerable women with justified fears of rape and other forms of GBV, with one in four cases reported being sexual violence.
  • Early and forced marriage: statistics on early and forced marriage amongst the Syrian refugee community in Jordan, for instance, indicate the extent of the trend. In 2013, of the 2,936 registered marriages of Syrians in Jordan, approximately 25% involved a Syrian child between the ages of 15-17 and the majority of these children are girls. Refugee camps are woefully under-equipped and over-subscribed, and are unable to provide adequate support to vulnerable girls getting married at a young age.
  • Sexual and reproductive health: the use of contraceptives amongst vulnerable Syrian women has dropped from pre-civil war rates in Syria, which used to be in the region of 60%, to only 34% amongst refugee women in Lebanon. Less than 70% of Syrian women refugees surveyed have any knowledge of family planning and how it can be accessed, demonstrating a widening information gap which speaks to a lack of awareness amongst Syrian women in Lebanon.
  • Safety in host countries: in a study conducted by the IRC that interviewed 135 female heads of household taking refuge in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, approximately half of participants left the house less in their host country than when they were living in Syria, as well as reporting feeling isolated and imprisoned in their own homes. Further, 60% of women expressed feelings of insecurity, and one in three women stated that they felt too scared or overwhelmed to leave their homes at all, often a result of refugee women living in insecure and temporary housing with poor security.

 

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