Tom Steadman

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?

On 27th 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 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, you can donate to our fundraiser for Northern France, and we’ll buy the most-needed items from local businesses.

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Open letter: Home Office’s ‘Joint Action Plan’ ignores international law

The “Joint action plan by the UK and France on combating illegal migration involving small boats in the English Channel” sea crossings is, primarily, a symptom of the desperation, untenable conditions and lack of safe and effective routes to seek asylum faced by displaced people in Northern France. Until these root causes are addressed, asylum seekers will continue to take perilous journeys in their attempt to seek sanctuary in the United Kingdom.


The right to seek asylum

The 1951 Refugee Convention and the subsequent 1967 Protocol, ratified by both the UK and France, assert and protect the right of individuals to seek asylum. Yet you consistently refer to the women, children and men in the Northern France area as ‘illegal migrants’. We would like to remind you of your obligation to assess each displaced person’s asylum claim, before pre-judging the outcome and assigning them a certain legal status. The majority of the displaced community in Northern France originate from countries that are well-known for their persecution (including, but not limited to, Iran and Eritrea) and others plagued by war, conflict and generalised violence (including, but not limited to, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Sudan).

According to §14 of the ‘Joint Action Plan’, and if recent media reports are to be trusted, you will be sending asylum-seekers back to France without allowing them to have their claims assessed adequately in Britain. This violates both their rights and the UK’s obligations, as established above. Those who arrive by boat have the same right to have their asylum claim fairly assessed, as do others arriving by different means.

The UK in Northern France: spending and securitisation


We have seen little evidence of the £3.6 million Development Fund, allocated by the Sandhurst Treaty in January 2018 to improve the process for those seeking asylum in the UK, in action.

The UK has spent, and continues to spend, vast sums of money on policies in Northern France thatneither support the displaced population nor address the causes of their irregular crossings. There has been little evidence of the £3.6 million Development Fund, allocated by the Sandhurst Treaty in January 2018, in action. Organisations on the ground, including those who have co-signed this letter, affirm that its impact on asylum procedures and the living conditions for those in Northern France has been negligible at best.

The Joint Action Plan commits a further £6m of public funds to fortifying the border, and thus perpetuates the British government’s prioritisation of a buttressed concept of state security over the rights and protection of vulnerable individuals.

We further note with concern that, in §6, the signatories appear to conflate such spending with the protection of Britain from terrorism. This contributes to the legitimisation of rhetoric which collapses the topics of asylum, migration and counter-terrorism into one, and narratives which frame asylum-seekers as a threat to public safety.

In §2, you assert that recent security measures have been a ‘success’, but also note that they are one of the reasons that individuals have attempted perilous journeys across the Channel in order to seek asylum. In short, it follows that the measures have succeeded in pushing vulnerable individuals to take greater risks and forcing smuggling networks further underground.

Furthermore, such a claim seeks to detach the dire conditions in Northern France from the reasons that drive people in to small boats at night. By placing the emphasis on the evasion of border security, it removes individuals’ actions from the context in which they exist. In Northern France, that is one characterised by ongoing police violence and harassment; a lack of effective access to asylum procedures; and a profound lack of shelter and support for vulnerable people.

Prior experience of destitution and precarity elsewhere in Europe, coupled with the knowledge that any informal settlements and shelters re-emerging in the Northern France area would be imminently demolished, seems to be a key motivator for displaced individuals to accept any possible ‘exit plan’ available. The ongoing government response to human suffering in Northern France appears to consist of dispersals and push-backs, arbitrary detention and removals, evictions and demolitions, the blocking of humanitarian aid, sanitation and medical care, potentially intentional sleep deprivation and the overall criminalisation of solidarity. This raft of measures has contributed to the continuous application of structural and physical violence against displaced people in the area, driving individuals to take desperate measures.

Strategic communication

It is of utmost importance that the ‘strategic communication campaign’ referred to in §13 has, as its ultimate aim, the goal of ensuring that vulnerable individuals are familiar with and can access the support that they need, including the processes by which they can seek asylum in the UK (including Dublin III and s. 67) or in France. It must be designed in collaboration with aid groups operating in the Northern France, and ensure that any information is presented in an accessible, sensitive and child-friendly manner.

In sum, your approach chooses to ignore not only international law, but also the wider context of asylum in Europe, and asylum seekers’ individual circumstances. We invite you to enter into dialogue with us about these matters.


Refugee Rights Europe

Help Refugees

Refugee Infobus

Refugee Youth Service

Utopia 56

L’Auberge des Migrants

Refugee Community Kitchen

School Bus Project

Refugee Women’s Centre

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The impact of indefinite detention: an introduction

‘They treat us like animals, what do we have? …I don’t know when I am going to go out, its like hell over here’ (Asylum Seeker, Harmondsworth Detention Centre)

The UK has one of the largest immigration detention complexes in Europe: in 2017, more than 26,000 people entered detention, and some 2,500 – 3,000 people are held at any given time. Yet unlike any other country in Europe, the UK’s immigration system has no time limit for detention, leaving vulnerable people trapped in an uncertain limbo.

People can legally be held in immigration detention if their asylum applications are being processed or have been refused by the Home Office. Last year, more than a quarter of detainees were held for one to four months, and almost two thousand people were detained for more than four months. As of 30 June 2017, the longest detention time was 1,514 days – more than four years – a figure that massively surpasses other European detention standards, such as the 32-day detention limit in France and six-week detention limit in Germany.

Detention, abuse and mental health

The harm caused by such lengthy deprivations of liberty is compounded by the fact that those claiming asylum are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the general population.

An ‘adults at risk’ framework was created in 2016 to ensure that ‘genuine cases of vulnerability are consistently identified’ and ‘vulnerable people are not detained inappropriately’.

However, this framework has failed to protect victims of torture, sexual or gender-based violence, human trafficking and modern slavery, all of whom continue to be detained in unacceptable conditions, lacking the specialised support that they require, for prolonged amounts of time.

indefinite detention suicides

A truly shocking statistic: there were two suicide attempts by detainees every day last year.

Indefinite detention has a devastating impact on the mental health of detainees. Self-harm is common; last year, there were two suicide attempts by detainees each day, and eleven deaths. A BBC Panorama investigation included shocking footage of the abusive treatment faced by asylum seekers at Brook House Detention centre in September 2017. Recordings showed an officer appearing to throttle one man and threatening to put him to sleep. Additional footage showed serious verbal assaults and psychological abuse towards detainees.

Complaints of sexual mistreatment and violence by staff at Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre housing women and families, are ongoing. Recent reports include guards propositioning women for sex and humiliating them during strip-searches.

Unlawful detention

It has recently been revealed that the Home Office has unlawfully held individuals in detention, after Courts have ruled that they can be released. This is due to Home Office failures to provide accommodation for asylum seekers, despite having a legal duty to do so. Their defence? That emergency housing is ‘not dissimilar’ to detention, save for the deprivation of detainees’ liberty.

Taken with the fact that asylum accommodation has been reported as ‘damp, dirty [and] vermin infested’, and that detention centres have been ruled ‘prison-like’, we are presented with a damning picture of Britain’s attitudes towards vulnerable asylum seekers.

One asylum seeker, who was granted bail after spending 10 months in detention, was rejected for accommodation by the Home Office on the grounds that he ‘was not destitute by the fact he is being housed [in detention] and his dietary needs are catered to’.

The letter drew similarities between the facilities in detention and asylum accommodation, arguing the main difference to be the ‘lack of liberty’. This inhumane disregard for a person’s freedom has enormous costs, both mental (to the detainee) and financial (to the taxpayer): beyond the immediate costs of incarceration, the Home Office has paid £21m in compensation in the past five years alone for holding people in unlawful and prolonged detention.

If individuals are released, huge backlogs of work and severe staff shortages have resulted in multiple failures by the Home Office in providing accommodation. In January, the government repealed a law that had allowed homeless detainees to apply for accommodation whilst still in detention, leaving many on the streets, reliant on the good will of charities and individuals for food and housing.

The campaign to end detention

A tentative step forward has been identified in the government’s recent announcement that Campsfield detention centre will close by May 2019, an encouraging step by Home Secretary Sajid Javid to reduce the number of people detained at any given time.

The decision marks a move towards reducing the Home Office’s targets by almost 40% and has meant nearly 300 less bed spaces in the UK’s detention domain. However, civil society organisations have expressed concern that these beds may instead be replaced in plans for expanded detention centres at Heathrow and Gatwick.

Compassion and understanding should be at the heart of our immigration and asylum policies. Instead, the detention of refugees and migrants is a manifestation of systemic disregard for the wellbeing of vulnerable individuals.  Until an alternative is implemented, it will continue to produce heart-breaking and unnecessary consequences.

This article has been written by Maddie Grounds, political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service, for Help Refugees.

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An offer for the Home Secretary

Over the last few weeks we have become increasingly concerned at the statements coming from the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid. In response, our partners Good Chance Theatre have made him an offer he can’t refuse.

Good Chance have have sent a letter to the Home Secretary offering to organise a special performance of The Jungle Play so that he can learn about the histories of the people who are making these journeys, and meet people who have themselves come through Calais and are now working and succeeding in the UK.

We’ve offered to give a presentation on the deteriorating conditions and hostile environment in Northern France forcing people to risk their lives in search of safety in the UK.

The posts are gaining traction but we need your support. Together we want to #StartAConversation about why people seek asylum, worsening conditions in Calais causing people to risk their lives & help more people better understand the human beings behind the headlines.

Will you retweet the post, and urge the Home Secretary to accept our offer? 


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A Brief Timeline Of The Human Rights Situation In Calais

On the occasion of the two-year milestone since the demolition of the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp, we have co-published a report with Refugee Rights Europe in order to highlight the human rights situation which has been unfolding in Northern France.

After decades of encampments and evictions, it is evident that the state approach tried so far is simply not working. It is high time for meaningful change. In light of this, Refugee Rights Europe and Help Refugees urgently call on the French and British governments to find new, constructive solutions, including:

  • A non-violent approach adopted as the default position by French authorities, and a de-escalation of the tense situation for refugees and displaced people in Northern France.
  • The urgent provision of adequate shelter, food, water and sanitation, as well as accessible information and legal guidance.
  • An increased presence of social workers, interpreters, medical staff and psychologists in northern France, and assurance that such services are available without discrimination based on immigration status.
  • An end to the harassment and intimidation of volunteers and charities providing displaced people with humanitarian aid.
  • Expanded safe and legal pathways to Britain, through which asylum applications, Dublin Regulation family reunification applications and Dubs cases can be processed.

For many years, a bottle-neck scenario has been unfolding in Northern France, characterised by precarity, rough-sleeping, dangerous and unauthorised border-crossings, and excessive police violence whichoften takes the shape of dangerous interventions.

A child walks towards police during a raid of the 20 establishments providing food for the residents of the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp (Refugee Info Bus)

The use of tear gas and intimidation tactics, as well as what would appear to amount to intentional sleep deprivation, appears to be part of a conscious tactic by the French state to create a hostile environment for refugees and asylum seekers in Northern France.

Such an approach – combined with an undeniable failure on part of the British government to meaningfully facilitate safe and legal passage for prospective asylum-seekers and those looking to be reunited with family in Britain – directly hinders an effective resolution to a detrimental and decades-long situation. Will you take action and write to your MP condemning the current approach? We have written a template letter that you can send in less than 60 seconds. Please join us in demanding a better response to the crisis in France today. 


Hundreds of displaced people – in Calais, Grande-Synthe and beyond – are sleeping on the streets. They are preparing to face another winter without shelter, and are dependent on volunteers for support. If you are able to help us help them, please donate here.

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Lift the Ban: why people seeking asylum should have the right to work

Right now, right here in the UK, people seeking asylum are banned from working and forced to live on just £5.39 a day. We think this is wrong.

That’s why today, alongside 87 charities, unions, think tanks, faith groups and businesses, we are launching a new campaign to #LiftTheBan and fight for the right to work. Join us. Read the report and sign the petition and tell the Home Secretary to #LiftTheBan!

71% of the public agree that people seeking asylum should be allowed to work, an amazingly high level of agreement for any issue.

But high public support is just one of the countless good reasons and practical arguments to lift the ban.

“I want to work – I don’t want any more hand-me-downs. I want to enjoy the reward of my sweat. I don’t want to rely on the Government’s benefits – I want to work so I can prove myself to my children.” Rose

We believe that people who have risked everything to find safety should have the best chance of contributing to our society and integrating into our communities. This means giving people seeking asylum the right to work so that they can use their skills and live in dignity.

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

  • Strengthen people’s chances of being able to integrate into 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.

We want to thank all the brilliant organisations that have contributed to the Lift The Ban campaign. We are honoured to be a part of the coalition to grant asylum seekers the right to work, and work with 87 organisations all demonstrating that when we work together, we can create long-lasting, positive change at the highest level. #ChooseLove.

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Evictions in Dunkirk leave hundreds without shelter

Yesterday, authorities in Grande-Synthe evicted an unofficial camp of approximately 800 people.

Over 400 people, including 60 families and nearly 100 children, were taken onto buses destined for accommodation.

By midnight last night, two buses had returned to Grande-Synthe due to lack of space in the accommodation centres. People were left on the streets to fend for themselves. One person on the bus reported to aid workers that they had been driven around for eight hours with no access to food and water before being told to get off the bus.

We welcome attempts to get displaced people housed in appropriate accommodation, but we denounce the lack of information given to people during this process.

Further reports from the field state that approximately 100 people had desired access to accommodation but were turned away, with one testimony detailing “they break everything, they crush everything and they say to the people ‘go’ – but where do we go? ‘Anywhere else. Just don’t stay in the jungle.’”

Due to the police perimeter surrounding the recently evicted camp, ex-inhabitants had no access to water for the entire day. Throughout the night and day, more families continued to arrive back in Grande-Synthe. One family had a 10-month year old baby with severe asthma. Thanks to quick reactions from Gynécologie sans Frontières the child was receiving medical treatment and hopefully will be accommodated appropriately soon.

Another family was taken to emergency accommodation by Refugee Women’s Centre, who negotiated with the authorities to take the entire family and not abandon the father to sleep rough on the streets. Those in charge of emergency accommodation stated that they would not be willing to take in any more of the Kurdish community due to the large number of homeless Kurdish people in Grande-Synthe. This left people, evicted from their tents earlier in the day, homeless and without shelter – simply because of their race.

Dunkirk refugee

Refugees wait outside the warehouse, whilst Mobile Refugee Support provide phone charging and wifi. Photo: Mobile Refugee Support

At the emergency distribution point, hundreds of people arrived to access their first meal of the day. Food was distributed successfully by Refugee Community Kitchen and Mobile Refugee Support provided phone charging and WiFi, a much needed lifeline for people to be able to contact family and their support network.

When aid workers on the ground finally packed up and left after a hectic 10 hours they left up to 300 people huddled outside of an abandoned warehouse.

Some people had blankets. Some people just had the clothes on their back, but everyone had the same thought running through their mind: “what do we do now?”

Grassroots groups are continuing to response to the crisis. We support Refugee Info Bus, Refugee Community Kitchen and Refugee Women’s Centre, please help us continue to support their work here.

All the pictures above were taken by Mobile Refugee Support. They are on-the-ground everyday doing incredible work to help refugees in Dunkirk, and desperately need your support. Please support their work here.

You can also organise collections at home, and start getting involved in the response here.

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Refugee Stories: Mohammed Nabeel

This letter was written by Mohammed Nabeel, who was captured and tortured by the Syrian Regime. He is currently living in a refugee camp in Greece with his wife and son. This post was originally published on our partner Refugee Support’s website.

I grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, which was bombed. Missiles and mortar killed my friends and burnt my home.

I never wanted to leave Syria, but I had no choice. I was arrested and tortured by the Regime for six months. It felt like 60 years. They hung me for three hours each day in a 1×1 metre cell. I shared a cell with two other men; we had to sleep standing up because there wasn’t enough space. I thought I was dead. They accused me of being a rebel, but I had never fought in my life.

My shoulders cracked. I can’t even carry my child. When you enter interrogation, you are totally naked. People are dying and screaming in front of you. They hit me with electricity cables. But the most difficult part is the hanging. I was blindfolded and often lost consciousness.

When I finally came out of prison, I went home. But what I saw was incomprehensible. At each side of my town, militia were fighting each other with missiles. My wife was shot. Food was not available, and used as a weapon of war. My wife – Rania – was pregnant, but we lost our baby.

Mohammed’s wife, a successful wedding photographer in Syria, now lives in a container in a refugee camp in Greece. Photo: Celeste Hibbert

I had no choice but to leave. I carried my son the best I could, and my wife – who could barely walk because the bullet was still in her knee. We walked to Turkey, and eventually arrived in Greece. They call it ‘The Journey of Death.’

We had reached safety, but we were unprepared for what was to come.

After walking for two days, we were given a tent filled with rain. I had to use my only clothes to mop up the dirt. My son cried because it was so cold. Rats played inside the tent. My child didn’t understand why we had to leave. He developed a serious fever, but there was no ambulance and I had no money to transport him to the hospital. I walked for miles, and carried him on my cracked shoulders. Would we have been better off in Syria?

Mohammed with his wife and son in their container in refugee camp in Greece. Photo: Celeste Hibbert

My family now live in a container in a field. I am an engineer, and my wife is a successful wedding photographer, but we are not allowed to work. I don’t want to live on handouts, but we have no choice. We are at the mercy of government policies, and must wait until December 2019 for our next interview to claim asylum.

I feel so much shame, that I can’t provide for my wife and son. I am humiliated. We are stuck; a number in a system.

Even if I get residency in Greece, I have no passport, so I can’t visit my sister in Turkey or mother who is still trapped in Syria. There is also no work here. I don’t want anything from this life, I am not asking for money, housing or clothes. All I want is to secure a dignified life for my wife and son. I want to sweat, and work for their future. We are strong, we have survived pain only Syrians can understand. But, I need a new kind of strength: hope.

I miss my family. I haven’t seen them in three years. My brother is still imprisoned by the Regime, I pray he is alive. Why is it my sin, that I was born in Syria? Born as a Palestinian with no rights, no identity?

In the name of my family, I appeal to anyone who will listen. Is it not our right to sleep on a bed? Buy our own food? Protect our children from falling bullets?

Who knows. I sit in my container, waiting…and waiting. Trapped. Helpless.

It is not our right to live too?

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Three Questions About Volunteer Intimidation In Calais

The authorities in Calais have a long history of obstructing, intimidating and harassing aid workers who provide food, material aid, shelter, social services and legal support to refugees.

In June of this year, a team of three volunteers were detained by police in Dunkirk for providing aid to over four hundred refugees sleeping rough on a patch of waste ground by the A16 motorway. A team distributing food was turned away. Members of the Refugee Women and Children’s Centre were detained for working with vulnerable families. The reason? The volunteers possessed English passports. All non-French volunteers, regardless of the legal status of their organization in the country, had been banned from providing aid to or even interacting with the members of the community of refugees living there. When asked to explain the legal basis for the order, an officer told the volunteers to “go to Paris, and ask the President.”

Actions like this come as no surprise to those of us familiar with Calais and Dunkirk. Volunteers are subject to near-constant ID checks and roadside stops, and are often detained on the most trivial of grounds. They are shoved to the ground, insulted, and filmed on personal devices by police officers during the course of their work. Their phones are broken as they try to record police activity, something that is entirely within their rights. The water containers they deliver to refugees are quietly tear-gassed, so that they cause intense pain and discomfort to those who return to pick them up. All of this has been reported to authorities, and can be seen in the new report written by L’Auberge des Migrants, Help Refugees, Refugee Info Bus and Utopia 56. Yet, little-to-none of this behaviour is punished, or responded to in any way by senior officials. Macron, during his visit to Calais at the beginning of the year, flatly denied any abuses of power by police personnel.

Such behaviour must not be dismissed as the excesses of individual officers. The legality and acceptability of grassroots solidarity is being systematically eroded across Europe in response to what governments perceive to be a growing refugee crisis. In many places, aid organisations are the only gap in an otherwise lethally securitised place. Without them, the process of seeking refuge would be far more difficult, and far more lethal. As long as European governments are willing to tolerate the deaths of refugees in order to maintain the bureaucratic sanctity of the border, the service these volunteers provide is vital. A society hostile to migrants has real and tangible impacts: the recent spate of murders in Italy is a grim illustration of this.

Basic humanitarian advocacy has even landed one of my own colleagues in a courtroom, forcing him to play along with an entirely legal absurdity, all on public expense. Hungary is one step ahead on this grim campaign, having passed the ‘Stop Soros’ law that criminalizes anyone who assists asylum seekers in the country. In June the Italian government turned away the rescue ships Aquarius, Seefuchs, and Lifeline; in the first three days of July 200 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean.

This kind of treatment is not new. Not so long ago, what we recognize as modern activism would hardly have been permitted at all. But it is crucial to frame the suppression of activism in Europe within the global context. Brazil’s environmental activists experience violence and intimidation, something that Europe condemns. LGBT+ activists are under similar threat in Russia, and free-speech ‘barefoot lawyers’ of China. Conditions may not be ‘worse’ for non-state human rights actors in Europe, as opposed to other places, but they are still not in line with the stated ideals of that nation.

We look on in horror as U.S. Border Patrol officers destroy water left in the desert for people crossing the border on foot. But here it is no different. While temperatures rise over 30 celsius, our water barrels, the only source of safe drinking water for many people living here, continue to be confiscated during forced evictions of campsites, knifed into uselessness, or covered in CS gas as a trap for the next person who carries them. A recent investigation by Refugee Rights Europe stated 71% of refugees in Calais reported being tear gassed or pepper sprayed in the weeks prior to writing. Violent forced evictions are a weekly occurrence, and leave refugees without shelter or their belongings.

While nothing I have experienced while conducting human rights observation work in the field comes close to the abuse experienced on a regular basis by refugees, I have never felt so disrespected, dehumanized, and hated as during those shifts.

Why is this happening? It’s hard to tell. Deterrence doesn’t work. All it does is force people into the margins, where they are most vulnerable to trafficking, exposure, abuse, and death. Hannah Arendt warned us that the contradiction between universal human rights and enclosed national sovereignty would have a bloody and unjust conclusion, a premonition that rings terrifyingly true when we look at the figures. 40,000 refugees have died since the year 2000, including around 120 in Calais. Forty thousand. That’s the Blitz, or the first day of the Somme. The reasons given usually have something to do with security, order, economic security and the sanctity of national borders for their own sake, none of which ring true.

Calais volunteers sort clothes

Volunteers for Help Refugees sort clothes in the Calais warehouse. Photo: Futuro Berg

A better question to ask is, why are volunteers here? For one, we’re here because we disagree with state efforts to make our communities hostile bydesign. If you’ve ended up in Calais without papers, history and politics have been cruel enough to you already. The deck has already been stacked against you. I don’t want to be a member of a society that sees such a person and decides they need to be beaten down again. None of us do. We’re not here to fix Calais or Dunkirk, we’re not here to make them good places. We’re here to make them bearable. Because they’ve become part of a broader strategy across Europe, the strategy that is never spoken of, that no one ever agreed to or voted for. This plan is Europe’s disgrace, it’s best guess as to how to ‘solve’ the refugee crisis, by making itself so unwelcoming as to convince newcomers to go back to the terrible situations that drove them away. Volunteers are here because they have seen that as a society we have become willing to deconstruct our own communities, to destroy what makes our places good places, just to make sure that they remain ‘ours’. 

 The volunteers that man Europe’s migratory routes do so because they see that strategy for what it is: Hostile. Paranoid. Destructive. Traumatising. Shameful.

Why doesn’t this campaign of harassment, obstruction, and deterrence of volunteers work? Because the acts of kindness they show to refugees in this terrible situation are not morally optional. They are obligatory. One cannot deny food to a hungry child, or a sleeping bag to a freezing man. One cannot fail to extend a hand to a drowning person in the Mediterranean. Our states demand that we do these things, but they cannot be done, or be allowed to occur, for the sake of rules common to humanity that go far, far deeper than states and borders.

This article was written by long-term volunteer for Help Refugees in Calais, Oscar Leonard. To support our work, and help us help people currently sleeping rough in Calais, please donate, sign up to volunteer, or organise a collection at home.

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