Tom Steadman

‘I decided to give up my job and dedicate myself to helping 800 Syrian refugees’

This blog was written by Paul Hutchings, co-Founder of our partners Refugee Support. Paul, like thousands of people in the Summer of 2015, saw the image of Alan Kurdi lying lifeless on a beach and decided to act.

In April 2016, I visited the Greek border town of Idomeni and thought I had walked into a war zone. The FYR Macedonian military were firing concussion grenades and tear gas into the thousands of refugees camped along the border.

I watched as people who had fled war and had made perilous journeys became furious at this treatment, saw people young and old gasping for breath, and ran with parents and their children. Europe, I thought, what have we become?

Two years later, on 30 April, I will be returning to Idomeni together with 18 fellow Refugee Support volunteers where we will begin our week-long trek to Skopje to re-trace some of the refugee route.

Because, although that dreadful border camp no longer exists, there are still just as many refugees trapped in Greece, surviving in poverty but living in limbo while Europe fails to give them all a second chance.

It was immediately after that visit to Idomeni two years ago that my good friend John Sloan and I created volunteer organisation Refugee Support Europe to support 800 of the 50,000 refugees trapped in Greece.

Since then and over the last 2 years, we’ve had 600 volunteers from 40 nations help many thousands of refugees on the seven refugee camps in Greece where we have worked.

My own journey actually started about 9 months before that in the summer of 2015. The image of 3 year old Alan Kurdi face down on the beach, symbolised both people’s desperation and Europe’s neglect. Like many people I was deeply affected and had to do something. Even now, it still upsets me to think about it. In September of that year I went to Calais and with John supported Care4Calais distributing aid in the Jungle.

But I was never very happy about how unfair or undignified those distributions were. And it was also no place for people to live.

So when John convinced the Greek Air Force Major running Alexandreia refugee camp to let him in to help, I jumped at the chance to join him. After my visit to Idomeni and seeing the harsh conditions at Alexandreia, I decided to give up my job for one year so I could dedicate myself full time to helping the 800 Syrian refugees there.

Paul and John out for a day’s work in Alexandreaia camp, Greece.

That was a huge turning point in my life. I had a research business, a mortgage in Brighton, competing in triathlon, a wife and four children. I knew I could survive without a salary for a year but there were fears: dwindling finances, business on hold, time away from friends and family, would anyone support us…

There have been sacrifices and it has been difficult but I have never once regretted it. Best of all, I discovered that there were people from all over the world who are willing to give up their time and come and help in difficult circumstances at their own expense.

By putting the dignity of refugees first, what John and I had done was give the many people who do care about refugees an easy way to help directly, either by volunteering or by donating.

We started off in that first camp by creating a shop to give out bags of essential food and everything grew from there. Every improvement has been due to volunteers coming with ideas and donors continuing to support us.

Our shops now distribute food, thanks to the ongoing support of groups like Help Refugees, using tokens that we give to refugees in the camp. They can buy whatever they want and feel a little normality in the midst of the chaos that comes from living in a refugee camp. We created ‘Clothes Boutiques’ that presented the clothing nicely, like a normal shop would, and even built changing rooms. It took months and huge expense but we created a community kitchen. With refugees and volunteers working together, we are preparing up to 400 meals, 6 times a week. We created a language school teaching up to 180 students a week English, Arabic, Greek and German. We built three cafeterias, two high quality playgrounds, and an artificial football pitch.  And we paid for the heating during a harsh winter when larger agencies needed time to organise themselves.

A family shops for vegetables in one of Refugee Support’s food shops

These are just some of the tangible things we’ve done, but I like to think what we have offered is something more valuable and harder to count. We have said to refugees: here is a group of people who care about you, who you can rely on and who will respect you as fellow human beings. We gave them a slice of normality, a chance to be themselves and most important of all, helped to restore some dignity.

No-one should be living in a refugee camp.  They are degrading, crowded and alien. We have made life more bearable but we want people to leave so they can rebuild their lives in proper homes, get jobs and educate their children. We will all benefit from that.

I’ve seen a slow improvement in camp facilities. But conditions are still dreadful, people are waiting far too long for their asylum applications to be processed and refugees continue to arrive at Europe’s shores.

As a continent we have failed refugees. Greece no longer has a sprawling slum at Idomeni but the border is still closed and prospects for those still trapped are bleak.

I hope our walk lets people know that Europe hasn’t given these extraordinary, resourceful people a chance to start again. Please follow our progress on our blog, facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.


Please help us continue to support the invaluable work of people like Paul, by donating today here.

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Refugee Voices: Zeeshan Munir

This blog was written by Zeeshan Munir, a close friend who was forced to flee home in search of a better life. Zeeshan met our partners Dunkirk Women’s Centre whilst in Northern France.

When I was young my teacher taught me a beautiful thing.

Everyone has the right to see dreams. But only the lucky ones get them fulfilled. Destiny makes the decision of life. What I have experienced, was brought to me by luck. Where my luck has taken me, I do not want to go again. When death and life meets then the word luck stands in front of you and if you’re lucky you will survive or if you’re not then you’re not just unlucky, but also dead.
Luck in our journey is a game some don’t have the hope of living, but they had luck, to make sure they live. Some had strong desire for living but their luck is not loyal to them. Destiny is the other name for the time between the past and the future and luck declares its decision between these two moments.
I never thought that I will reach my destination and there was nothing else left with me other than my faith. That was the only thing in my empty heart, but it was enough to encourage me to take a step forward. One day my brother asked me what condition life had brought us into, I saw a tear in his eyes. My lips were quiet, but my heart spoke that if Allah can bring you to it, he will bring you through it. Allah tests those he loves, so don’t despair if you’re going through tough times. Allah wants to test your sincerity.
Not just faith in Allah, we also really trusted in our fellows, who are also with us in this condition. We really look out for each other’s back for no benefits or demands. In life people help you if they get something in return or if you are related to them. But in my journey, I saw the most extraordinary and beautiful relationships, which were the relationships of pain, grief, and sorrow.
These are the most real and authentic relationships in the whole universe. We all had our sorrows and pain but we all shared our pains and sorrows with each other.
I remember the night when I had a seven-year-old boy walking very tiredly in front of me and as I saw his distress I picked him up and he smiled but he was tantalising with pain.
I asked him “Are you alright?” and “Where are your parents?”. He did not answer me. Later he told me his mother died a couple of minutes ago and he had no one of his own.
As he said this my heart stopped beating and my tears came out and I said, “So what happens? Those who don’t have mothers, don’t they live?’ But his young mind did not understand that, and we kept walking. The boy remained quiet and I thought maybe he is tired, so he is sleeping but when in the morning he did not wake up, my hands were shaking, and the tears were explaining what had happened to this heart.
Those who say that relationships are only based on blood, my heart proved them wrong. I felt I lost myself in his empty eyes and the hope of life there in front of me.
I looked up on the sky and said O dear God what strange kind of feelings you had given us. You make us laugh, you make us cry. If you really want to make us cry, then why did you make us laugh?
Life consists of two days, one for you and one against you. So, when it’s for you don’t be proud or reckless, and when it’s against you be patient, for both days are tests for you because the world cannot defeat you until you accept the defeat.
Life will hurt you repeatedly: as many times, as you can suffer. However, the thing that suffers is not your body, it’s your soul. So, don’t prepare your body for challenges, prepare your soul because your body can only give you strength, but your soul gives you courage to face all worries and problems. This belief is a constant prompt to move. Every day I recall this line in my mind because it helps me live life more easily.
——
Want to gain an insight into experiences of living or working in refugee camps? And help to support the Refugee Women’s Centre at the same time?
Friends of the Women’s Centre have come together to create a book compiling personal experiences of life and work in European refugee camps over the last few years. Many of the submissions have been inspired by time spent in Dunkirk and Calais.
These are journeys of anger, hope, trauma, bitterness, joy, that continue to be lived, suffered and learnt from. Journeys that can be difficult to share or to express in a way that does them justice. The stories in this book have been written by people who have spent time in refugee camps and are testimony to some of the realities of daily life here.
To purchase your copy of the ‘Journeys’ zine please donate and fill out the form here.
Or email dunkerquejourneys@gmail.com with any questions.
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The Crime of Solidarity: criminalising love

This post was written by Help Refugees long-term volunteer in Calais, Luke Buckler.

 

There’s a worrying shift in European attitudes towards the work of people trying to support refugees.

Thanks to the Beast from the East, it’s been a cold winter. Which of you, if you had sheep, would’ve braved the snow to help move a pregnant sheep to safety? Farmer David Mallon did just that. It might have been difficult, but he did it out of concern for the animals, he said. It’s commendable.

Now, what if you found a pregnant women, cold in the snow — in the mountains, for example — who was near to giving birth? What would you do? Would you try to help them?*

I presume that for most people the answer would be easy — easier, perhaps, than if sheep were involved. And if you knew someone who had done such a thing, that person would be considered a hero. While David Mallon did a good thing, helping a pregnant woman to safety from the snow would perhaps be considered even more praiseworthy.

Half way through March, part of this scenario happened to a French person in Briançon, in the French Alps. Benoît Ducos was taking a family (a woman, a man, and their two kids (2 and 4 years old)) in his car to the hospital. The woman was heavily pregnant and having contractions. Instead of being seen as a hero, though, Benoît Ducos was arrested because this family didn’t have official documentation to be in the country and he was helping them. He faces the prospect of five years in prison and a €30,000 fine.

Sadly, this isn’t an isolated occurrence. France has arrested a number of people for helping refugees. These people have been arrested for what’s become known as the “Crime of Solidarity” (Article L622–1 of French immigration law). While this law is suppose to stop people from providing services to “irregular” refugees and migrants for profit, people who have been helping refugees and migrants simply out of concern are being caught up in it

Last week, after the authorities once again took the belongings of the homeless people we support in Calais, the Help Refugees distribution team tried to help the refugees by replacing tents and sleeping bags. In theory, the authorities recognise the right for refugees to have things to keep them warm and dry (when they take the refugees’ items, they say they only take those that have been discarded — they claim to be, in effect, just “cleaning” the areas where people have been congregating); however, a number of our volunteers were fined for making sure people had the things they needed, and they had to present themselves to the police station ‘under suspicion of installing people on the land. We are waiting to hear whether they will be charged with an offence of solidarity, for giving refugees shelter’.

Thankfully, the “Crime of Solidarity” law should be reviewed in France in May and some politicians would like to see it amended to ensure that people who are helping refugees simply out of concern aren’t targeted by it. If this happens, it will be a positive step in a political environment that otherwise seems in danger of sliding the opposite direction.

Take Belgium, the host of the EU’s political institutions, for example. Belgian citizens have shown inspiring solidarity to refugees, inviting refugees into their homes as guests. This is an outstanding example of compassion and kindness to people in need. And the government’s response? To propose ‘a bill that would allow police to search private homes if they suspect them of sheltering unauthorised migrants’.

Similar things have happened in other European countries for a number of years, but it seems to be escalating. For instance, recently Hungary’s government said it plans to introduce a law that would allow it to ban organisations that help immigrants.

These laws aren’t just crimes against human decency. They’re also endangering the lives of innocent people. More than that, these laws are killing innocent people. This isn’t hypothetical. We don’t have to imagine what would’ve happened to the pregnant woman and her baby had she not been taken to hospital by Benoît Ducos.

In the Mediterranean recently, the search and rescue NGO Proactiva Open Arms’ ship Open Arms was impounded in an Italian port with crew members ‘suspected of criminal association in illegal immigration’. A similar thinghappened last year and Jugend Rettet’s Iuventa is still impounded. The NGOs involved deny any wrong doing and the search and rescue (SAR) community have spoken out in protest. Earlier in 2017, the same prosecutor who ordered the impounding of Open Arms said he had evidence of SAR charities ‘colluding with people-smugglers’. He opened an investigation which actually discovered (or admitted) there wasn’t any evidence of collusion. It seems these are tactics to intimidate SAR NGOs and criminalise the rescue of refugees migrating across the Mediterranean Sea.

SAR NGOs are saying the EU are demanding they break international maritime law. Maritime legislation includes a legal version of “normal human decency”. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea says that boats must ‘render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost’ (Article 98) and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue says ‘Any search and rescue unit receiving information of a distress incident shall initially take immediate action if in the position to assist’ (4.3). The EU is criminalising normal human decency. Now there are only two NGO SAR rescue boat in the Med (there used to be 12). The number of deaths in the Med has increased proportionally by 75% since last year. The EU’s criminalisation of kindness is endangering people’s lives; it’s killing people.

One of the contradictions highlighted again in this most recent case is that the EU wants SAR NGOs to not be able to transfer people they have rescued from one NGO boat to another, and yet the NGO was supposed to transfer people to the Libyan coast guard (LCG). With the impounding of Open Arms, the SAR NGO’s supposed crimes included refusing to turn over to the LCG the people it had rescued (the LCG would have taken the people back to Libya, where they had escaped from). It is unbelievable that these could be considered crimes considering what we know Libya is like for refugees — and, for that matter, what the Libyan coast guard is like. To hand people over to the LCG would be to hand them over to incarceration, slavery, torture, rape, and death.

People including children described horrific beatings by guards at detention centres, while many women said they faced rape and other sexual violence at the hands of smugglers and guards.

— ‘EU’s policy of helping Libya intercept migrants is ‘inhuman’, says UN

It seems of little importance to the EU that their actions of working with and funding the Libyan authorities to take people back to Libya go against international law (international law states that victims should not be forced to return to a country they’ve fled. Technically, this is called the ‘principle of non-refoulement’). In 2012, Italy was condemned by the EU’s own Court of Human Rights for returning migrants to Libya. Normal human decency is being criminalised by States while the States ignore their own legal obligations.

In March last year, a number of people stopped others being deported from the UK by lying on the runway at Stansted airport. They were stopping a Home Office deportation charter flight and were arrested under the charge of aggravated tresspass. Later, the charges were inflated to terrorism offences. The protesters could now face life in prison. It seems the UK authorities are expanding Theresa May’s “hostile environment” to people who show solidarity to refugees. While France might (hopefully) change its law, it seems the UK might be thinking of moving towards arresting and charging people for the “Crime of Solidarity”.

Thankfully, there is resistance. Back last March, Natacha Bouchart the Mayor of Calais banned food distributions to refugees in Calais. Let that sink in. Natacha Bouchart banned people from giving food to homeless people. But local associations — including our partners L’Auberge des Migrants, RCK, and Utopia 56, and ourselves — continued to distribute. A French person — Cédric Herrou — who is being tried as a people smuggler for having compassion on refugees ‘has repeatedly stated “I am a Frenchman” and claims he is “doing the work of the state”. Another activist explains that “at some point it is our duty to disobey”’.

Those providing humanitarian assistance … are not criminals; rather, they are acting as humanitarian citizens … they are performing the role of the humanitarian citizen to uphold international human rights even when the law criminalises such actions.

— J. Pescinski

We are underdogs, for sure; but if you’d like to join the movement, you’ll be welcome.


Further reading

J. Pescinski, ‘Humanitarian citizens: breaking the law to protect human rights’ (28/08/17) on openDemocracy

M. Howden, ‘Europe’s new anti-migrant strategy? Blame the rescuers’ (20/03/18) on Prospect


* Kudos to a wise old guy for this rhetorical idea. Perhaps some European leaders need to make sure they have ears to hear, considering who they claim to be.

Originally posted on Luke at this. Luke is a Long-term volunteer in Calais for Help Refugees. 

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Refugees in Calais Boycott State Food Distribution

“The government gives us food with one hand, and takes our tents with the other.”

 

These powerful words were issued by a 17 year-old boy from Eritrea, as we stood in a muddy forest in Calais, northern France. He is one of roughly 150–200 Eritreans sleeping without fixed shelter in the port town at the moment, and one of approximately one thousand displaced people currently in the same situation in the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Since the demolition of the ‘Jungle’ camp in October 2016, the provision of hot, nutritious meals to refugees in Calais has been left almost exclusively to volunteers working with Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) and Utopia 56. From Tuesday 6th of March, the state began to contract La Vie Active to provide daily meals for those sleeping rough around the port town. La Vie Active in the current context had no experience of distributing food.

More than one week on from the start of these distributions, refugees across Calais have been systematically refusing to accept the government-funded food. In order to try and facilitate the long-awaited recognition by the French state of its responsibility to provide this basic right, RCK and Utopia 56 had temporarily halted their regular day-time distribution of hot food.

The Eritrean refugee community in Calais have been holding regular, mass community meetings over the past week to discuss the issue collectively. They have agreed, through consensus-based decision making, to issue demands to the local authorities before accepting any of their food.

What follows are the oral testimonies of members of this community articulating these demands, recorded and transcribed by a volunteer with the Refugee Info Bus. Whilst they only represent the views of one community, the words are echoed amongst the many other communities displaced and dispersed across the town. They are principled, poignant and impassioned, spoken with fire in their hearts, in lieu of food in their bellies.

“We don’t want to go to the government food distribution because it’s not peaceful for us. It’s not safe for us. They didn’t provide what we want, like the volunteers did before.

Starting from yesterday, I don’t want to take any food from the government at all. [It’s not safe] because the government provides food, but on the other hand the police take our clothes, our shelters, anything we have. If they want to prepare food, they have to prepare medical provisions. They have to provide shelter as well. They have to listen to what we want.” Anonymous — Eritrean male in his early 20s.

“Right now, the government is asking all the charity groups to stop feeding us… The government took charge of the feeding processes. If the government really cares about us, they should care about all things. We don’t only need food, because we don’t migrate from our mother countries only for food. We are in search of justice and peace, and here in Calais there is no peace and there is no justice.

If the government really cares about us, they need to arrest the criminals who shot Eritrean refugees in Calais. This is really, really disgusting. Right now there are four people sleeping in hospital and really they are in a very bad situation… So knowing this, why should we go to the same place [where the shooting happened] for food?*

We didn’t come here for food, we came here for justice and peace. If the government really cares about us, they should take care of us in all aspects. First, the most important thing is our safety. And then, after safety, all of the things that are being covered by charity groups, like blankets, tents, clothes, shoes, all basic necessities.

What’s really going on is police brutality. Police are really, really, really brutal to us. The charity groups try to give us tents, clothes, blankets and sleeping bags and in opposition to this, the police are still busy with trying to destroy this stuff… If the government really wants to take care of us, please take care of all the things that are being given to us by the charity groups.” Anonymous — Eritrean male in his early 20s

“I’m from Eritrea. I’m 17 years old. Hey guys!

I just want to say some things because we are living in Calais. We are refugees… Every day, our life is bad, but we have some organisations to help us, with food, or clothes, everything. We survive with the things they give us.

Right now, the government says they want to give us food. But we don’t need their food, because we are not coming here for food. We are coming here for freedom.

Why don’t we want the food? The police are from the government. They are not by themselves. They come because of the government sending them here. Okay, now we have to wait. The government is here, they want to give us food, feed us food. And in another way, they send police, and police take our tents, our place. And sometimes they go behind us and [spray us with] gas. How can we want the government to feed us food? We have humanity. Everybody, we need it. Like the first human beings. We need our respect. We are not animals.

And now we won’t take food by the government. For now, it’s better to come from another organisation, by volunteers. Because, volunteers care about us more than the government. Yeah okay, yesterday, they start to give us food. They say they want to take care of us. Maybe some person feels sick. What will they do? And who can speak for us?

As for me, it’s so difficult. It’s impossible. We can never accept this. Never, never. Because, the government, I don’t know how it thinks. They send for us police and police give us spray in our eyes and if they see a person sleeping they come in, they take the tent. And the government says they’ll give us food…” Anonymous, 17 year old Eritrean

A central point for many members of this community was also the location of the distribution points that the state expected them to attend. Initially, the préfecture announced that there would be two distribution sites — one in the industrial zone and one close to the hospital. For the Eritrean community, neither was a viable option; both entailed individuals entering an area in which they felt unsafe, with the latter being located at the site of a shooting incident, in which organised criminals opened fire on members of their community, leaving 5 people in hospital.

On Thursday 8th March, the préfecture of Calais invited a representative of l’Auberge des Migrants, a local association, to give feedback from the communities we support about why the attendance at food distributions had been so low.

Whilst volunteers welcomed the opportunity to give a voice to our beneficiaries, the préfecture’s position shows precisely how out-of-touch the local authorities are with the current situation. Rather than communicating with refugee communities directly, they rely on associations, whom they have repeatedly maligned in the press, to deliver feedback on behalf of the people we support. In the meantime, they continue to direct riot police to destroy tents and use CS spray on sleeping teenagers in the middle of the night.

Since the beginning of La Vie Active’s contract to provide food to Calais’ refugee population, volunteers based at the l’Auberge des Migrants warehouse (including those from Help Refugees, Refugee Community Kitchen, Utopia 56, Refugee Info Bus, Refugee Women’s Centre, Refugee Youth Service and the School Bus Project), have been conducting an informal survey, in order to ascertain how representative the views expressed above are.

Sixty-eight percent of responses suggested that refugees did not want to take food from the same authorities that legitimise violence towards them, whilst a further forty-two percent of responses noted the excessive police presence at distribution sites frightened them. Furthermore, since the beginning of the state’s distribution, eighty-nine percent of respondents stated that their only source of water came from volunteers, with one-hundred percent of respondents indicating that they were in need of more water at the time of asking.

Volunteers recognise that the state should bear the burden of providing protection for displaced people on French soil, however we respect and support the sharply critical and deeply courageous stance that refugees have taken in issuing their demands to the authorities.

Police assembling at a distribution point.

We stand side-by-side with them and seek to echo and amplify their demands, calling upon the local and national governments to meet the needs of Calais’ refugee population with dignity, respect and without further delay.

The initial two points of distribution, in the industrial zone and near to the main hospital, necessitated members of the Eritrean community coming into contact with the same individuals responsible for the shooting on 1st February.

The préfecture has subsequently opened a third distribution point, closer to the woods in which much of the Eritrean community are forced to live. There has been no new information as to whether the police have made arrests in connection with this shooting.

 


This article was written by our partners Refugee Info Bus. They provide information, access to wifi and legal and asylum support to refugees in Northern France.

We desperately need support to keep our Calais operation running. We support 7 organisations working in Calais, and alongside L’Auberge des Migrants, fund the main warehouse from which aid is distributed to refugees in Northern France. Please donate today to support this work.

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Camilla Thurlow: “We all have the ability to help others, to touch lives in a positive way.”

I travelled to Thessaloniki in Greece, and later to Calais, to see for myself the ongoing reality people face when caught up in the refugee crisis. I’ve been devastated and inspired in equal measure; amazed by the incredible work of Help Refugees, and immensely saddened by the number of innocent lives that will never be the same again. Amongst the most vulnerable are unaccompanied children, who continue to suffer the traumatising effects of a violent past and hopeless present.

Camilla volunteering with Soul Food Kitchen in Northern Greece, making bread for people living in the surrounding refugee camps.

In April 2016, with the support of the British public, Help Refugees successfully advocated for an amendment to the 2016 UK Immigration Act. Named after Lord Alfred Dubs, who came to the UK as a child refugee, it mandated our government to speak to local authorities and see how many unaccompanied children we could resettle in the UK. But progress on implementing the amendment has been woefully slow, and tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors across Europe remain isolated and alone. The British public must once again work together to make sure the Home Office honours their commitment, and helps these vulnerable children.

Last month, a fifteen-year old refugee was killed in Calais. Perhaps he was unable to bear the thought of one more night sleeping rough. Of enduring the freezing temperatures without enough warm clothes. Of living in fear of beatings from the police and having his few belongings stolen. Of waiting day after day to hear about the state of his asylum case with no indication of any movement. Of being just simply too hungry, too cold and too tired. Of living with no hope. Perhaps it became worth the risk. Only one thing is for certain – we failed him.

We let a child die on our doorstep, a child that had a legal right to come to the UK. This tragedy speaks of an ongoing failure to protect the most vulnerable members of society – both here and abroad. Passing legislation that concerns the protection of individuals and then not acting effectively or holding ourselves to account erodes its credibility, and this is a problem for all of us. As climate change continues, we face a future involving the mass displacement of people. Global political relations continue to be fractious with discourse playing out publicly; sometimes it can feel like we are just one tweet away from global crisis. Essentially, it is clear that in the coming years our commitment to learning the lessons history has taught us in supporting those most in need will be repeatedly tested.

Camilla campaigning for the rights of child refugees with Lord Alfred Dubs, 1 year on from the demolition of the Calais ‘Jungle’.

I understand why this plea may seem at odds with someone whose platform has come from participating in reality TV, but I hope to some extent we can all engage in debunking the myth that to help people you have be a certain ‘type’ of person – there is no type. Whoever you are, you have the ability to help others, to touch lives in a positive way. That power is yours alone – how you use it is up to you.

I have seen enough children’s lives devastated by conflict. Young people who have lost limbs forced to live in pain with ill-fitting prosthetics or no prosthetic at all. I have heard the stories of young, vulnerable individuals who have gone missing on their desperate journey to safety. Wondered what has become of them, and what pain they now have to endure at the hands of those who exploit them. I have seen enough to know that these innocent victims of war are real, and we must not let a divisive rhetoric become an accepted truth. We must challenge this ‘us and them’ divide, because the more we persist with dehumanising the people involved, the easier it becomes to look at the faces of lone children – freezing in tents, starving, in desperate need – and to turn our eyes away.

Five children have died at the Calais border in the last two years – they had the legal right to come to the UK – please honour their memory and don’t let there be one more.

If you are able to donate to Help Refugees Ltd’s CrowdJustice appeal, please do so here. The funds raised will be used for their protection of costs order. If the case is successful, 100% of your donation will go towards supporting displaced people across Europe and the Middle East.

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Help Refugees’ statement in response to clashes in Calais.

“We have always warned of the dangerous and violent potential of smuggling criminal gangs in Calais, and the destructive influence they hold over those in the region.

Yesterday’s clashes tragically show the true extent of the suffering these criminal gangs can cause, pitting communities against each other for gain, while displaced men, women and children in Calais are barely surviving in the most inhumane conditions.

There are currently 22 injured in hospital, reportedly including a 16 and 18 year old, while 4 people are fighting for their lives. The severity of the violence lead us to agree with the Interior Minister, who attributes the violence to smuggler gangs instigating it.

The destitution, desperation and fear of the authorities have allowed these tragic events to take place. They follow 3 deaths and 2 nearly fatal accidents in the last 2 months, showing the sheer hopelessness looming over everyone.

We also strongly denounce the Calais mayor’s accusations that volunteers and NGOs are in any way complicit to the clashes which have left many seriously injured. This damaging rhetoric taints the humanitarian imperative we follow and only increases the power these criminal gangs have to feed violence and despair.

As always we ask that the displaced population in Calais is treated with humanity. We hope that those injured recover quickly and quiet returns to Calais, for locals, refugees and aid workers alike.” Annie Gavrilescu, France Regional Manager for Help Refugees.

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Greece: Move Asylum Seekers to Safety Before Winter Hits

12 Groups Open Campaign to End Containment Policy on Greek islands before Winter.

(Athens, December 1, 2017) – The Greek government, with the support of European Union leaders, should act now before the onset of winter to end Greece’s “containment policy,” 12 human rights and humanitarian organizations said in a campaign that began today.

The groups began a countdown to the official start of winter, December 21, 2017. They said that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, with the support of EU leaders, should immediately transfer people to improved conditions on the mainland and take concrete measures by December 21 so that no asylum seekers are left out in the cold.

As of November 30, the hotspots on Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos are almost 7,200 over capacity: 12,744 people in facilities with a capacity of just 5,576. Thousands, including single women, female heads of households, and very young children, live in summer tents, essentially sleeping on the ground, exposed to the cold, damp, and rain as the weather worsens. Some women are forced to share tents and containers with unrelated men, putting their privacy and safety at risk. There is lack of access to clean water, sanitation facilities and health services.

This will be the second winter asylum seekers have had to spend in unsuitable facilities on the islands since the EU-Turkey Deal went into effect in March 2016. Last winter, three men died on Lesbos in the six days between January 24 and 30. Although there is still no official statement on the cause of these deaths, they have been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from makeshift heating devices that refugees have been using to warm their freezing tents. In late 2016, a blast likely caused by a cooking gas container killed a Kurdish woman and her young grandchild, also sleeping in a tent in Lesbos.

EU and Greek officials have referred to the EU-Turkey deal as a justification for the containment policy. The policy, put in place as part of the deal, forces asylum seekers arriving on the Greek islands to remain there until their asylum claims are decided, regardless of if there is accommodation capacity or adequate access to services. However, forcing asylum seekers to remain in conditions that violate their rights and are harmful to their well-being, health, and dignity cannot be justified, the groups said. Some who arrived on the islands in the early days of the deal have remained stuck there for 20 months.

As part of the campaign, the groups are teaming up to highlight the deplorable conditions asylum seekers trapped on the islands face; to call on European citizens to get involved; and to monitor and update the public on the response of the Greek government and EU leaders.

Organizations Participating in the Campaign:

Amnesty Greece

Caritas Hellas

Greek Council of Refugees

Help Refugees

Human Rights Watch

International Rescue Committee

Jesuit Refugee Service

Oxfam

Praksis

Spanish Commission for Refugees (CEAR)

Solidarity Now

Terre des Hommes

Tweet Greek government:

20 days until winter & it’s already cold. Tell @PrimeMinisterGR & EU leaders: No one should have to sleep in a tent on #Greece’s Aegean Islands this winter. End indefinite confinement & #opentheislands.

Photo: Giorgos Moutafis

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As Winter Nears, Asylum Seekers Stuck in Tents on Islands

The Greek government, with the support of EU member states, should act now to end Greece’s “containment policy,” 20 human rights and aid groups said today.

The policy forces asylum seekers arriving on the Greek islands to remain in overcrowded, unsafe facilities, an urgent concern with winter approaching.


Conditions on the Greek islands have continued to deteriorate in the month since 19 nongovernmental groups wrote an open letter to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, calling on him to move asylum seekers to the mainland, where better conditions and services are available.

“This remains a matter of life and death,” said Jana Frey, the International Rescue Committee’s country director in Greece. “There is absolutely no excuse for the conditions on the islands right now – thousands of people crammed into overcrowded and desperately under-resourced facilities. We are in a race against time. Lives will be lost – again – this winter – unless people are allowed to move, in an organised and voluntary fashion, to the mainland.”

Members of the group recently asked to meet with Tsipras to discuss the most urgent needs on the islands and provide recommendations for addressing this increasingly dire situation. They have received no response.

Over the past month, the Greek government has transferred 2,000 people from Samos and Lesbos to the mainland as a one-time emergency measure. When the government announced this initiative in October, these islands were already 5,000 people over capacity. It was clear then that this measure, while helpful, would not suffice.

“Nothing can justify trapping people in these terrible conditions on the islands for another winter,” said Eva Cosse, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greece and other European Union member states should act urgently to remove the obstacles to people getting the care and assistance they need on the Greek mainland.”

As of November 20, 2017, the hotspots on Lesbos, Samos, and Chios are hosting 7,000 over capacity: 10,925 people are staying in facilities with a capacity of just 3,924. Thousands, including single women, female heads of households, and very young children, are being forced to live in summer tents, essentially sleeping on the ground, as the weather worsens. Some women are forced to share tents with unrelated men, putting their privacy and safety at risk. This will be the second winter asylum seekers have had to spend in unsuitable facilities on the islands since the EU-Turkey Deal went into effect.

“The EU-Turkey Deal is condemning refugees and migrants to a second winter in squalor on the Greek islands. Instead of trying to maintain the deal at all cost, European countries and Greece should urgently work together and move asylum seekers off the islands,” said Gabriel Sakellaridis, director of Amnesty International in Greece.

EU and Greek officials have cited the EU-Turkey Deal as a justification for the containment policy. However, forcing asylum seekers to remain in conditions that violate their rights and are harmful to their well-being, health, and dignity cannot be justified, the organisations said. As such, the groups have also written to EU member state ambassadors to Greece urging them to immediately call on the Greek government to suspend, the containment policy.

The groups urged Prime Minister Tsipras to protect the human rights of asylum seekers trapped on the islands by ending the containment policy, immediately transferring people to improved conditions on the mainland, and making a commitment to ensure that no one is forced to sleep in a tent.

Because the “containment policy” is being implemented in response to the EU-Turkey deal, the organizations highlighted the responsibility of the European Commission and the EU member states to address the situation on the Greek islands and to press the Greek government to reverse the policy. EU member states should support the Greek government’s efforts to ensure the safety and dignity of asylum seekers in EU territory, including by expanding safe accommodation and access to services on the mainland.

“In an effort to make the EU-Turkey deal work, the Greek islands have been transformed into places of indefinite confinement for asylum seekers who have risked their lives in search of safety and a better life in Europe,” said Nicola Bay, head of mission for Oxfam in Greece. “The EU and the Greek government need to start putting people’s lives ahead of politics and uphold Europe’s commitment to human rights.”

What can you do?

Please tell Greece’s Prime Minister to end the containment of asylum seekers on the Islands by December 21, and call on other European Union leaders to support Greece in doing so! Tweet the Greek Prime Minister today.

Nobody should be forced to sleep in cold this winter. End the inhumane containment of asylum seekers on the Greek Islands. @Tsipras_EU @PrimeMinisterGR: #OpenTheIslands

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APPG on Refugees meeting on immigration detention

Detention is traumatic. It is also unnecessary, expensive and inefficient. This Thursday there will be a parliamentary debate on immigration detention. Make sure your MP attend the meeting by writing to them today here!

Immigration detention has been regularly in the media spotlight in recent months. The BBC Panorama documentary into Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, broadcast in September, led the Home Affairs Select Committee to hold an inquiry. The Panorama revelations were quickly followed by deaths of migrants in detention. On 7 September, a 28-year old Polish man died as a result of a suicide attempt in Colnbrook detention centre. On 19 September, a Chinese national died in Dungavel detention centre in Scotland. And on 3 October, a Jamaican man died in Morton Hall detention centre.

The purpose of the meeting this week is to provide space for MPs and peers to discuss what further steps can be taken to make progress towards fundamental detention reform. Calls for a time limit and detention reform have gained increasing momentum over the last few years, starting with the inquiry of the APPGs on Refugees and Migration into the use of immigration detention (2015). Subsequently, the first Shaw Review in 2016 and debates during the passage of the Immigration Act 2016 led the Government to make various promises and concessions, few of which have yet been implemented. At present, Stephen Shaw is holding a follow-up review to assess progress. Yet despite substantial public and political pressure and a ministerial commitment to reform, migrants held in immigration detention have seen little tangible change.

The latest statistics shows that the UK continues to routinely detain large numbers of migrants for lengthy periods, including vulnerable people. In the last year, nearly 28,000 migrants entered the detention estate; more than one in three were detained longer than 28 days. In the last quarter, 52% of migrants who left detention were released into to the community, not removed. As at 30 June 2017, the longest length of time a person had been detained was 1,514 days, in excess of four years.

During the meeting, parliamentarians will also have the opportunity to be briefed on recent developments in immigration detention, the follow-up Shaw Review and findings from recent and forthcoming research reports. Speakers will include Women for Refugee Women, Freed Voices (a group of migrants who have collectively lost over 20 years to immigration detention), Detention Action and Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. Paul Blomfield MP will be chairing the meeting.

APPG on Refugees meeting on immigration detention

Thursday 16 November 2017 

10:30 – 11:30 The Grimond Room in Portcullis House

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“This is not a durable solution, Europe.”

“This is what I do every day- try my best to address, in small and always insufficient ways, the massive gaps which remain in basic services and supports for refugees here in Greece.” Phoebe Ramsay is the Field Coordinator for our partners InterVolve in Greece.

The gaps in access to basic human rights. There are 600 humans from 22 different nationalities who live in the camp in which I have been volunteering for the past 6 months, and the population is expanding rapidly. Many of those who live here, along a highway in the grey basin of an old quarry 20 km from the nearest town, have already received asylum in Greece. This is meant to be their durable solution.

The nearest supermarket costs a €4.40 round trip on the bus. There is no comprehensive integration plan. There are no meaningful supports or programs to access the labour market or further education. In fact, at present, there are not even any mattresses provided to the new arrivals transferred to the camp. And for the hundreds of children who live here, there is still no access to formal education. Every week for the past month, a particularly bright and enthusiastic 12 year old girl has told us with excitement that she would be finally starting school on Monday. Every week, she is disappointed. So we, a small and grassroots volunteer group, continue to try to manage with our painting and colouring and ABCs and smiling and singing and trying to pretend that the future for these children with their scars and nightmares will be ok.
This is not a durable solution, Europe.”

Phoebe has been volunteering in Greece for nearly 2 years, working initially in the informal Idomeni camp and now with the residents inside Koutsochero. We want to thank Phoebe and the whole Intervolve team for their dedication and hard work in incredibly difficult circumstances.

Please help us support their work, and the work of volunteer groups across Greece stepping up to support those left behind by governments and larger NGOs, by donating here today.

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