Anti-racist campaigner Mitch Mitchell introduces Refugee Lifeboat, a new organisation that will combine aid work with an uncompromising stand of political solidarity
There is a tendency in society to forget issues when they have largely dropped out of the mainstream media.
The plight of refugees is a case in point. I have spoken to several people of the left and liberal left who are usually pretty clued-up, but who genuinely thought that when the French authorities razed the camp known as “The Jungle” in Calais in October 2016, everything was now sorted and the refugees had gone.
I can tell you quite categorically that this is not so. In fact, the situation in Calais is in many ways far worse now since the camp’s closure. Yes, the place was vile and running alive with disease, rats and other undesirable creatures. Yes, for many in the camp, especially those with children, there was little shelter or warmth, not enough to eat and a constant air of danger with fires breaking out and fights between (mainly) young boys, who were both stressed out at their situation and bored rigid with having nothing to do. However, there was a certain sense of community about the place and often amazing acts of kindness carried out by people with next to nothing.
Since the camp’s demolition, the refugee numbers in the area have fallen, from around 10,000 when the camp closed to somewhere between 800 and 1000 now. They sleep in the woods and squat around the town in disused warehouses and factories. If they are discovered by the thugs in uniform, otherwise known as the Riot Police (CRS), their possessions, if they have any, are confiscated. Blankets and sleeping bags are rendered unusable by being pepper sprayed. Mobile phones are often smashed and in the coldest weather, I met up with boys who had had their jackets and gloves taken by the police.
The French state has, somewhat reluctantly, started food runs twice a day, but these often necessitate a 4-5km walk for people to access the food. Many refugees are boycotting these distributions because of a total lack of trust of the state. As one said, “When we go for food, the cops are taking our tents.”
Again, after the camp closed, several people accepted what the state appeared to be offering and got on the coaches bound for centres around France. One or two of these places were reasonably acceptable, but some were positively Dickensian. We heard of one near the Swiss border which housed boys of 16 or younger. Apart from being damp and mildewed, all they were being given to eat was potatoes and cold fish.
All of the centres, whether good or bad, carried the caveat that their residents should apply for asylum in France or face deportation. There are several reasons why many did not want French asylum. First, the language. Although several had at least a rudimentary understanding of English, most do not speak French. Many have relatives or close friends already in the UK, or want to go to Britain as there are established communities there for people of their nationality.
Also, if they obtain asylum in France, that’s it: they are given nothing, and move from being part of France’s refugee problem to part of its homelessness problem instead.
There is also the fact that France is often a much more overtly racist society than Britain, with far-right politicians now being accepted into the mainstream while still holding their vile political positions.
I have just scratched the surface of the problems in Calais. This is just one place where we are seeing an inhuman official attitude to people in distress. All across Europe, people escaping from war zones, dictatorships, drought and famine are treated with varying degrees of hostility. Fascists regularly attack refugee centres in Greece; a former political candidate in Italy ran amok, shooting at Africans; governments in the former Eastern Bloc countries are enacting harsher and harsher laws; Austria has the far right in government, and the fascist-leaning AfD in Germany has 92 MPs. Even so-called liberal societies like Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Norway and Finland have begun to enact repressive laws against refugees and asylum seekers.
It is against this background that I and others have set up a new organisation, Refugee Lifeboat, in both Cambridge and London. We are a group who will try to assist in whatever way to both help refugees and politically stand against the treatment meted out by states across Europe. We plan to run as a co-op, and also to resist becoming a registered charity, as we wish to continue our political work, although obviously we will work alongside charities to assist with raising and distributing donations.
To get involved in Refugee Lifeboat, write to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow its Facebook page.