I have been to lots of refugee camps in the past: Gaza [which is entirely one] the Iraq-Jordan border during the 2003 war Russian republics neighbouring Chechnya. But I have never before found people in desperate need of someone’s help living in a ditch between two farmers’ fields, close to a very pleasant market town in northern France.
We, like much of the world’s media, have been countless times to Calais, to the tented camps strung out near the port, where people fleeing conflicts from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Syria and other places are all waiting interminably. Their dream, many of them say, is to go to the UK, because they have a perception that it is welcoming to asylum seekers.
The other day an excellent organisation called Doctors of the World contacted us to say there was a new development: that because Calais was full up, people were being forced backwards, many kilometres south, away from the port and into open countryside.
So we went to have a look, and sure enough, near the village of Tatinghem, there was indeed a long ditch.
Inside it was a group of young Syrian boys – the youngest said he was 12 – who were all by themselves. Parents dead, the boys – trafficked through Turkey and Italy – had wound up in Calais but were forced to back up kilometres down the road.
They did not have their papers or virtually any food. They certainly were not going home, but they could not go forward towards the UK either, since they had no money.
They had been there in the ditch for four months.
The trees in the ditch were all blackened: they had found some planks of wood and tarpaulins, made tents out of them, but they had all burned down.
A church gave them some pallets to rebuild them.
In the interim they, along with some Afghans and Iranians [and a 10-month-old girl], were sleeping in the ditch, which filled up with water when it rained.
Nobody to care
Other than Doctors of the World, nobody – not the French and certainly not the British – seems to want to help them.
This matters, particularly in the UK, because attitudes towards all migrants are hardening, and it seems undeniable that distinctions between illegal migrants who want to work in the UK, and genuine asylum claims [surely like the boys] are being lost in the morass of the debate about the UK being “swamped”.
Figures from the UNHCR say that Germany is offering asylum to 20,000 Syrians. Not many given the scale of the problem, but at least a gesture.
So far the UK has taken 50. The young migrant helper you see in the film offers the view that Britain no longer sees these refugees as people who can enrich the culture.
That seems increasingly to apply equally to asylum seekers as it does to migrant workers.
The rise of the anti-immigrant UK Independence party (UKIP) has prompted all the other mainstream parties – including Labour, which is supposed to be more liberal – to vow to reduce the number of people coming through the border without the right stamps.
The border is becoming tighter and tighter, and what seems to be happening is that the numbers of people trying to get to the “promised land” of the UK are not dropping/
But they can only get as far as the English channel, and the numbers are such that they are starting to back up into places they have not been previously.
When I met a group of Syrian men demonstrating about how they thought the UK should let them in, they could not believe it when I told them that there were more of them in Calais than the total number of asylum cases from the whole of Syria that the UK had allowed in.