Two blondes in a small blue car drive into the refugee camp. Is this a new blonde joke? Seeking out the high vis-jacketed volunteers, they enquire: “Excuse me. We have come to help the refugees. Where should we go?”
This was indeed a joke. But one that is also a true story, in which the subjects were laughing at themselves. This is how I could best describe how my friend and I felt when we went to volunteer at Calais’ refugee camp this January. Both scholars of International Relations, we had come in to have our presuppositions abruptly confronted by reality. It is one thing to memorise refugee numbers for an exam, list the causes of displacement in essays and read about their dangerous passages over land and sea in the newspaper; however, it seems that their human identity is too readily brushed aside amidst the turmoil of current affairs.
This makeshift city has a high street with shops, restaurants and barbers, and multiple schools and churches throughout the camp. At night it is humming like any other city high street, but beyond the shop fronts the refugees sleep in tents sinking in mud and battered by the cold sea wind. So, yes, these are suffering people who need help; but they should also be recognized as the capable and enterprising people they are. Most of those I spoke to came from qualified backgrounds, working as electricians, dentists, doctors and engineers and, most importantly, serving as respectable members of their former communities. Now they must depend on two naïve blondes to provide them with basic necessities, a dynamic that recalls a chilling echo of imperialism and white supremacy.
Purely labelling them as ‘refugees from the Arab conflict,’ we are instinctively homogenizing a vastly diverse group of people. A map of the camp can proves this, as its clearly shows that different identity-groups occupy different areas. On the first day of volunteering, we were told to inform a section of the camp that they needed to move their shelter out of the way of the French bulldozers coming to clear land next to the motorway. Re-enter the blondes with a grand responsibility to save these people from the wrath of the officials. We were the peace corps all over again: “You should move across to the other side of the camp so you don’t lose everything when the bulldozers come. We’ll clear space for you.” Job well done. But, of course, an Afghani man (for that was the identity-group that would be most affected by the bulldozing) did not want to move into Calais’ Kurdistan territory and leave his Afghani comrades to find their own safety. Without their family and friends and stuck in limbo in a foreign land, a person will naturally gravitate to others of a shared language and identity. Each identity group in the camp have their own grievances and terrors that they have fled, within which the individuals have their own, very personal histories.
Consider now the concept of the white containers that are being provided as better ‘shelter’ for the refugees. Imagine journeying for months, often being smuggled on lorries or boats, riding on the hope of a life in the UK. Imagine then being halted and forced to linger on the sea’s edge, demoted to a shanty-town dweller. Shipping containers that require a palm print (a worry for those seeking political asylum and so fear being located) are then presented to you by the people who resist your presence in their country. As a human with dignity would you submit yourself to life in a container, not far from that of a battery chicken?
It is not all bad news, though. There are instances where the discourse is slowly evolving to at least acknowledge and respect these people instead of labelling them as ‘parasites’ or ‘charity-cases’. A British man, Rob Lowrie, was recently arrested in France for trying to stow a four-year-old girl in the roof of his van. Her father had asked him to take her to his family residence in Yorkshire. Mr Lowrie was threatened with five years in prison before a trial let him walk free with a fine. It seems the publicity of this arrest has drawn public awareness to the camp, which has resulted in the British government considering plans to allow more unaccompanied refugee children into the UK through safer means.
Fellow Brits will scoff into their tea to imagine our dreary GB as a mecca of safety in the modern world, but this is exactly how the refugees regard it. The hope this patch of land gives to these people seems baffling, yet it is there. Why can we not let these people find safety in Great Britain? Re-enter blondes again, after meeting a twelve-year-old boy who had travelled from Afghanistan on his own. It seemed so simple: “We should help him get to the UK. All we would need to do is hide him in the car, under our coats in the boot. There is nothing to stop us. And if they discover him, we just pretend we left the window open by accident and he must have snuck in.” The day after, we read about Mr Lowrie’s arrest in the paper and changed our minds.
Why are we entitled to a comfortable life on this grey but relatively pleasant land? They have fled attacks from people they formerly identified with, seeking safety from foreigners and placing faith in the liberal preaching of the West. Consider the effect rejection might have on these people. Where can they go? Return to the Middle East and into the arms of ISIS?
On the other hand, we must acknowledge the homeless who line the streets of the UK, the over-subscribed schools and hospitals, unemployment and our burdened welfare benefits. Approaching the issue from a privileged upbringing, the solution seems simple: Allow these refugees the same opportunities at life that we are granted. However, ask in your local council estate and you will likely find a different answer.
A solution remains elusive, but, in the meantime, we must uphold respect for the humanity of the inhabitants of the refugee camp, as well as those millions spread across the continents. The more they are dehumanized in the media, our textbooks and our minds, the more we reinforce a discourse of ‘us and them,’ which can only fan the flames of a divided and conflictual world. As xenophobia is on the rise in Europe we have to remember that these are desperate people fleeing war and that refugee camps, in Calais as elsewhere, are not jungles full of animals.