The existence of refugees goes back almost as far as humanity itself. Our history is full of displaced people, escaping persecution and conflict. The European refugee crisis conjures up images of war, bombs, boats, lives, deaths, hardship and suffering. It has destroyed and divided countries, cities, families and friendships around the world. It has been in the headlines almost non-stop since 2015, and Europe has subsequently experienced the greatest mass movement of people since WWII. The result of events both within and outside of Europe, the refugee crisis seems overwhelmingly complicated. Today, it is estimated that nearly 60 million (the highest number on record and by some estimates 1 in every 122 humans on the planet) of the global population are currently displaced due to conflict, individual or collective persecution, environmental disaster, and denial of their human rights.
Many refugees undertake long and deeply, perilous journeys in order to reach safety, covertly crossing conflict zones, deserts, seas and multiple countries in various states of (non)governance, often on foot with scarce resources. Of those who make it safely to Europe, many are forced to wait to be accommodated for food, healthcare, and most importantly for their asylum applications to be processed by systems overwhelmed by demand. Refugees who stay in neighbouring countries to their own, which are many times already experiencing economic and political challenges, often suffer local persecution, limited rights and economic challenges. Compounded globally by widespread misinformation, prejudice to the point of racism, and apathy, the harmonious and safe resettlement of refugees becomes even more difficult.
I, along with many others, have followed the refugee crisis from my computer and television screens for the last couple of years, finding information in news reports, charity websites and on-the-ground reports. I’ve often wondered about the human beings being affected by policies made in London, Brussels and Washington, and wondered if I would ever be able to make any sort of contribution to the solution to this ongoing challenge. My interest was sparked further during my year abroad, where I spent time in a French asylum seekers’ centre and met a number of asylum seekers.
It was with this in mind that in January 2017 I decided to volunteer with an organisation running a newly established refugee camp in Paris (following the demolition of ‘the jungle’ in Calais). The organisation’s main work in the camp was to do with receiving, cleaning, organising and distributing clothing donations, as well as regulating the queue outside the camp, where we distributed tea, food, blankets and offered any support we could. The camp functions as a holding centre for up to 400 male refugees and migrants, women are taken to private accommodation on their arrival, paid for by the charities supporting the camp, and children are taken into separate accommodation managed by the Red Cross. Each day, a coach-load of people departed from the camp to be transported to an asylum-seekers centre in another part of France, freeing up more places inside the Paris camp. Once they arrive at their designated centre, the refugees and migrants are supposed to be provided with food and accommodation. However, these resources are often woefully scarce; one young man walked to the Paris camp from Dijon after being told there was no space to accommodate him. Due to the Paris camp’s limited capacity there was a constant queue of at least 100 men waiting to enter; they slept in line, on the freezing ground, many for up to a week and some for longer, before they could even hope to reach the front. Bearing in mind that most of these men had already journeyed for months from their countries, and many had simply walked from the point at which they first reached Europe. So one can imagine the psychological, and not to mention physical impact of being forced to sleep in the streets of Paris in sub-zero temperatures with no guarantee of admission to the camp, nor of being granted asylum. Every morning at 7am the gates of the camp were opened to admit a small number, inevitably forcing scenes of conflict and occasionally violence.
I arrived for my first evening shift with some trepidation, and was immediately thrown into action making and distributing milky, sugary tea to those waiting in the queue. I was immediately approached by a man asking for knife; he explained that he intended to use it to harm himself as he ‘didn’t want to live anymore.’ I had never encountered such a situation, and though my first response were tears pricking at my eyes, I forced them back, offered him tea and food and talked with him for as long as I could. It was a meagre and insufficient response; though I didn’t know what else to do.
Over the next few days I worked both inside and outside the camp, meeting men from a huge variety of countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Iran, Guinea, North and South Sudan, Libya, Syria, Algeria… Tackling familiar and less-familiar challenges: how to ask a person’s trouser size in Arabic, how to offer new underpants to men from conservative societies without embarrassing them, how to communicate with volunteers from a variety of European countries, how to mass-make sandwiches at triple-speed, how to try to answer as to why the French police were removing people sleeping in the streets around the camp, and how to explain that sorry, there just aren’t enough shoes for everyone to have a new pair. I also spent a considerable amount of time accompanying individuals to the hospital for medical attention in order to translate between English, French and Arabic, through which I was able to find out some more about those whom I accompanied. Farwan from Afghanistan ran out of fingers when I asked how many countries he had come through to get to Paris. Mohamed paid to travel in the back of a lorry to arrive here, but was unable to elaborate much between bouts of asthmatic wheezing. And 16 year old Assadiq from Sudan told me about his journey, which had begun three months prior, during which he travelled through Chad, Libya, across the Mediterranean ‘river’ (as he said the traffickers called it) to Sicily, where he was briefly detained before crossing to Italy and walking to Paris. There he slept rough for 10 days under a bridge near the camp before being taken to the Red Cross, encouraged to do so by his brothers in the UK who had made the journey before him.
The opportunity to get to know Farwan, Mohamed and Assadiq also provided some of the most challenging moments; I accompanied Farwan and Mohamed back to the camp at the end of the day knowing that they had not gained admission to the camp would be sleeping outside whilst I travelled back to my warm, safe accommodation on the other side of Paris. Finding somewhere for them to stay served little purpose as they would consequently lose their places in the queue to enter the camp and would have to start the process all over again. From what I have heard from Assadiq since I left the camp, he is still sleeping on a camp bed in a school gymnasium managed by the Red Cross, and has not yet gotten even close to submitting an asylum application or transfer to join his brothers in the UK.
In light of these brief but impressionable experiences, I was devastated at the decision of the UK government to close down the Dubs’ amendment scheme, through which just a few hundred child refugees were able to join members of their families in the UK. Other events in the world, borne of prejudice and fearmongering, make a quotation by German pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) come to mind:
‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.’
We may no longer commonly speak of the persecution of socialists and trade unionists, but Niemöller’s sentiment remains pertinent to this day. Our individual humanity is bound to each other’s, and we can only progress as far as we all reach together. There can be no sustainable peace within the walls we have built to keep people out, if those walls have been built on unjust and uncompassionate grounds. Today, in this life, we are on this side of the wall. Tomorrow, who knows? If I ever find myself on the other side, I hope there is justice, compassion and kindness there to receive me.
I am a 4th year student of French & Arabic at Durham University, hoping to soon be pursuing an MA in Conflict Development. Since returning to Durham I have been involved with local refugee work in the County Durham and Middlesbrough areas through Durham for Refugee and Durham City of Sanctuary. I hope to return to Paris to volunteer this summer. Many thanks to Mariama for the opportunity to share my experiences.
 Many of whom have not yet submitted asylum applications – therefore their refugee/migrant status is undetermined.