Now we've changed our minds about Syrian refugees, we need to stop ignoring those in Calais

For some reason many people still think it's acceptable to call them 'migrants', when they're actually fleeing some of the worst horrors imaginable

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The Independent Online

“Do some humans smell different mummy?” My seven year old had spotted police with sniffer dogs as we waited to board our ferry at Calais. He wanted to know if the refugees from Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan emitted a uniquely distinctive aroma that differentiated them from the French and the British.

“No”, I said, feeling impotent by the scene of inhumanity (the dogs and the depravity of the camp I’d seen earlier). “The dogs can’t smell their nationality, only their fear". Fear, on this scale, has an intoxicating pungency, I explained. “I hope you never have to know it”.

There has been an incredible outpouring of support for Syrian refugees over the last week. However, our munificence should not only extend this far. We have a moral responsibility too to the huge swathe of Africans fleeing the monsters we helped create. All refugees are worthy of compassion, whatever their colour or creed.

Yet up until a few days ago, the media has largely failed to communicate the stories behind the human beings who flock to the “Calais jungle”. They are not seeking a better life (heaven forbid), they are seeking life itself. Contrary to popular opinion, they’re not just fleeing economic hardship – most are fleeing death and persecution. The UN spokesperson in Calais, Celine Schmitt, has said that the constant use of the word “migrant” by the media, when in fact these are mostly refugees, is misleading. So why do so many still cling to it?

People need to know what Calais' refugees are fleeing from, and the struggles they're facing. These are not the actions of people making lifestyle choices. These are acts of desperation by people for whom there is nothing left to lose. During the mass bid for freedom in July, a Sudanese man in his twenties died after being crushed by a truck. The day before, an Egyptian man was electrocuted at the Gard du Nord in Paris when he leaped on the roof of a Eurostar train headed to London. An unborn child was killed at 22 weeks when her mother fell from the back of a truck. Why are they so desperate? Most are fleeing corrupt regimes who starve, kill and torture their own citizens. Yet world leaders are too busy burying their heads in the sand to help.

I recently spoke with a Sudanese refugee living in the UK. He told me about his nephews who, having fled the genocide in Darfur, now languish in fear and squalor at the Calais camp. One of his nephews, Hassan (not his real name), made it to the UK, undetected in the back of a truck.

Having fled the genocide, where he witnessed family members slaughtered before his eyes and suffered torture himself, Hassan made it to Libya where he faced more abuse. The 22-year-old was forced to work down a mine for six months without pay and was beaten constantly. But it isn’t just his body that’s scarred. When crossing the Mediterranean Sea, his boat carrying 240 people sank. He clung on for dear life for over an hour, surrounded by dead bodies, including those of children. There were only around 40 survivors. While in the water, he described his mind as unravelling. Hassan’s uncle believes his young nephew is suffering with severe psychological trauma as a result of his experiences. He fears for the plight of his other three nephews stuck in Calais and stresses that they need to come to the UK, where they have family. People who can help mend their minds, if not their bodies.



The same short-term politics that precipitated the global financial crisis is now cultivating a European refugee crisis. This isn’t happening in a vacuum. Foreign policy that serves to prop up and embolden despots will come back to bite. David Cameron and Francois Hollande have known about the genocide in Sudan for 12 years but have failed to protect civilians. What are these people, abandoned by the international community, supposed to do? Stay and allow their children to be starved, raped and bombed, or try to get the hell out of there? I know what I’d do.

Even now, as the sky falls, Theresa May stands at the shores of Dover and, with all the delusion of king Canute, issues edicts to refugees to turn back. Meanwhile, Cameron has just tried to ease the pressure by agreeing to take a welcome, yet proportionally very small, drop out of the ocean of people fleeing. But the refugees, like Canute’s waves, cannot stem their flow. There is no going back. However high the fences, however torn the flesh in a bid to scale them, and however many dogs are used to sniff out human beings as though they were animals, the refugees will keep coming. We have left them nowhere else to go. British political ineptitude is part of the problem, so it is right that David Cameron provides a fair share of the solution.

As we were embarking at Calais, my son asked, “What would you do if you saw a refugee climbing onto a truck”? “I’d say, good luck to them. What would you say”? Looking perturbed, he shook his head slowly and replied, “I’d tell them not to come to Britain”. As I tried to disguise my disappointment and wondered where I went wrong, he added, “Someone should warn them that David Cameron doesn’t like poor people, or the homeless or foreigners”. “Interesting angle…” I conceded (he chats to The Big Issue sellers)… “but until such time as he starts shooting them, Britain has got to be a better option than Sudan or Syria. Right”? But by then he was dangling some stinky French cheese out the window. “What are you doing”! I gasped. “I’m putting the dogs off the scent. Fear isn’t the only thing that stinks mum”. Ain’t that the truth.