Visiting the Calais camps made us ashamed to be British

The levels of support from British people were heartening, but why can't the government do more?

Ben Martin,Penny Martin
Sunday 22 November 2015 20:21
The "Jungle" in refugee camp at Calais
The "Jungle" in refugee camp at Calais

We have recently returned from the ‘jungle’ in Calais where we have been working in a warehouse preparing winter shelters for the occupants of the camp. We went there to join our elder daughter and 4 fellow students from the University of Aalborg.

Whilst alongside fellow volunteers, it was truly heartening to see the number of people willing to give their time and energy working towards housing refugees who live in the most pitiful conditions in totally inadequate tents and flimsy covers, exposed to the elements just as they are to repression.

People arrived from all parts of the UK and for varying amounts of time - some even just managing a day return in their busy work schedule. Two young men we worked with had given up well-paid jobs in the UK in order to devote all their time to helping in Calais.

On our last evening after working flat out for 7 days, we were invited by a group of Syrian men to share their evening meal. The idea that we would be invited to eat with people who have next to nothing, but still want to share what they have was incredibly humbling.

A lovely meal was prepared on a primus stove in a tent approximately 4m square and we shared with the group who included a telecommunications engineer, a lawyer, a law student, a pharmacist, a ship’s engineer and a manager.

I had to tell them that in view of the government’s stand on immigration I felt ashamed to be British. I stressed that there are many, many British people who want to open the doors to them and welcome them in the same spirit that many Jews were welcomed in the 1930s.

We think it is absolutely disgraceful that people are herded like animals into a tiny area of land and left to essentially rot in squalor, when they could be let into the UK and their applications processed in a place where they can at least have shelter, proper sanitary conditions and a degree of warmth and even comfort.

With the reduction in defence establishments in the UK over the last few years we cannot believe that there are not places where large numbers of refugees could be contained in decent conditions. HMS Warrior, for example, at Northolt was closed down and would easily provide accommodation for several hundred people - that is only one example.

All the men we spoke to in the jungle have not seen their wives and children for many months and their houses have been reduced to rubble in the war. They want to enter Britain in order to work and to be reunited with their families, but they all want to return home to Syria when the opportunity, safely, presents itself.

Syria is their home and they want to return to it. This is true of all the nationalities in the jungle who have made perilous journeys, been exploited by people traffickers and are now being spurned by both France and the UK.

We believe that in years to come, if the British government does not show a proper degree of humanity now and let everyone in the jungle into the UK for processing in a proper and dignified manner, history will mark it down as a government more interested in wealthy foreign investors from Russia, China and wealthy Arab countries buying up properties to leave empty, whilst immigrants who want to add something to British life are left to fend for themselves in a friendless world.

As it is, the government’s policy is having the effect of pricing British people out of their own areas and now they are prepared to see refugees stay anywhere, in any conditions as long as they don’t ‘invade’ Britain. Many of these refugees, like the Jews in the 1930s will add far more to British life than the over-rich investors the government seem so keen to welcome. If history writes the present government down as thoroughly inhumane it will come as no surprise.

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