What price a child’s life?

Today marks the first anniversary of the day when pictures of a drowned toddler shocked Europe and somehow brought to people’s consciousness that the people flocking in desperation to our shores are not swarms or hordes or any of the other disgraceful words our politicians and the media have used to describe them, but precious individuals, many of them tiny children.  What has happened since then?  Not a lot.  Lord Dubs has made valiant attempts to get our government to face its responsibility to the unaccompanied children around our borders, especially those who have the legal right to rejoin family in the UK.  But all he has succeeded in eliciting is empty words from politicians who, although they are supposed to be public servants, have no conscience whatsoever about forsaking their legal and moral duty, and ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Today is also the day when many leaders of different faiths in this country came together with members of their congregations to gather in central London and protest about this lack of action.  They handed to Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, a list of the names of 387 children who are stuck in Calais despite being eligible for asylum in the UK.  Some have perished trying to get here on lorries, a tragedy as well as a moral evil when they have the right to come here safely and legally.  I have made two trips to Calais and seen the appalling sub-human conditions for myself.  I would have been more often if family caring responsibilities had permitted.  But if I cannot go, at least I can add my voice of protest to the growing chorus of those who want to see this country do the right thing and welcome the refugees in keeping with its long and proud traditions which the current generation of politicians appear to have forgotten.

Once upon a time a purportedly Christian regime waged war against Europe’s Muslims in the Balkans.  In Kosovo the onslaught was particularly ferocious, and large numbers of ethnic Albanians living there were forced to flee and seek sanctuary elsewhere in Europe.  As a result of this, Europe’s leaders got together and decided they should have a plan in case there should ever be another large influx of people into the countries of the EU.  The outcome was EUR-Lex – l33124, a directive allowing for temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons.  This piece of legislation provided that if ever there should be another mass influx of displaced persons into the EU, they should be distributed fairly between the EU countries and given temporary protection and shelter, and only once this had been done would the process of establishing their refugee status begin.  Those found to be genuine refugees would then be given asylum until it was safe for them to return home, and those who did not have a genuine asylum claim would be deported.  Problem solved.  Or would have been, at least in the interim, had not the EU decided to tear up its own law book, disregard the directive that had been put in place for exactly this eventuality, and watch as thousands upon thousands of people in need of temporary shelter perished in the seas around our coasts.  What, we could ask, is the point of the EU if it can simply disregard its own laws when it happens to feel like it?

Another proposal was subsequently put forward, I’m not sure by whom.  Perhaps it came from the UNHCR, I don’t know.  This was a suggestion that people should be allowed to apply for asylum at any EU embassy anywhere in the world. Their claims could be processed while they were in situ, and if successful they could travel safely and legally to the country that had accepted them.  This would actually have reduced the numbers of people arriving in Europe, because those whose claims were rejected would realise it was pointless to travel to Europe because they would simply be deported on arrival.  Such a simple idea, and one that would have saved thousands of lives.  So why was it not implemented?  Why would our politicians rather that our shores were awash with hapless corpses than that genuine refugees be given asylum?  I can find no answer that doesn’t involve insanity.

Other measures would also have made a difference.  Daesh is buying and selling weapons, exporting illegally-gotten oil and running a racket in human trafficking, especially sex slaves.  Somewhere in the world there are banks laundering all the tainted proceeds of this of this activity.  They should be pursued, prosecuted, closed down and their assets seized.  And war can happen only when an area is flooded with arms.  If we had an international agreement to stop selling arms to the region, or to anyone who would sell them on to the region, the conflict would burn itself out for lack of fuel.  So why are these very obvious measures not implemented?

I fear the answer lies in some of our politicians and their close allies being so tied up in the banks in question and in the armaments manufacturers that they would rather protect their own assets than save human lives.  I am not pointing the finger at any politician in particular.  I have no way of knowing who is or isn’t implicated.  But I do know this: politicians who are regular attenders at church and who call themselves Christians should remember the words of the Christ they claim to follow:  “Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me”.  And, “It would be better to have a millstone hung around one’s neck and be thrown into the sea, than to offend one of these little ones.”

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On outrage and sadness

#don'tletthemdrown

Back in September I visited the refugee camp known as the Jungle in Calais. I was outraged by what I saw. People condemned to live in conditions that would bring a prosecution if animals were being kept like this. Meagre shelters, ineffectual against the coming winter, no waste disposal management or proper sanitation, scant food, infected water, and sewage running between the dwellings of this “bidonville” or shanty town.

I blogged about it. I had thousands of shares of the blog post, dozens of comments in agreement and just one troll who embarrassed himself far more than he embarrassed me.

I wrote to my MP. I told him about what I had seen; I also sent him a link to this blog https://refugeearchives.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/news-life-in-lesbos-the-childrens-feet-are-rotting-you-guys-have-one-month-and-then-all-these-people-will-be-dead/ which describes children standing for days in a sea of mud until their feet are rotting, all because European governments have decided not to give them a place of sanctuary. I concluded my letter by quoting the words of Peter Sutherland, the UN’s Special Envoy on migration who had also recently visited the camp in Calais. He had responded to the suggestion that if we give these people asylum it will encourage more to come (as though what’s driving them is some mysterious “pull factor”, when clearly it’s the “push factor” of what they’re escaping from) by saying that it’s a monstrous idea that we mustn’t help suffering people for fear that more suffering people might ask for our help.

I asked my MP to draw my comments to the attention of the Prime Minister (which I know he has not done) and I made one constructive suggestion: allow people to apply for asylum at any EU embassy anywhere in the world. In that way, applicants can be vetted and their refugee status assessed in the countries where they are. Those whose applications are rejected will know there is no point coming to Europe. Those whose applications are successful can come here by safe and legal means. The rug will be pulled out from under the people smuggling racket, and we will know that those who come have been vetted and are genuine refugees with a real claim on our humanity and kindness.

My MP’s response? “Thanks. Peter Sutherland does not speak for us and would do well to mind his own business! The Prime Minister has struck the right balance on this very tragic and difficult issue.”

Really? That’s all? No comment on the eye witness testimony of children dying in appalling conditions, of the risk of a cholera outbreak being brought through the tunnel to our shores, on the desperate, skinny refugees wasting away through malnutrition? I was outraged.

I wrote to him again – always very politely, I wasn’t trying to troll or antagonise. He replied with a resolute disagreement to my next email, and ignored the one after that. He tweeted. I tweeted my replies, disagreeing with him, always politely, never hurling insulting epithets at him, but disagreeing robustly, and continuing to champion the cause of the refugees.

I remembered a doorstep conversation I once had with him in which he spoke of his active Christian commitment. So sometimes I tweeted him Bible verses which I believe Christians should allow to shape their thinking. “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 10. 21). “You are to treat the resident alien the same way you treat the native born among you—love him like yourself, since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19. 34). “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10.19) “Do not neglect to offer hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13. 2)

I read reports of persecuted Christians in Syria and Iraq, about how they are facing the most inhumane, appalling treatment at the hands of people infected by a barbarous savagery that does not see them as human. They are excluded by prejudice and hatred from most of the refugee camps in the region and many are living in hiding in unimaginable conditions. I felt outraged on their behalf.

And then came Paris. And I found my outrage subsumed in an overwhelming sadness for the hundreds of dead and bereaved, for the hatred that exploded in an orgy of violence and murder. And here’s what I’ve concluded. Outrage is an exhausting emotion, and it’s one that polarises. The last thing this world needs is more polarisation. Sadness is an empathetic emotion that reaches out and builds bridges.

And so I have relinquished my outrage. Yes, it’s still inexcusable that human beings are being left to drown, starve and freeze to death around our borders. Yes, I will continue to draw their plight to the world’s attention. Yes, I am going back to Calais to do some more volunteering when I can, and donating to those who are free to go more frequently than me.

But my feeling is one of sadness. Sadness for those who can close their hearts to the refugees around Europe’s borders. Sadness for the desperate people who came to us in need of sanctuary only to find our door slammed in their faces. Deep, deep sadness for the many who have lost their lives in Paris, in Beirut, in Baghdad, in Syria, in Nigeria, in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, all over this world. An overwhelming sadness for those who cannot see that the ultimate blasphemy is to be merciless, compassionless and hateful in the name of the most merciful, the most compassionate, the most gracious God, and who one day will have to give account to him of why they associated his love and goodness with such evil.

And out of that sadness I will do what I can to help. I will write, donate, volunteer, pray, reach out and build bridges. I will love my Christian neighbour and my Muslim neighbour and my refugee neighbour and my Sikh neighbour and my Hindu neighbour and my Buddhist neighbour and my hard-hearted politician neighbour and my pagan neighbour and my atheist neighbour. But I will no longer allow emotions that polarise to find room in my heart. As one of the prophets of my own tradition has said, “We are all his (God’s) offspring.”

I’m not naïve enough to think that a warm fuzzy feeling will change the world. But I do know that polarising emotions can only make it worse. In the end, love wins. Love always wins.

Cleaning the Jungle

jungle waste

Photograph courtesy of Viv Dawes, http://vivdawes.wix.com/vividpictures

From the first day I heard about the terrible plight of the refugees in Calais (their real plight, that is, not the media myth of economic migrants desperate to come and sponge off what’s left of our benefits system) I knew I had to do something to help. I had some ideas of what would help, and discussed them with a like-minded friend. But it became apparent, from reports from volunteers at what has become known as the Calais Jungle, most of the things I had thought of were no longer needed. However, what was needed was a huge waste removal operation.

We appealed for help, and had enough volunteers to fill two seven-seater people carriers. We begged, borrowed and bought shovels, garden forks, rakes, litter pickers (lots of litter pickers), industrial quantities of anti-bacterial hand wipes, gallons of disinfectant and thousands of rubbish sacks. We turned up yesterday, along with about a hundred others, and were met by the wonderful team who had organised the entire event. We were organised into teams by Médecins Sans Frontières who had assessed which parts of the site were most hazardous and the top priority for clearance. My daughters and I were wearing wellies and waterproof boiler suits we had bought in B&Q and another friend supplied everyone with cut-proof gloves, which we wore over protective latex gloves.

waste managementSo what exactly were we clearing up? It mainly came into four categories – food waste, packaging waste, inappropriate donations and raw human sewage. Well meaning people have been turning up at the site with large amounts of western-style women’s clothing which most eastern women would find too immodest to wear, with stiletto shoes, and with children’s toys and clothes. There are, in fact relatively few women and children – a few hundred at most, with about four to five thousand men. People had donated foods like dry pasta. But the meagre fires the refugees are able to build do not heat the water for long enough to cook pasta, so packets of it had been discarded. People have also donated really useful items like thermal socks, but they have come packaged and the packaging has been discarded.

I was struck by a very great contrast between two things. The first was the question I was asked most frequently before I went, and the second was the question I was asked most frequently while I was there.

The most frequent question I was asked before I went was, “Why don’t they clean up their own rubbish?” and although I knew, from reading reports from people at the Calais Jungle, that the refugees were in no fit state to clear their own rubbish, it was hard to articulate exactly why. But it didn’t take very long on the site for the reasons to become crystal clear. I identified three reasons from my own observations.

Firstly, everyone I met was stick-thin. These people have walked hundreds of miles, with very little food, to get here. They are exhausted, sick and traumatised. Most have had to leave everything and everyone they love behind and are depressed, and sick with worry about their families.  All are facing a fearful, uncertain future which has completely demoralised them. That is the first reason.  (This, incidentally, is why many have smart phones. If you and your family had to flee at short notice and got separated, ending up in different parts of the world, what’s the one thing you would grab before you ran? I bet it would be your phone, with all their contact details in it, so you could find out where they were and indeed if they were dead or alive).

The second reason is that the French government appears to have taken a decision not to carry out waste management at the site. There is not one single waste bin anywhere to be seen – not one, between five thousand people. Some private donors have managed to rig up a few chemical toilets in cabins at one part of the site – about one for every five hundred people, and for many a very long walk from where they are staying. So imagine if you were living with five thousand people in tents and flimsy frames covered with tarpaulins, with not one waste bin between you. Where would you throw your rubbish? Imagine if you had a fifteen minute walk to a toilet you shared with five hundred others. What would you do when you were desperate? And if you had not one shovel, not one rake, not one litter picker and not one rubbish sack between you all, how much of your own waste would you clear up? There was evidence in some places of attempts to burn rubbish but most was far too wet to burn.

The third reason is that the British government, despite its austerity plans, has found nine million pounds to spend on the Calais Jungle. And on what, you may ask, has it chosen to bestow this largesse? A safe sanitation system just in time to prevent the inevitable cholera outbreak in Northern France which some successful stowaways will import into southern England? A system of waste disposal points and a fleet of waste removal lorries? Well no, actually. It has spent it on a triple-layer razor wire fence. If like me, you wondered what is the difference between barbed wire and razor wire, where barbed wire has merely spikes, razor wire has blades. So while the French government has set up insanitary conditions that make a cholera outbreak highly likely, the British government has set up the overcrowding that makes it pretty well inevitable.

We set to and began clearing the waste. My heart sank when I saw the huge mountains of it, and smelled the unbelievable stench. But I was astonished at how quickly a dozen willing, properly equipped volunteers can clear an area. It was really heartening to see the vast piles rapidly bagged up and stacked ready for the removal which, goaded into action by this day of volunteering, the local authorities had agreed to provide.

The most frequent question I heard while I was working at the site was from the refugees themselves, and it was this: please may I have some of your rubbish sacks? Inspired by our efforts, many of the residents joined in enthusiastically. One man of indeterminate age – anything from fifty upwards I would guess, of probably Syrian appearance, dressed in a thobe, the loose ankle-length garment often seen in African and Middle Eastern Muslim men and a kufi hat on his head, shod only in flip-flops, joined in tirelessly throughout the whole day. His English was limited but he communicated constantly in the universal language of a smile. My youngest daughter was struggling by herself to fill a rubbish sack using a garden fork and a litter picker. Two lads, probably younger than herself, came and gestured at her tools. When she hesitated, uncertain of their meaning, they smiled and gently relieved her of her implements, then set to with a will, filling sack after sack while she held it open for them. The reality is that, given the wherewithal, these people who feel the shame of living like this just as acutely as we would feel it, would keep their own site clean and tidy. But the governments have chosen to let them live like this, stripped not only of adequate shelter and sanitation but also of human dignity.

At times we were clearing the areas around the primitive water taps that had been erected. Regularly throughout the day, people in search of drinking water would vie with us for space on one side of the row of taps while on the other, devout Muslims performed wudu, the ritual washing that takes place before each of the five daily prayers. I was impressed by their devotion – my daughter used the word integrity – that even in this extreme situation they still kept the faith and observed their religion. I also felt a little awkward and embarrassed to be picking up litter from in front of them while they performed this duty – as though something mundane was impinging on something sacred.

At the end of the day we either threw away or thoroughly disinfected every implement we had used. We jettisoned our gloves and boiler suits. We took it in turns to stand in a bucket of disinfectant in our wellies before removing them and putting our shoes back on. We carried out the best infection control we could before bringing anything we had used back to the UK.

As I left I reflected on two things. Firstly, that if a farm was keeping animals in this condition, the RSPCA would close it down and prosecute the owners. And secondly, I was remembering an article I had read in which the author had calculated that if every single one of the residents of the Calais Jungle was allowed into Britain and given the allowance to which asylum seekers are entitled of around thirty-six pounds a week, it would cost every man, woman and child in this country fifty-seven pence a year during the short period of recovery before they found jobs and started contributing back to our economy. I believe this is a scandal. I will certainly be going back to Calais to do some more waste clearance, and I hope that between a few of us we can set up enough crowd funding to start to pay for bins and some kind of toilets.

If I had my way, I would love to invite the Foreign Secretary, the Right Hon. Philip Hammond MP to come with us on our next waste-removal trip. I would buy him a dictionary so he could occupy himself on the journey looking up the meaning of the word marauding.  In the meantime, those of us who went yesterday from our area, and a few others who are inspired by what we had to tell, will bless the Calais Jungle in word and deed, and hope to go on blessing it right out of existence, looking forward to a day when these people have a safe, clean shelter to live in and a dignified way of providing for themselves and their families.

Footnote: still thereThree days after we cleared the rubbish, the Calais Mairie has still not carried it away.  One almost begins to think the two governments have a reason for wanting to encourage an outbreak of disease – can it be that, as with the abandonment of Mare Nostrum, they want to use deaths as a cynical deterrent, “pour encourager les autres”?  If so, they are no better than the Assad regime or the ISIS fighters from whom these people have fled for their lives.  Closing borders is bad enough.  Engineering mass deaths is an atrocity.