Police brutality in Calais serves as a harsh reminder of the plight of refugees.
At around 8 a.m. on Monday morning, International World Peace Day, a large group of Gendarmes, Police Nationale and BAC armed with batons and pepper-spray destroyed a Syrian refugee camp situated in central Calais, France. With no warning, vans pulled up and rushed up to 300 refugees off to the so-called ‘Jungle’, a large refugee camp 2.5 miles from the town. We offered to drive the families with little children, but the police continually refused, leaving them to trudge down the busy road minutes after being violently awoken. Tents were destroyed, possessions were lost, and the place that these people called home was turned into a deserted wasteland.
Grown men wept and screamed as the police brutally forced them away, blinding them with pepper-spray and preventing them from collecting their money, their passports, and their immigration papers. Photos and details of dead or missing family members, along with other possessions, were thrown into trucks for the municipal dump. Despite the attempts of volunteers to salvage important belongings, the majority was lost, and all efforts to negotiate were met with stony glares from the antagonistic and intimidating men in riot gear. Two similar evictions were carried out later that morning, with police marching refugees into the cramped and flooded Jungle. Meanwhile, authorities pushed back the boundaries of the main camp using rubber bullets and bulldozers, making the small amount of land, on which approximately 4,000 people live, all the more crowded with tents and insufficient shelter. They also blocked the roads, preventing volunteers from giving vital aid to those displaced.
There is no solace for these people – wherever they go, there is nothing but anguish
The brutality of the police evictions came as a shock to everyone – although the camps were set up illegally, this by no means justifies the cruel and inhuman behaviour exercised in moving the camps. It was because of this brutality that hundreds of refugees are now sleeping without shelter, and that, ironically, those who lost their documents could be stranded in Northern France for even longer, precisely what the government was trying to avoid. If the refugees had been given some warning, or if volunteers had been told in advance so that they could help to transfer belongings into a designated area within the Jungle, then much of this hardship could have been avoided. All diplomatic process was circumvented.
“Wherever we go,” one man told me with tears in his eyes, “we Syrians suffer. In Syria we are suffering, in Europe we are suffering, and now here we are suffering…” These men and women have fled a civil war and the brutality of Assad’s rule, only to be exposed to more and more inhumane persecution and injuries. There is no solace for these people – wherever they go, there is nothing but anguish. Every few days we hear stories of men dying while attempting to reach the UK; even within the camp, men and women are dying from hunger, cold, and despair. Many have lost their families, and now they are losing their friends.
This is what we must remember. It doesn’t matter whether these people are refugees or economic migrants (as many in Calais are) – call them what you will, you can never deny the fact that these people are human, just like you and me. They deserve respect, care, support, and most importantly, humanity. No one should suffer like they have suffered: perilous journeys across the Mediterranean, nights in prison cells or sleeping rough, and months without contacting family members to tell them they are alive. They have rights too, and those rights were put in jeopardy yesterday morning, as they have been for a long, long time. “The Jungle is not a place to live. This is not a life,” said one man, reflecting the sentiments of all those in the camp. No one should live like they are forced to, sleeping in puddles and surrounded by discarded rubbish.
In a sense, they are all refugees, fleeing not just war, but also shackles for their hopes
It will take time and it will take perseverance, but one day we will realise that, no matter where someone comes from, no matter what the colour of their skin, we are all equal – the French government seems to have forgotten the importance of liberté, egalité, fraternité in their democracy. Only then will these people be treated with the respect they deserve, and only then will we understand the power of their dreams and ambitions. These are doctors, lawyers, scientists and civil engineers, many of whom have University degrees and once lived affluent lives. In a sense, they are all refugees, fleeing not just war, but also shackles for their hopes. To suggest that they are all scroungers, a myth perpetuated by the right-wing press, is simply false.
An open border policy would be impractical (as has been shown by Germany’s introduction of border controls), but the least we could do is to treat these people with love in our hearts – that is all they need. “I don’t want anything, only your good will,” one Syrian man told me a few days before his camp was ransacked. They have suffered enough, and they may suffer in the future – refugees and migrants always have been the victims of persecution and cruelty, wherever they go. But let’s learn a lesson from the violence of the past few days: it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s make sure it never happens again.