The Ongoing Fight for Refugee Rights

17/06/2016 17:18 | Updated 17 June 2016

As violence erupted at the Calais Jungle earlier this year and temporary homes were destroyed in a heavy handed police operation, it was pertinent to reconsider rights and responsibilities on all sides. Indeed does a refugee have rights? And if so what are they? And if those rights are not being upheld what recourse to action does a refugee have?

As the wet and cold winter months dragged on into spring, the ad hoc refugee camps at Dunkirk and Calais continued to be front page news with police stand offs, high profile visitors including Jeremy Corbyn and Jude Law, to name but a few, and a steady stream of aid convoys mustered by trade unions, faith groups, other organisations and concerned individuals. After months of prevarication and local politicking, Damien Careme, the Mayor of Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk, managed to seize the initiative and find the means to relocate the refugees who had been living in a sea of mud in his commune. But what happens at one refugee camp is not necessarily a blue-print for another as we shall see, and even Careme's well-intentioned gesture has been fraught to say the least .

Meanwhile, on February 25th, a court in Lille upheld the eviction order that was served on a large area of the Calais Jungle despite the best efforts of NGOs and human rights lawyers to protect the community that had established itself on the toxic wasteland just outside the port. Scenes of burning shelters and people throwing stones made front page news. A legal advice centre, which helped refugees access much needed information about the asylum process, was mysteriously burnt down. I had taken a photograph of this only weeks before.

Meanwhile, 40 kilometres away, back in Grande-Synthe a very different story was playing out then; Damien Carême had persuaded his peers that they should, and indeed could, do something to help the refugees who had found themselves on his patch. The result is a partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières to relocate the 3000 or so refugees in proper tents on a strip of land adjoining a disused farmstead, with the farmhouse itself being kitted out as a health centre and a large shed rigged out as a mobile phone charging station. "They will like this," said one MSF doctor proudly as he showed me round, and I knew that he was genuinely pleased at the thought and effort that had gone into trying to make life more than tolerable for camp inhabitants.

I have visited both camps twice, seeing with my own eyes the squalid conditions made worse by heavy rainfall, ever increasing numbers, government inaction and inter-governmental failure. At the same time I have observed heavy-handed police behaviour and was myself on the receiving end of rough treatment at the Calais Jungle when attempting to exit through a police cordon that appeared designed to protect the Front National rather than the visiting aid workers. If the police could act in such a way to manhandle a woman in her 50s who is an elected politician, heaven knows how they must treat young, frustrated refugees.

On my second visit to both camps during February half-term I sat in on language classes in the cramped hastily constructed 'school' in the Calais Jungle. Dozens of teachers from all over the UK had given up their holiday time to volunteer, not only to teach English but also other subjects. Inside the dome where two British theatre workers had established Good Chance Theatre there is a daily programme of activities. I watched an 'image theatre' workshop where refugees were exploring the meaning of 'hope', a poignant exercise for people who have lost so much. The Goid Chance was nominated for several awards in recognition of its humanistic response to the situation at Calais . I also popped into the library and passed by the women and children's centre, the Eritrean church, the mosque, the vaccination centre, the legal advice centre and various pop-up shops and cafes.

The Calais Jungle was one of the most functional communities I have encountered; against all the odds the dispossessed had managed to establish a semblance of normality in extremis, supported by compassionate individuals such as Clare Moseley who set up Care4Calais to collect and distribute food, clothing, tents, bedding and so on. But life is neither desirable nor sustainable in a limbo land surrounded by Marine Le Pen supporters.

Many people have asked me why the refugees at Calais are so intent on reaching Britain, preferring to seek refuge there rather than in France. There are many varying reasons, with family ties and friends being one of the main motivations, plus most of the refugees speak fairly good English. A large majority of the Jungle inhabitants are Kurdish or Afghani and feel a close link to Great Britain because of our military action in their countries. For example, some Afghans that I met had acted as interpreters for the British armed forces, effectively keeping them safe from the Taliban; the Kurds have long been the eyes, ears and man-power on the ground for the British offensive in Iraq and Syria, not to mention the UK participation in the Iraq war from 2003 onwards. I met a Kurdish man who showed me his battle-scarred legs, injured fighting with the British and now disabled. It stands to reason that if you risked your life for the UK, you would expect to benefit from a special relationship and be welcomed with open arms, but sadly there has been nothing forthcoming from Westminster.

Making my second visit to the Dunkirk Jungle in the company of Sarah Wilson, a volunteer from Penrith in Cumbria, I could see that the misery and mud was continuing. We met a very distressed male refugee by the main gate. He told me that his wife was heavily pregnant and had spent the whole night crying in their flimsy tent. Surely, this woman should be receiving some proper health care? The right to a healthy life, along with access to education, is part of a raft of human rights that refugees should be accorded.

Many have decried the way these refugees have been treated, along with the thousands that continue to come into the EU by land and sea. The European Commission and the European Parliament have adopted plans and repeatedly called for relocation of refugees from overcrowded arrival zones, or the creation of safe passage corridors, and for their humanitarian needs to be met, and guarantees to be given that their human rights will be upheld. Many European governments have refused to implement plans that they themselves approved in the EU's Council of Ministers, and are blocking progress for narrow national interests, or surrendering to the populist right. Indeed, it is easy to blame "the EU" for not dealing with the refugee crisis effectively, but what we have seen is EU institutions taking the lead, while certain Member States have blocked progress. Sadly, the Conservative British Government has refused to support any combined European effort to tackle the refugee crisis, and after Jeremy Corbyn visited the Jungle, Cameron (in)famously referred to the refugees there as "a bunch of migrants" and a "swarm".

According to an EU directive on reception conditions for asylum seekers, the French government is responsible for guaranteeing basic humanitarian conditions for these refugees on its territory, until it can process their asylum claims. It is clear that the French government has been in breach of European laws, and in that case, it is up to the European Commission to begin infringement proceedings and bring the French government before the European Court of Justice. However, such a move would be drawn out, complicated, and politically sensitive. Even if it were to take place, it could take many years to resolve, and the intolerable condition of these refugees cannot be allowed to linger.

While the European Parliament and other European bodies might issue calls and warnings on the situation in the makeshift camps on the French coast, the EU has no direct power to intervene and enforce laws themselves. Civil society organisations must step into this vacuum and fight for the rights of those in the camps who have no voice.

Those who need that voice, and most urgently need the protection of EU laws are the many hundreds of children living in the Calais Jungle and Grand-Synthe. The European Parliament has always emphasised that access to education is a key part of the basic humanitarian conditions that refugees must be provided with. Indeed, the difference that education makes to refugee children and their futures is enormous. The European Parliament also has insisted that special attention be given to the situation of women and girl refugees, and their gender-specific needs, with Labour MEPs leading on the subject. The access of girls to education will have a dramatic impact on their futures, and must be guaranteed. French authorities must take up their responsibilities to ensure refugee children receive the education they are legally required to receive.

Europol has estimated that 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children have gone missing since arriving in Europe. These children, trying to escape poverty and war, are feared to have fallen into the hands of human traffickers, exploiting them for sex and slavery. In April, I gave evidence to the House of Lords making recommendations on how to resolve this issue. The fight continues to remove child refugees from this desperate situation.

Back in Grande-Synthe I was checking out a new pop up school building that Sarah was trying to construct with fellow volunteers, and then we went to see the Mayor's new replacement refugee camp. Rows of neat white tents were pegged out on dry ground waiting for their inhabitants. There had been a minor setback when a fierce storm ripped out some of the moorings but overall the site looked clean, dry and orderly with the farmhouse and its outbuildings creating a welcoming focal point.

However, back at Calais where temporary homes were destroyed along with community facilities, many refugees remain, some in the prison-like containers reached through high security metal turnstiles and others in the sad remnants of the camp. Some refugees have left, given up the dream of a better life in Britain and headed off for more welcoming cities in Europe such as Berlin.

The volunteers continue to do what they can and always need more of everything. In March I met with a group of dentists in Manchester who organise regular missions to undertake dental screening and emergency treatment of the Calais refugees. They have fundraised for a mobile surgery and they shared some of their findings with me regarding the dental health of the refugees. The evidence does not look good, denoting malnutrition and overall poor health as well as specific dental problems.

So what can you or any of us do? It is important for human rights activists to speak up when they see that the human rights of refugees are not being protected. Meanwhile politicians and governments must work together to tackle the refugee crisis in a compassionate way that reflects European values and upholds human rights. I myself gave evidence to a recent House of Lords Enquiry on Unaccompanied Minors using knowledge gained by visiting refugee camps in Northern France and Bavaria, and from my close working relationship with NGOs and volunteers.

It is important to keep raising awareness of the situation and you can do this by joining local, national and international actions to show solidarity with the refugees.

This weekend the People's Assembly had planned jointly with trade unions and the LGBTI movement to mobilise a mass aid convoy to Calais to show solidarity with the refugees. As we go to print it is uncertain as to whether the French police will allow the convoy vehicles to cross the channel.

For further information about a range of aid projects check out this website.

To read about my work with refugees please visit my website.

This article was written for as a Huffington Post blog post before the murder of Jo Cox. Julie would like to dedicate this piece to Jo's memory, as a tireless campaigner for refugee rights, human rights, and social justice.