I don't know how to feel about my impending visit to the refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk. I am not ashamed to admit I'm a mass of conflicting emotions. I am looking forward to it and dreading it in equal measure. I keep telling myself it will be okay. It's not like I haven't witnessed human misery. I worked in Sri Lanka a few years after the tsunami hit but close enough for it still to be impacting on people. I spoke to people who had lost every family member. I met someone from the Democratic Republic of the Congo once whose 17 year old niece was gang raped by soldiers as her family were forced to watch. I met sisters who, as children, watched their father being gunned down. I have heard it all.
But that's not the same as seeing it. Seeing it as it happens. What I've watched of The Jungle in Calais seems unbearable. But those who've been, tell me NOTHING prepares you for being there. And on Monday afternoon myself and three SNP MPs from the Westminster SNP Justice and Home Affairs Team will arrive with a delegation of experts on refugee matters including two refugees themselves. We will spend four days bearing witness to what's really going on over there. We're expecting it to be painful. But if it seems unbearable, I feel a duty to keep reminding myself that it's not me who has to bear it, it's them. It's their pain, not mine and it absolutely has to be about them, not us.
I remember a few years back at the start of the Syrian exodus, I was in Kurdistan accompanying Bob Doris the Member of the Scottish Parliament I was doing some work for.
We were invited to visit a makeshift Syrian refugee camp. It was in a primary school building. The schools were on holiday, the refugees were unexpected and it was the only place to house them. A woman who was watching her two kids like hawks explained that she was doing so because she'd watched her other 2 kids be gunned down in Syria. She started to cry. The interpreter cried. I stood there, panic rising, feeling myself about to cry but being torn because I knew it wasn't my pain. I was concentrating so hard on not crying that I ended up just standing staring at her. I came to eventually and I told her how sorry I was, I said the things you would expect me to say. I worried that I would seem uncaring because I wasn't crying but I think she could see I wasn't finding it easy.
I am also expecting to feel a huge amount of guilt. It may not be rational but when is it ever? I might be freezing or too hot, I might be in pain from whatever physical work they have us doing, I might be exhausted and emotional. But I will be leaving on Thursday afternoon and that night, I'll be back home to my very nice lifestyle. How long before any of them have even comfort or security never mind anything resembling a nice life? Why should I have life so much easier just because I was born in a more stable part of the world? I can't imagine I'd ever have the guts they've shown in taking the journeys they've taken so how come my cowardice is rewarded and their bravery ignored?
And then there's the helplessness. I've been one of many voices imploring the Home Secretary to change her mind about bringing some of the refugees over from these camps but it's done no good, she is resolute, she will not help them. It is a bitter pill to swallow knowing that even with the letters MP after your name, sometimes it means nothing. I imagine it will feel a whole lot worse when I witness something worse than my imaginings, when my evidence is no longer simply anecdotal and still I can do nothing.
What I will do is continue to speak out. We will be listening to everything in Calais and Dunkirk, taking it all in. We want to understand what's going on, we want to know why people made those treacherous journeys, what they were running away from and how the Jungle can possibly be so much better an option for them. When we understand, the mission of the entire delegation will be to make others understand and when they do, maybe they'll do something about it.
Joining the MPs will be:
Dr Alison Phipps OBE and Dr Teresa Piacentinni of GRAMNet (the Glasgow, Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network), Dr Anne Douglas of the Compass Mental Health Team, Helen Baillot - a practitioner and researcher in forced migration, Joe Brady the former Head of Integration at the Scottish Refugee Council, now Advocacy Manager with Anne McLaughlin MP, Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees Activist Pinar Aksu and Former Somali refugee and 'Glasgow Girl' Amal Azzudin