It has been two years since the photo of Alan Kurdi on the beach in Turkey was published and an explosion of compassion was ignited in public consciousness. That heart-breaking photo humanised the escalating refugee crisis. It was a far cry from the 'swarms' we heard our Prime Minister at the time referring to. Alan was human, one soul, out of tens of thousands of people who have lost their lives while attempting to find sanctuary over the past two years.
A group of us got together in the days that followed that photo being published and started a hashtag #helpcalais, a crowdfunding page with the objective of raising a thousand pounds, and a collection for a van-load of useful donations to take to the unofficial refugee camp which lay on our doorstep, in Calais. Within a week we had raised £56,000 and we were receiving thousands of packages every day at Big Yellow Storage in Finchley, where our journey began. This was the beginning of a civil society movement - from day one we relied on dedicated volunteers to make it all happen. A passionate team of strangers with a shared goal arrived at Big Yellow every single day to unload vans, unwrap packages, shift boxes, sort through bags: retired people, students, Mums, actresses, barmen, truck drivers and professors. The following week we went to Calais. We saw that there were no big NGOs there and that the governments were doing nothing, we met children as young as eight living alone in the camp, we were welcomed warmly by refugees living in flimsy festival tents, and we signed the lease on a warehouse with our French partners L'Auberge des Migrants. The boundless energy of the British public and the trust of the camp residents allowed us to collectively create systems and structures in the volunteering, aid distribution and shelter building.
As the public continued to donate generously and as our network grew we became Help Refugees and quickly began working in Greece, organising and funding a visit from a group of doctors before the medical NGOs had any presence. This was when there were thousands of people arriving on boats on the islands every day, so we funded flood lights shining out to sea to spot people stranded as boats sunk, heaters which were placed on the beaches to warm people up when they arrived, and thousands of hot meals per day. Since then we have continued to fill gaps left by governments and INGOs, across Europe and in the Middle East. Raising close to £8 million pounds and helping 600,000 people, working in 10 countries as far as Syria and mobilising over 20,000 volunteers. We are different because we respond quickly and try to be as effective as possible with core costs of only 4%. All of this we do in partnership with incredible grassroots groups, powered by dedicated individuals who work tirelessly to respond to the actual needs in real-time, working closely with the people who they support, ensuring assistance is provided in a respectful and dignified way. We are not constrained by politics or mandates or bureaucracy, so the funds we receive go directly to where they are most needed.
I wish I could say that, two years on, there is no longer a need for the gap-filling services we and our partners provide. But there is - and we are only able to do so thanks to the generosity of the public. This crisis may be humanitarian but it is also political. People are still drowning trying to find sanctuary, refugee families will once again, two years on, be sleeping in tents in Europe this winter. Women in Greece still have no nappies for their children, families unable to reunite because of bottlenecks in systems. A generation of children are growing up without an education. We in Western Europe live in of the wealthiest corners of the world, and it is heartbreaking that our leaders and organisations whose job it is to work in crises like this are no closer to helping those who need it most.
Over the last year we took legal action against Home Office to court over its failure to implement the Dubs Amendment, which we worked closely with Lord Alf Dubs on. The objective of the amendment was to quickly bring to safety some of the most vulnerable unaccompanied children stranded in Europe. Only 200 children have been brought to safety under the scheme and not a single one this year. The Home Office has failed to act quickly despite the desperate and dangerous conditions unaccompanied children are living in across Europe. We believe that Britain is not doing enough and we will continue to fight for the rights of displaced people, highlighting blockages in the system.
As the political climate continues to change, and global warming begins to contribute to levels of migration, we need to start talking about solutions, rather than building walls and looking back to a time when things were 'better'. We need to look towards a reimagined future, solutions are within reach - we just have to work for them, and try and remember to choose love.