Day One:Listening and Learning

THE catastrophe that is the European failure to uphold its own convention unfolds palpably before our eyes.

We see at first hand the tenacity and courage of the aid workers, the courage of a local mayor against all the odds, the acute need for legal information and advice, the urgency of trauma support and the woeful inadequacy and failure of imagination for unaccompanied minors.

We had arrived in Calais earlier and had our first briefing meeting with MPs from Home Affairs Select Committee and MSF HelpMigrantsUK.

The briefings with local and international NGOs tell of the hard work to co-ordinate and systemise the incredible influx of British volunteers after the publication of the moving and disturbing photograph of the body of young Aylan Kurdi on the beach on the Greek island of Kos.

Being in the presence of activists and veterans in the struggle to manifest compassion against a system designed to obstruct, brutalise and confound is familiar to me.

The politicians ask question after question using every moment of what they are acutely aware is valuable time. Their questions about legal cases, about precedents, about management, about resources, about the humanitarian horrors, about the need to act with dignity and decency ... their efficiency in these meetings is very impressive.

There is anger and admiration among those assembled here. There is incredulity and at the same time an abiding lack of surprise. Of course the policies of the United Kingdom have led to this.

There is talk of the work back home, in communities of new arrivals in Scotland, and of the disgraceful housing conditions for asylum seekers in Glasgow. There are the harrowing stories of those struggling with the agonising injustice which is killing the spirits and the bodies and the souls. We, the people of Europe. We did this.

Day 2

ON a stone in the middle of the bulldozed ‘camp sud’ is graffiti with the words ‘veni, vidi, vici’ ... famously deployed, so history has it, by Cesar after a rapid and complete victory. “I came, I saw, I conquered.” So it seems with the “victory” of the security state, with its barbed wire and container-style camps, its sterile, lifeless systemising and the constant activity of bulldozers and diggers uprooting every tree, levelling every dune, steam-rolling every tent.

I look down into the mud and there is a child’s shoe and a broken pot – signs that people were given no chance to take their belongings.

The people we meet in the Camp Nord are entrepreneurs, cooks, bakers, accountants, professors, geologists – and then there are so many children and young people. They are people on their knees in a small, beautiful sanctified Eritrean church, praying.

These are the people we are keeping from entering the UK, greeting us with smiles and gratitude simply for having made the effort to visit them and to bring love and greetings from people back home.

The people we meet, and who are kept at bay by the multimillion-pound border industry, just want to be with their friends and families, as you or I do. They are from countries with long connections to the UK, to its imperial history, victims of the line-drawing borders on maps a century ago.

There is everywhere the menacing presence of violence, overt and evident; the violence of a Europe which has lost its way and is lashing out in fear; the violence of the state as bully; the violence which steps in, in place of the articles and declarations made when we said, in Europe, never again. It is 2016. We, the people of Europe, we did this.

Day 2: The Warehouse

I WALK into the Warehouse and am met by the sights and smells of my childhood – those of the jumble sale. On shelves with neat homemade labels are piles of clothes and bedding. All around are volunteers from the UK. They are overwhelmingly female. What brought them is what binds them in the flow of good-humoured activity – a sense that it is our responsibility to provide basic aid now that the UK and France have failed.

On the tables are orange strips of duct-tape marked “Trousers – small, medium, large”; “Tops, female – small, medium, large.” We get started. Arms and hands moving in a rhythmic dance sort the clothing into sizes, fold it, place it on the shelves and return to the sorting table.

There is a murmur of conversation and a lot of laughter over some items. High-value items are separated for sale and fundraising. It reminds me of the atmosphere in holiday camps I worked in as a student one summer. Only there is a worry here, and seriousness.

The shift finishes and we assemble again outside waiting for rides back. Later that evening, in a cramped room, we push aside chairs and sit on the floor so we can see one another clearly and, one by one, in soft tones, or with anger, or tears, or bewilderment, we tell one another what we have seen.

Day 3: The Kurds

ON the side of the Mairie – the town council building – in Grande Synthe there is a banner opposing TTIP. We sit inside and spend an hour with Maire Careme, learning what a difference decisive political leadership can make. The conditions in the camp refugees set up on the outskirts of Grande Synthe were “epouvantable” – “utterly disgraceful”. When MSF’s Michael Neuman gave a lecture at Glasgow University in February he said he had never seen such terrible conditions in all his years. In coalition with MSF and festival organisers, the Maire had used his limited power to move the people out of their miserable conditions and into sheds which can sleep four, and gave people the right to cook and decorate the sheds.

We arrive at the new camp and it’s not the riot police approaching us with batons and questions, as it was in Calais, but the local Gendarmerie – community police – who check our papers. The atmosphere is markedly different. The camp is only three weeks old but already the difference which good organisation and peaceful ways of working make is palpable. There is not the menace of violence that we experienced in Calais, nor the overweening control. Children ride around on bikes; there is laughter and conversation. As we walk around the camp people ask us questions, request items, or tell us of their situation. Food, tea and coffee are supplied and we stand in the sunshine with a bag of salted sunflowers sharing them with a man from Iran. In Farsi, Turkish, some Arabic and broken English we hold a conversation – one about hope and despair – not about the conditions in the camp but the politics of refugees.

Ninety per cent of the camp are Kurds. They invite us to a meeting and tell us of Kurdistan, its history, the British involvement, the way lines were drawn on a map. They are begging the politicians to act. They are gracious, courteous; they arrange translation and greet us formally. Then the stories begin which I recognise as those I have heard from other desperate nations without a state: the Palestinians. Those speaking with such urgency are desperate to find a way of telling the epic story of their suffering. There must be a way of telling the story, of giving testimony to those who bear witness that will work, that will end the suffering. They try every angle. And I realise how I am utterly confounded, for there is no way of communicating this story to those with power that will work. There is despair and hopelessness in the eyes of one of the men. I have no words.

In Calais we had met a man who had known this despair and overcome it and learned to live from day to day with no hope. He said: “I know there is nothing you can do. But it is enough that you have come to say hello to us.”

There is nothing we can do. Those with the power to make the camp conditions better have done it and done it courageously and in a way which utterly shames what happened in Calais. So here we are, united in a common understanding of the hopelessness of it all, thrown back on the most basic of human activities – giving and receiving hospitality.

Day 4: Calais

IT is our last day and time for a long meeting with MSF workers about camp conditions, the violence, sanitation, legal advice, politics, the well-being of volunteers and what on earth can be done. It’s time for commitments.

There are first-hand reports of random use by French riot police overnight of 500 tear-gas canisters in the camp in Calais and of a young man crushed to death by a lorry.

At Calais-Frethun, the Eurostar station, there is the presence of armed customs officers and dogs as well as sub-machine guns – all part of the menacing atmosphere and the threat of state intervention under emergency powers.

The whole group is engaged in careful, considered discussion of what might be done and how to create a future where the shame and impossible despair and entrapment of the camps is replaced by just futures and humane possibilities.

However well managed and constructed a camp this is, it is no solution, and certainly not a semi-permanent one. They are places that slowly kill the mind, spirit and body.

Professor Alison Phipps of the Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet) accompanied the SNP’s Justice and Home Affairs Team at Westminster to the infamous ‘Jungle’ refugee camp as French authorities moved to demolish it