A REFUGEE camp, the Jungle, home - muddy and basic, the ramshackle shelters of asylum seekers on the French coast have become well-known through news bulletins.

From summer 2015, when Prime Minister David Cameron referred to “swarms” of migrants attempting to cross to new lives in the UK, many delegations have visited the Jungle camp and others nearby.

This Easter, Professor Alison Phipps of the Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet) accompanied the SNP’s Justice and Home Affairs team at Westminster to Calais and Dunkirk in a four-day visit aimed at highlighting the current conditions and issues affecting camp inhabitants. The visit came as French authorities continued efforts to demolish part of the Jungle.

Amongst those attending were Home Affairs spokeswoman Joanna Cherry MP, Immigration lead Stuart McDonald and Civil Liberties spokeswoman Anne McLaughlin. Angela Crawley, SNP Equalities spokesperson, also took part, as did “Glasgow Girl”Amal Azzudin, herself a former refugee, and experts on mental health, forced migration and protection issues, as well as Phipps’s GRAMNet colleague Dr Teresa Piacentini.

Now back in Scotland, Phipps has written this account of the experience for The National.

IT was when I called my family at home and described kneeling on the floor in the church which now stands in the middle of a razed, bulldozed mudbath of rubbish and devastation that the tears came.

The sound of the bulldozers coming ever closer, the presence of the bodies draped in the white Eritean shawls (suria) at prayer beside me, the juxtaposition of the silent petitions of hope and peace alongside the violence of destruction and hopelessness were too much for the words which tried and failed to describe the scene. Witnessing became the witness of tears.

There have been many different fact-finding missions, visits to demonstrate solidarity and concern and humanitarian ventures to the flashpoints on the borders of Europe and also the border between France and the UK in Calais.

There have also been visits designed to threaten and deter migrants and refugees, as well as parachute visits that allow for photo opportunities.

A sustained series of visits from humanitarians and people in the public eye has enabled the situation in Calais to become a matter of public concern after years of obscurity. Those who have visited have included a range of SNP MPs from the Home Affairs Select Committee, academics, clinicians, campaigners and those who have long experience in working with refugees in Scotland.

At times of chronic humanitarian crisis, an active approach is that of bearing witness. Throughout the South African apartheid years courts, media, academic research, creative artworks and government chambers provided spaces for bearing witness to the ways in which justice was undermined and human rights were violated, revealing the structures at work to systematically destroy black lives and undermine resistance.

At times of acute concern and in the face of collapsing systems of justice and law in the European Union, where binding obligations are being set aside by states and local government in favour of security and emergency measures, the space for meaningful action is diminished.

Just this past fortnight, UNHCR and Médecins Sans Frontières have pulled out of working in “reception” facilities in Greece in protest at the policies of refoulement – the enforced return of refugees or asylum seekers to countries where they may face persecution. Visits to situations of conflict and chronic humanitarian need have occurred in various situations in recent years. During the Decade to Overcome Violence, the World Council of Churches organised visits to bear witness to the suffering of peoples in Palestine-Israel, in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, among others.

The visitors included those skilled in observation, writing, reporting, legal understanding, research, poetic practice and medical knowledge, who had as part of their professional practice the ability to document and reveal something of the suffering with credibility and understanding.

In the context of Calais there has been an extraordinary mobilisation of humanitarian aid from the UK, and especially from Scotland, with community groups leading where larger NGOs have been slow to follow and where local governments and states have failed to protect life and dignity.

In addition, politicians and also human-rights celebrities have engaged in awareness raising and solidarity visits which have highlighted the situation, and the BBC held Songs of Praise from the Calais church during the summer of 2015.

Meanwhile, MSF and Damien Careme, Mayor of the Grande-Synthe area , have begun the process of building a camp in the Calais area after the failure of the state and the local prefecture to act in accordance with their obligations. They have done so for a fraction of the cost of the container concentration camp put in place by state authorities under duress in Calais, and have done so non-violently and with a remarkably intelligent and striking approach which is distinctive and deserves the acclaim and interest it is beginning to attract even in these first three weeks.

THE presence of the camps in the Calais/Grande Synthe areas represented contested space for the state, the local administration and for local residents, as well as for the UK.

At times of great human suffering we see extraordinary courage and compassion. Communities across Scotland, and Europe, have led with creativity, practical action and costly generosity in Calais, Lesbos and in receiving communities. The people have led where larger institutions and some governments have been slow, reluctant and mired in outdated thinking and ineffective solutions.

At the same time we have witnessed a vicious rise in xenophobia and structural violence against refugees. This has happened in Europe before and we have much to learn from the lessons of history.

The last time Europe faced such numbers of refugees it failed. Facing its failure, the articles protecting human rights were created and these very articles are now in peril. The last time, the people of Europe said never again. When humans beings are caught up in systems which inflict great suffering upon them, people of conscience have a responsibility to bear witness.

When homes, livelihoods, dignity and lives are destroyed those of us with privilege and mandates should offer solidarity, practical action and learn from those with direct experience, rather than relying on second-hand assumptions.

Bearing witness is uncomfortable and provoking. It changes those who are witnesses, often profoundly, as others who have made such visits will testify. There is a need for us not to flinch from the acute discomfort, even anger and helplessness, of being witnesses to what, wittingly or unwittingly, our policies and voting habits, foreign and domestic, have done.

Alison Phipps is a professor with the Glasgow University/ Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)