Friday, 16 September 2016

Refugees Welcome Here: The Power of People by Tess Berry-Hart

One year ago this month 100,000 of us marched on Parliament after the first devastating photos of toddler Alan Kurdi lying drowned on a Turkish beach came out and the world woke up to the true horror of the refugee crisis. This Saturday 17 September, thousands of us will march again and rally outside Westminster to mark one year on - will you join us?

Refugees Welcome Here: September 2015 march
After Brexit and the poisonous debate around immigration this year, it's more important than ever that we make our voices heard to the government. Next week the UN and the Obama summits on migration and refugee issues will start - and we must demand that more is done: to extend the Government's commitment to resettlement, to remove obstacles such as red tape and bureaucracy from safe and legal routes to asylum such as family reunification, and for more to be done to help those refugees in the UK rebuild their lives, so that when the time comes they can rebuild their countries. 

This year the march is backed by over 50 organisations such as Amnesty and Action Aid (including my volunteer group Calais Action) and this time the speakers will be politicians, celebrities and refugees. We are assembling at 12.30 at the south end of Park Lane, London, before a march and rally outside Westminster

Calais camp: photo by Calais Action
We cannot say that the refugee crisis has been dealt with well this year by politicians and statesmen. Last year as a direct result of the strength of public feeling towards the plight of refugees, they promised that 20,000 refugees would be resettled over 5 years. However the figures of acceptances per quarter are lagging far behind what should be expected and more must be resettled in order to get the Government on track. In other areas, the Goverment's terror of "pull-factor" - ie any measure to improve the lot of refugees in Europe that might encourage "more refugees to come" - means that policy decisions have been draconian. The EU-Turkey deal deporting refugees wholesale back to an unsafe country, the neglect of 100,000 refugees living rough in Greece, the stonewalling of child refugees in Calais, the allocation of £2 million to build a wall in Calais, and the shameful refusal of EU member states to accept their responsibilities have all contributed to a crisis of global proportions.

Refugee children sleep in Samos (Calais Action)
The best news from this year is the huge wave of support that has emerged from ordinary EU citizens - who have formed small grassroots charities, people-to-people groups and solidarity organisations - and have brought collected aid and raised money for refugees across Europe.

As some of you will know, I've been volunteering in the refugee crisis with Calais Action for one year now. Last August I opened collections in my house in north-west London for refugees in Calais - then went away for the weekend. When I came back to 213 new messages in 48 hours I knew something big must have happened - the horrific pictures of Alan Kurdi had hit the headlines. 

My front room, September 2015

I know that many of us were all caught up in the huge wave of empathy and need for action - I remember that all of a sudden everybody from all walks of life appeared on my doorstep every day for a month - the youngest donor was two, bringing bags of sweets, and the oldest was ninety-six, who had cleared out the provisions of her own little pantry to help feed refugees in Calais. Overwhelmed by sacks of donations, I sent out an alarm call for volunteers and was deluged with help - from a whole spectrum of society including neighbours, former child refugees, economic migrants, taxi drivers, businesswomen, grandmothers, singers, actors, lawyers. If ever there was an antidote to the horror of the refugee crisis then the sheer wealth of humanity and the response of so many good people was definitely the tonic.

Calais Action Warehouse 2015
I'd thought I'd collect a van of stuff for my first trip to Calais in September, but the collection in my front room had grown to such epic proportions that I had to relocate it into a nearby priest's house and garden, and when the priest wanted his house back many Calais Action collections were having the same problem!  We opened a warehouse in Crystal Palace, where over the next months teams of dedicated people would sort, box, chuck, recycle, and load aid for Calais, Greece. Unsuitable but good stuff was sent to projects all around the UK. For months my feet did not touch the ground!

It wasn't all rosy, of course. As for most of us, it was learning on the job - what was/ wasn't needed for Calais/ Greece/ Hungary, how to pack a pallet, how many pallets into a container, how to fill out a shipping manifest, is this Greek island big enough to handle this volume of stuff, and that nobody apart from British people appreciated baked beans. Few people I met were trained aid workers and the high pressure and sheer volume of stuff meant I was tired and irritable a lot of the time. The constant dramas in Calais and Greece meant that needs were often changing, but when you see what was achieved in making so many camps all over Europe habitable with functioning food and distribution systems over the following months, it seems like one of the huge achievements of humanity.

Calais Action Warehouse, 2015
Like many people, I would have been amazed if, back then, you'd have told me that I'd be still working on the refugee aid effort a year later. If I thought anything, it was that we needed to plug the gap for a few weeks or months until the powers-that-be stepped in to sort the situation out. 

That obviously didn't happen, and it seems amazingly naive now to think that it would, but back then it seemed inconceivable that our governments would so lack the will to help those fleeing their own countries that it would be willing to let people die on its shores or freeze in its fields. But as more and more people lobby, march and campaign for better rights for refugees, safe passage and legal routes to asylum, and support and resettlement for refugees to rebuild their lives, the more we can change. 
Please, come and march with us tomorrow, Saturday 17 September - and make your voice heard. For more details here's the Facebook event: 

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