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In search of rights for human refugees

The media spotlight on Calais may have dimmed, but refugees in Northern France are still struggling to secure even the most basic of their human rights. And behind the scenes, volunteer groups are doing everything they can to create a safe space where humans are treated as humans.

What was once ‘The Jungle,’ a makeshift home for refugees, is now a patch of empty land scattered with reminders of the people who set up camp here: a child’s shoe, a football, a partially submerged tent now coated with a layer of green moss. Now, new refugees arriving in Calais are being further displaced, and have nowhere to create a base. They spend their nights in the open air, sleeping in the forest or under bridges or around the town. They are denied even the basic right of shelter, let alone suitable housing.

A wasteland at the back of an industrial estate has become a makeshift base, where an array of different cultures and people - each with individual and painful stories - come together into one space. Here, volunteer groups work together to support these refugees with whatever it is in their power to offer: a meal, water, or information about asylum from someone they can trust.

Humans for Rights Network

“The spraying happens nearly every night. The police come up to us while we are sleeping and spray us. They spray all over our faces, and into our eyes,” a 17-year-old Eritrean boy in Calais tells Human Rights Watch, a global organisation which has recently released a report about police abuses in Calais.

It says that nearly every asylum seeker or migrant it spoke to reported frequent use of pepper spray by police under circumstances that indicate the force that was used was excessive.

Police violence, a lack of information, and being denied access to asylum are just some of the abuses that refugees across Europe are being subjected to, and many of the people forced from their home countries are also being torn apart from their families.

While the rest of the world debates and discusses the ‘refugee crisis,’ the people at the centre of it are being denied a voice. The Humans for Rights Network is working hard to provide that voice, while addressing human rights abuses and paving the way for change.

The organisation is collecting testimonials and personal accounts of abuses. As the collection grows, it will become a body of irrefutable evidence.

The first step on the long road towards justice is developing a multi-language system where incidents of rights abuses can be logged. Volunteers, grassroots groups, NGOs, citizens, and refugees themselves will be able to use the system, by uploading photos, videos, audio, and text.

Maddie Harris has single-handedly set up the Humans for Rights Network, and is almost completely self-funded, spending a would-be house deposit on the project. After volunteering in refugee camps in Europe for a long time, this was something, she says, she simply felt she had to do. She’s now searching for more people to help her expand the project.

She does not want abuses to be forgotten, and the path to change may lie in the recorded evidence. She explains: “Everything here becomes incredibly normalised. A kid will tell you the first time they’re tear gassed, but they won’t tell you the seventeenth time.”

She has had a positive reaction, but asking for testimonials is a delicate process, and she says many people worry that speaking up and out could adversely affect their asylum claim.

“It’s this awful situation where people are so afraid. It seems like such a faraway dream to be safe and be protected that people almost forget about the things that are happening to them while they try to reach that point,” she says. “We need people to feel like it’s worth telling us when something’s happened.”

With the Jungle dismantled, there is a lack of private space where Maddie can build relationships and talk with refugees. Before, there were make-shift schools, libraries, and shelters. Now, there is nothing but the bare ground. Without a camp, people are dispersed more widely, which means there is the potential for more abuses to happen out of sight.

Maddie says: “I have concerns about the lack of focus on these kinds of rights abuses and about the fact that they are now so ‘normalised’ they don’t exist. The Human Rights Act means very little right now, and I think that’s a really scary place to be.”

Phase two of the project involves putting the collected information to work, and trying to impact the situation. Whether the evidence goes to lawyers, policymakers, or the media, will be determined by the kind of information the network collects.

There is another purpose to the work, and one which puts the power back in the hands of those experiencing abuses. In addition to documenting what is happening, the testimonies also act as a collection of personal records. The information will always be there, ready for when a victim of abuse wants to seek justice.

Maddie says: “These are people’s individual experiences as well as an illustration of the disregard for people’s human rights as a whole in Europe. Both are equally important.”

Refugee Youth Service

“At every stage kids get inaccurate information from people who are very biased,” says Refugee Youth Service volunteer Michael McHugh, referring to the smugglers and the people traffickers who are never far away.

Some human rights are harder to see, but just as vital. The Refugee Youth Service brings the Youth Bus to the distribution point every day to offer support to young people.

In all that it does, the charity is trying to make safer spaces for children on the move; increasing access to child welfare systems and family reunification services is naturally a vital part of this work.

In the Jungle, a youth centre provided a safe space. Mentors were on hand, education was available, and there was even a pool table. As the camp was demolished, the Refugee Youth Service was on hand to help safeguard children and unaccompanied minors. A lot has changed since then, and there is no longer a permanent space dedicated to this work. However, work carries on to ensure that young migrants are not entirely invisible.

The volunteers are building relationships with young people that they can trust, and offering them an ear, information, or a chance to simply play table tennis. They try to have conversations with the young people about French asylum, and raise awareness about the risk of child sexual exploitation and people trafficking.

Refugee Community Kitchen

Chef Alice Russell has swapped kitchens in the UK for a kitchen in Calais. She gave up a full-time job to become a full-time volunteer, and now cooks for 2,500 people a day, creating huge vats of curries, fragrant with the spices of Syria, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan. She has also spent time volunteering in both Greece and Serbia and says by working with cooking and distributing the food in the camps, she gets the chance to meet some incredible people.

Food is one of the most basic needs of human life, but it wields another significant power in its ability to bring people from diverse backgrounds together. For a few fleeting moments twice a day, a community springs up, as meals are served by the Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK).

The charity provides two hot meals a day to refugees across Calais and Dunkirk. From the back of a van, volunteers serve large portions of rice topped with nutritious curries and salads. The spices, sauces, and vegetables change every day in an attempt to respect and accommodate the culinary preferences of the different cultures living in the region.

As mealtimes bring people together, communal activities also spring into action. A group of younger men play a game of football with as much determination as if it were any normal day - and as if they were not refugees.

A few men climb into the front of the RCK van, and blast out music through the speakers. As Katy Perry and Sia fill the camp with the same songs topping the UK charts, both volunteers and refugees sing along to the same beat.

These groups are fighting to put human rights into action, and prevent individual experiences from being reduced to statistics. And through their work and determination, the refugees of Northern France are not yet forgotten.

Refugees queue for water
The site of the old Jungle in Calais
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