Out of sight, out of mind? A trade unionist reports on the plight of “forgotten” refugees in northern France

Congolese refugee Isiah (left) with CWU rep Prince Kingsley-Faborode. Pic y Fevzi Hussain

A two-month period at the end 2018 saw a reported 221 refugees cross the English Channel in boats barely fit to row in a lake, never mind cross what is one of the world’s busiest stretches of water. This prompted the Home Secretary to declare a “major incident”. 

The plight of refugees has been negatively reported in large parts of the mainstream media and has fuelled the horrible rhetoric used by the far-right. Instead of extending our arms and welcoming these vulnerable people to our shores, our government chooses to use them as political footballs. 

I have been fortunate enough to visit refugees in northern France on numerous occasions. I am a GMB representative in the London Region but I am also employed by the CWU as a policy assistant. My last visit was last month where a group of reps from the CWU went over to assist the wonderful work being done by the charity Care4Calais. 

Temperatures have dipped and the conditions are beyond what I would describe as cruel. On this particular day in question we handed out more than 300 pairs of shoes and socks. Some of the refugees were queuing in their flip-flops. This was the only footwear to their name. Others wore t-shirts – there is no need for large sized clothing. The refugees are all wasting away – they are literally dying.

One of the usual excuses we hear from those unwilling to accept the plight of refugees is that we have no room in our country. Quite a bizarre thing to say as on our way to Folkestone the rambling countryside was void of any people. I met a Labour councillor who was also out helping with the charity and she shared with me her frustration as councils who wanted to take on more refugees but apparently the machinery to facilitate this was not in place.

Every visit to northern France leaves me feeling angry that these people have been let down so badly by humanity. My anger is also matched by admiration and inspiration to see these people who refuse to give up. I met a young Iranian Christian who walked most of the way to Calais from Tehran.

Then there was a young Congolese man who walked through nine African countries to get to Libya and then undertook a treacherous journey on what was allegedly supposed to be a boat, across the Mediterranean, to an Italian port, before completing the rest of the journey on foot. I have never met a bogus refugee in all my trips to Northern France. These people are escaping conflict, persecution and oppression and are deserving of our support. 

Care4Calais is always looking for more volunteers and I would strongly recommend a trip over to Calais and getting hands on with the charity. It will be one of the most rewarding things you are likely to do in a long time.

  • Fevzi Hussein is a life-long trade unionist. He specialises in helping on issues around equality and discrimination in his role at the CWU. He is also heavily involved in his local Turkish Cypriot community with the latest campaign he is involved in being TPCAG (Tottenham Park Cemetery Action Group). In his spare time he follows Arsenal and breeds newts. He tweets at @fevzihussein 

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