In the weeks since the coronavirus crisis began, our language has transformed to catch up with the world we are now living in. Words and phrases previously unheard of, or infrequently used, have come to dominate our thoughts and our conversations. ‘Vulnerable people’ is one such phrase. Though the narrative around this vulnerability is complex, and has been significantly shaped by problematic ageist and ableist prejudices, overall there has been a recognition that we have a duty to protect certain people in our society. Distancing measures aim to shield at-risk groups, whilst the government has made some concessions to help those most vulnerable to both the virus and its consequences, in paying some wages and making moves to house homeless people. However, there is a group which – unsurprisingly – has been entirely neglected.
On Greek islands and in European towns, refugees remain in both formal and informal camps. The mitigation measures most of Europe is currently adhering to – social distancing, isolation, hand washing – are meaningless to people living in tents, without access to running water. Refugees have been, and continue to be, neglected, mistreated, dehumanised. Whilst whole countries shut down, they are being shut out.
The British border is drawn in Calais, and there are currently around 3,000 refugees living close to that line in Northern France. These people are doing quite literally the opposite of social distancing – they are living in close proximity, squeezed into tents, spending the majority of their time together, outside. In Grand-Synth, five to six hundred people, including forty families, live in a dilapidated warehouse. There are no toilets, no showers. To tell these people to isolate, to social distance, is a joke.
These people are some of the most vulnerable. Sleeping outside, they already suffer from respiratory problems. Exhausted and exposed to the elements, their immune systems are compromised. Illness in the camps is common. A small medical team operate on the ground, but their resources and care-giving capacities are limited. As of writing, nine cases of Covid-19 have been identified in the camps. Without mitigation measures, this translates to three hundred cases within a month. This would worsen an already harrowing humanitarian crisis.
Right now, a lack of food is a significant concern. Refugee Community Kitchen, which has served hot meals since the days of the Jungle, has ceased operations. The French government are currently providing people with a ham and cheese sandwich, a yoghurt, and an apple each day. The inadequacy of this is astonishing – not only is this not enough to sustain a person, it is completely inappropriate for Muslim refugees.
The French authorities have begun to transfer people to centres. As is unsurprising to anyone with knowledge of the situation in Northern France, very few have taken up this offer. With good reason, refugees deeply distrust French authorities. When I was in Calais last summer, camp clearances were a daily occurrence. The CRS – the French riot police (whose riot gear, and arms, are funded by our government) – would arrive in the early morning. They would slash tents, rendering them unusable. They would smash phones. Police violence is endemic, and brutal. Broken bones, bruised bodies – the relentlessness and the misery of the pain inflicted in unimaginable. They are dehumanised in every way possible – when it isn’t violence, it is humiliation, it is harassment, it is degradation of every conceivable form. Major camp clearances would happen every few weeks – hundreds of people moved on, packed into buses and dispersed around the country. These people have nowhere else to go – within days they returned. To be a refugee in Calais is to be treated as less than human. They are exhausted, they are scared. Would you, if you feared deportation, feared state-inflicted violence, board a bus to an unknown location, organised by the very people who treat you like animals? In Calais, fear of the virus is strong, but fear of the authorities, of the police, is far, far stronger.
It is hard to imagine that the inhumanity endured by refugees could worsen, and yet that is exactly what is happening. Care4Calais, a charity operating in Northern France and Brussels, prioritises treating refugees with empathy and respect. Previously, they provided a barber set, played football, and served hot drinks and biscuits. Last summer, I made hundreds of cups of tea and coffee a day. I loved this, simply for the fact that a chat and a hot drink can make someone’s day, constituting a small brightness for a person facing constant degradation (a chocolate biscuit, most importantly, has the incredible power to lift anyone’s spirit). Care4Calais has been forced to end all services other than basic distribution of food. On top of this, social distancing means volunteers must separate themselves. Secours Catholique, a wonderful organisation which offered refugees a place to relax, play games, use wifi, has been forced to shut its doors. All of us are struggling with our sudden isolation, the absence of human contact – for refugees, this virus means a furthering of their segregation from the rest of society and a deepening of their already profound alienation.
The situation in Northern France – and Brussels, Bosnia, Lesvos – is something we should all be ashamed of. As borders shut around the world and the fear of the Other, already so prevalent in our society, heightens as a result of the virus, I am fearful for what this will mean for refugees. Right now we struggle to see past anything but the virus, yet other crises rumble on – the assault on Syrian people continues, sanctions in Iran take greater hold, instability intensifies in Afghanistan. As long as such crises remain unresolved, people will continue to flee. In 2015, we failed to respond with empathy, or even basic humanity. Yet maybe, as we sit scared in our houses, watching as our society morphs before our eyes and our economy accelerates towards collapse, we will begin to finally understand what it is for a person to run, to fear so greatly for their life that they decide they are better off on a boat, better off enduring the brutal borders of Fortress Europe – the deadliest border in the world – than remain in their homeland.
We must be vigilant to the co-opting of this crisis by those who wish to harden borders and exclude those deemed undesirable, even when those people are themselves enduring crises incomprehensible to us. Prior to this crisis, anti-immigration sentiment had reached fever pitch. The virus is going to have a lot of terrifying consequences in our society, but one of the most alarming will be the further demonisation of the racialised Other and the legitimation of exclusionary, racist borders. We all have a responsibility to resist this, and to ensure that those least able to defend themselves are not harmed further, dehumanised further, in the months and years to come.
One of the best things we can do is keep ourselves informed, and ensure that these people are not forgotten.
You can also donate to Care4Calais, who continue to provide food in Calais, or to Medicines Sans Frontieres, who remain on the frontlines, protecting both refugees and people in countries such as Syria and Yemen.