The refugee crisis: will the EU make it or break it? My reflections of volunteering in the “Jungle”, Calais

By Liza Kummrow, PhD Candidate in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University

In light of the current refugee crisis, Europe is struggling to cope with accommodating all the thousands of refugees who arrive at the European border everyday. The idea of a united European Union (EU) that shares common values such as human rights and the protection and integration of minorities has slowly begun to fall apart.

With some countries like Denmark wanting to impose stricter asylum laws or Sweden temporarily closing its borders to immigrants, it can be seen that Europe appears very much divided when it comes to the refugee crisis. In Hungary, Poland and France right-wing populists parties have gained and continue to gain electoral success. In Germany for instance, in light of a spate of attacks on German citizens by asylum seekers, there has been much debate on this controversial topic, with increasing support for the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) whose leader Frauke Petry called for illegal immigrants to be shot at the border if necessary. As a result, the sentiment towards refugees is strained, especially with the negative discourse that is being reproduced around them.

Having closely followed the recent developments in Europe, I decided to volunteer in the so-called “Jungle” in Calais with a few of my friends. As soon as we arrived in one of the warehouses in Calais, I was overwhelmed by the masses of donations that not only came from France but also Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. I did not have much time to gather my thoughts, as I suddenly found myself in the middle of the warehouse sorting out food donations into bags that would later be distributed to the people in the camp. After a hard day full of work, we came back bright and early the next day motivated to start working. The day started with a briefing in which we were informed about a massive demonstration that was going to take place on Sunday the 31st of January and held by right-wing extremists. Therefore, we needed to take as much food and clothes into the camp as possible, as we would not be able to go into the camp on the day of the demonstration.

What I was quite shocked about was the fact that prior to the actual demonstration, four refugees had been attacked so severely that they still are in intensive care in the hospital. We were also made aware that even volunteers have been targeted and that we should be particularly cautious when walking around in Calais. Previously, even the warehouse itself became a scene of vandalism, as extremists tried to set it on fire. So, here I was in Calais asking myself if that is really what our society has come to: dehumanizing refugees by reproducing a negative discourse which serves as a platform for hatred against them. Too often the opposite side of the story is ignored, namely that these refugees are people just like us who dream of a better life. They do not choose to be in the situation they are in, but are forced to leave their country of origin be it through war or persecution. Whatever the reason for leaving their home, they come to Europe in hope of a safe place to build a new life. Leaving these people in the camp without any perspective a solution leaves them de-facto stateless.

With all this in mind, I could not imagine how it would be like in the camp when I went to distribute the donated food parcels. I was surprised and shocked at the same time. Surprised because the camp has actually developed into a proper small town that is currently hosting six thousand refugees. And in any community of such high number, it is inevitable that people begin to restructure their lives by starting small businesses and building the infrastructure necessary to recreate a fully functioning society. Not only have they been able to do this, but the symbol of their peaceful co-existence was for sure the fact that the church and the mosque were placed right next to each other as a demonstration of tolerance and respect for different religious views. When I saw this I thought this is the Europe I want to live in, one in which people are respected and treated equally regardless of religion or race. Sadly, due to the forced relocation imposed by the French government, these religious sites were deliberately destroyed just a few days ago. The aim is to relocate all the refugees into (very small) containers where they will start their application processes. In practice, this means that their only option for asylum is France. This has been met with protests from the refugees. They are in a situation in which they are losing their freedom of movement as well as the (precarious) forms of subsistence that they were able to build in the camp.

But, what is the solution? Is it right to keep those wanting to seek asylum segregated from our society? How is integration going to be possible if we do not teach them the foundation of our European values that have to be respected and tolerated? I do not know the solution to this current state of uncertainty. But what I know for sure is that relocating refugees into container camps cannot be a solution.