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Who Speaks for the Refugee Children of Calais?

On a recent visit to the Calais ‘jungle’ with the Calais Sessions (1) musicians I found that I was with the kind of people who had worked alongside me when I co-founded War Child over 20 years ago and at the Pavarotti Music Centre in Bosnia. The same spirit, the same radical approach to ‘aid’, the same love and attention to the power of music as healer, as ‘bread for the soul’.

The Guardian reported on 20 April 2016 that, “hundreds of people are feared to have drowned in the southern Mediterranean last week, in what would be the deadliest migrant shipwreck in months.” This news was swamped ( pun intended ) by the news of Prince’s (artist formerly known as) death.

In recent years around 60 million people across the globe have fled their homes. Many of them have been running from the abyss of destruction, death and chaos our bombardier politicians have rained down on them.

In the last two years more than one million people have reached Europe; the continent’s biggest wave of mass migration since the end of the Second World War. 36% of them are children.

Those are the fortunate ones. At least four thousand people have drowned to date in the leftfieldMediteranean. An average of two children have drowned every day since September 2015 and 340 children, many of them babies and toddlers, have drowned in the eastern Mediterranean alone. UNHCR and UNICEF say the total number of children who have died may be much greater.

We all saw three year old Alan Kurdi’s body picked up off the beach. Luckier ones have been found floating on lilos. On shore they have been washed in puddles and wrapped in plastic to keep out the cold. Many have died from hypothermia and, among the living, many are ill. Most shockingly, Italian medics treating refugee children estimate that 50% are infected with sexual diseases.

There are at least ninety thousand unaccompanied children among the refugee population (a figure stated as understated by Save the Children at a meeting I attended in the House of Lords on 13 April 2016).

I have now visited the Calais ‘jungle’ twice. My first visit was with homeopathic practitioners and my second with musicians from The Calais Sessions. On both occasions we were welcomed with warmth and too many cups of sweet tea. The refugees were eager to talk about their lives and what had brought them so many thousands of miles from their homes.

How had they arrived on the channel coast? On EasyJet? Eurostar? Hired coaches? Some of them had walked across Western Europe. When you next fly or train it to southern Europe, look down at the ground. Walked?

Conditions in the Calais camp are diabolical, with cramped makeshift tents plagued by rats, water sources contaminated by faeces and inhabitants suffering from tuberculosis, scabies and post-traumatic stress. The homeopaths I went with visited numerous families. Only one didn’t have colds, coughs, sore throats or worse.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham, working with Doctors of the World, found a piped water tap to have unsafe levels of E coli and Coliform; both bacteria indicative of faecal contamination. ‘This study exposes the awful truth about the Calais refugee crisis’ – says Leigh Daynes, director of Doctors of the World, ‘that it is a humanitarian emergency of the first order in one of the world’s most thriving nations … Internationally agreed standards for the provision of aid and protection in refugee situations are nowhere to be found in Calais. That is a blight on the reputation of European states, who should and can do better, as they often do in refugee crises elsewhere.’

Many volunteers are working in Calais – doctors, nurses, musicians, youth workers at the Baloo Youth Centre and at the Jungle Books library. At the large and well organised warehouse mostly young people unload foods, clothing, medicines and sleeping equipments.

On my second visit I spent some of the time ‘teaching’ guitar, but quickly roles were reversed. After 30 minutes of C, G, A and F chords, Assi thanked me, smiled and asked if I’d like to learn Ethiopian Tizita pentatonic scales.

Atieyb had brought his guitar on the long journey north. It only had two strings. One young Syrian didn’t want to play guitar, but told me he liked to be close to music. ‘It gives me’, he said, ‘sanity’.

Why did he want to get to the UK. Most of his family had been killed – ‘I don’t want to talk about that, but my sister is in Bristol. I want to go there.’ Can anyone give me one reason why he shouldn’t?

His only chance right now is to find £5000 for the armed smuggling gangs whose white vans can be seen ‘hanging out’ on the surrounding roads. Guaranteed passage is £8000. But payment in cash and up front.

As in Greece there is little collated information on the camp’s inhabitants and none at all on unaccompanied minors. According to the EU Police Agency Europe (2) 10,000 of them have disappeared in Europe over the last two years. Of those missing in Calais, Libby Freeman of Calais Action (3) says, ‘Nobody knows where these vulnerable children have ended up.”

After the south camp at Calais was broken up in March 2016 Help Refugees (4) reported that ‘No alternative accommodation was provided for unaccompanied minors during the evictions, no assessment was made by the French authorities of their needs and no systems put in place to monitor them or provide safeguarding. There is no official regulation system for children in place in Calais or Dunkirk.’

This is an international emergency and it requires an international response. The House of Lords meeting was in support of Lord Alf Dubs campaign to admit 3000 unaccompanied children into the UK. All well and good. But only 3000! Bowing to this mild pressure and mealy-mouthed as ever, David Cameron announced on 4 May 2016 that the UK will take in more unaccompanied refugee children from Europe, although, as reported by the BBC, ‘ it has not committed to a specific figure.’

The Greek and Macedonian governments built a border fence in 36 hours. I was told at the meeting that, late last year, HMS Bulwark rescued 5,000 people from the sea. All credit, but only because the ship was in the area on its way home from the Gallipoli ceremony – an earlier inglorious episode. But both stories are evidence that big things can be achieved in a big way and quickly.

As the co-founder of the UK NGO, War Child, I have a few questions. I am aware that Médecins Sans Frontières is present in Calais and has helped resettle thousands in Dunkirk. That Save the Children have funded volunteer work in the camps, but that seems to be the sum of it. Why haven’t other NGOs, including the charity I helped establish, joined MSF and STC and become actively involved? If that is not possible for them then why are they not at least speaking out on this crisis?

Is it true they cannot get directly involved because they are waiting for the French and British governments to declare a humanitarian emergency? But doesn’t NGO translate as ‘NON-Government ?

A number of other questions. Does the French government take money from the UN to keep people at the camps, but do little or nothing in return? Is it true that the Calais camp has been partially, but not completely, destroyed so that this situation can continue? Is it true that with the destruction of the camp the French and UK governments might face court action? Maybe I am repeating rumours and perhaps my questions are naïve. I ask them anyway.

NGOs started coming to prominence during the rise of neoliberal ideology, enshrined in the Reagan-Thatcher years. The ‘free market’ was promoted with Thatcher’s ‘There is no such thing as society’. The answer? Government needed to be hands-off with public provision (healthcare, education, the lot) and NGO’s were the solution. In the ten years from 1975 – 1985 the amount of aid taking the NGO route shot up by 1,400%. Increasingly, governments looked to NGOs to provide cheap services, be it mental health provision or ‘overseas aid’ – a role that continues to grow with austerity policies.

In return government funds have become vital for many NGO’s, with aid charities accommodating themselves to both government and business donors. Their language today is all about forming partnerships with these interests, rather than challenging them.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, the secretary-general of Civicus, a global network of civil society organizations, has said: ‘We have become a part of the problem rather than the solution. Our corporatization has steered us towards activism-lite, a version of our work rendered palatable to big business and capitalist states. Not only does this approach threaten no one in power, but it stifles grassroots activism with its weighty monoculturalism.’

Arundhati Roy (5) takes this argument further: ‘Armed with their billions, these NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation … It’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs.’

Here are some figures for the CEO annual salaries of some NGOs engaged with refugee communities. British Red Cross, £220K, Amnesty International £210K, Save the Children UK £130K,, Comic Relied £130K, Oxfam £120K, Christian Aid £120K. The CEO of War Child, the charity I co-founded, gets £95K. (Figures from Third Sector and from War Child) (6)

Ten-Percent Foundation, (7) the charitable giver for Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment consider, rightly in my view, that a charity CEO’s absolute maximum salary should be £75K.

In this environment NGO’s advocacy on the part of the dispossessed is, at best, cautious. At its worst – compromised. It takes little guts and little money to say the situation we face on our frontiers is intolerable and that we need to do something about it.

It takes little guts and no money to speak up against the forcible detention of international volunteers from Aid Delivery Mission (8) at Indomeni on the Greece – Macedonia border. Their offence – cooking meals for the stranded refugees there.

When ‘Left Field‘ was launched in London, drummer Eugene Skeef – collaborator with Steve Biko and musical comrade from my time at the Pavarotti Music Centre in Bosnia performed with cellist Vanessa Lucas-Smith – one of the musical heartbeats of the Calais Sessions musicians They helped me complete my circle – the circle you can follow in ‘Left Field’.

And if you want to know who speaks for the children, listen to the music.

Notes.

1) Calais Sessions: http://www.thecalaissessions.com/

2) EU Police Agency: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/calais-jungle-unaccompanied-children-refugee-camp-demolition-minors-a6965216.html

3) Calais Action: https://www.facebook.com/calaisaction

4) Help Refugees: http://www.helprefugees.org.uk/

5) Arundhaty Roy: http://massalijn.nl/new/the-ngo-ization-of-resistance/

6) Third Sector: http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/charity-pay-study-highest-earners/management/article/1335060

7) Ten-Percent Foundation: http://www.ten-percent.co.uk/choosing-charities-to-donate-money-to-without-supporting-high-salaries-costs.pdf

8) Aid Delivery Mission: https://revolution-news.com/eu-detains-29-volunteers-for-working-with-refugees-in-greece/

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David Wilson is a co-founder of War Child and author of ‘Left Field‘ – published by Unbound and distributed by Penguin Books. He can be reached at: david@davidwilson.org.uk    

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