Refugees have seen the world at its worst – we must show compassion

PUBLISHED: 14:53 19 August 2020 | UPDATED: 14:53 19 August 2020

Patrick Ward has reported from numerous refugee camps during his career, but was hardest hit by an assignment to the Calais refugee camp known as The Jungle. Picture: PA Archive/PA Images

A general view of the entrance to The Jungle refugee camp in Calais, France.

Patrick Ward has reported from numerous refugee camps during his career, but was hardest hit by an assignment to the Calais refugee camp known as The Jungle. Picture: PA Archive/PA Images A general view of the entrance to The Jungle refugee camp in Calais, France.

PA Archive/PA Images

Archant print journalist Patrick Ward asks why the UK isn’t doing more to help refugess trying to enter the country

It’s just over five years now since the world saw the heartbreaking images of little Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy from Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, lying face down, lifeless, on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey.

He was a child, born into a brutal world, whose family believed that his best chance in life was to board a dangerous raft to seek a new life, one without bombs but hopefully with opportunities, in Europe.

As more desperate people attempt to seek a better life in the UK, taking the treacherous journey across the Channel in vessels that would be unsafe in a swimming pool, we can only hope that there won’t be any similar horror images from our beaches. But, I fear, there will. And they will be entirely avoidable.

The pure, unfiltered hatred from some quarters, boosted by sections of the media and political establishment, against refugees reaching British shores can feel like a punch in the gut, as can the TV news camera crews chasing the vessels as they cross the Channel, as if they were participating in a water sport.

I have reported from various refugee and displacement camps over the years: in Palestine in 2004 and 2009, on the Libyan border during the 2011 war, and in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake. All had their fair share of horrors.

But the assignment that hit me hardest wasn’t in some far-off place. It was in Calais in 2016, and the “Jungle” camp. It hit me because it was, literally, so close to home.

It was ankle-deep in mud, fires raged as French police tore down what passed as the homes of those living there, huge rats scampered underfoot, a man led his small child, clutching a toy, away from the smoke, attempting to bypass a line of tooled-up police officers. Children, covered in dirt, tried to hide, as families desperately tried to carry their meagre belongings away – to where? – before the authorities could bulldoze them into the dirt.

Some were children. Many were children. Lots had family in the UK but thanks to those stirring fear in our country, they were not allowed to cross that final stretch of water to reach somewhere safe they could call home. They had run away from everything they had – work, family, possessions – and the fanciful images in their heads of a welcoming, generous Europe had been savagely beaten out by reality.

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No, not all were fleeing war, some were fleeing poverty, hoping to find honest work. Economic refugees. This still seemed like the only option. Many could show me scars from where they had been beaten by state forces while crossing places like Hungary, others showed me the scars of torture from their own country.

“Why Britain?” I would ask. Sometimes family, sometimes because the other countries on the route just didn’t want them, and they thought Britain would be kinder. And despite the current scare stories and misinformation, we should remember that France and Germany have both taken in more than double the asylum seekers Britain has.

When visiting a separate refugee camp in Berlin, dozens of Syrians would duck in terror whenever a plane flew over – I will leave it to your imagination as to why. They had experienced trauma that is almost unimaginable.

They were from all walks of life, teachers, doctors, students, mechanics. Normal people like you and me, but for whom life had dealt a different hand.

Most asylum seekers entering the UK will be given around £5 per day to live on, and they don’t risk their lives to take our precious Universal Credit. Yet our government’s response is to ask the Navy to stop the crossings, and for Priti Patel to have her photo taken on a Border Force boat, showing her muscular resolve to tabloids owned by the wealthy and privileged. What pandemic?

And no one seemed to notice until Nigel Farage started breaking lockdown regulations to stalk those arriving on Kent’s beaches.

Many of the politicians now grandstanding about “protecting our borders” or even talking of an “invasion” have also been the first to call for war on the very places many of these people come from, no matter the cost. How cheap to call for destruction, and how costly to call for compassion.

The fact that around 4,000 people have made the crossing this year, while perhaps 60,000 here have died of coronavirus, makes this diversionary, manufactured panic even more gut-wrenching.

If we are such a fine, great, generous nation, why are some so terrified of a few boats of people desperately asking us for help? Are we that insecure? Are we that cruel?

Don’t we realise that if it hadn’t been for accident of birth, these people could be us?

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