January 18, 2018
I’ve visited the wretched refugee camps in Darfur and I’ve walked around post-earthquake Haiti. But in all my years of working in aid and development, I’ve never been as shocked as the day I met a group of 10-year-old Syrian boys, riddled with scabies, huddled together in a rain-sodden ditch under scraps of tarpaulin.
Alone and afraid, these boys, all orphans, weren’t in Lebanon or Jordan but in a remote field 20 minutes’ drive from Calais, close to a service station where lorries stop.
Right now, migrants in Calais continue to live in diabolical conditions, suffering awful health problems as a result. These include serious skin problems, gangrene, breathing difficulties and severe cases of diarrhea.
Increasingly we, the charity Doctors of the World, treat patients who have shattered bones after falling from trucks, who have been slashed by razor wire climbing fences or have been beaten up.
With needs ever increasing, we’ve launched an emergency response in Calais, just as we would in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Our doctors and nurses, working in mobile clinics, provide essential medical consultations but also psychological support for the many migrants traumatised by their experiences.
The question begged by all this is why, while governments on all sides dither, are charities being forced to play this role in one of the richest corners of western Europe?
What we do, although essential, is by no means sustainable and is no more than a sticking plaster on a problem that many media commentators would have us believe Britons are sick of.
And since the dominant discourse about Calais is security, immigration and economics, endless politicised posturing is only exacerbating the problem. Our repeated request that a small proportion of the UK taxpayers’ money being sent to beef up security in Calais be spent on essential medical care goes unanswered by ministers.
Higher fences and more sniffer dogs won’t solve the Calais crisis. The number one priority for EU leaders should be to fix Europe’s broken asylum and immigration system. Put simply, asylum claims must be processed quicker and more refugees need to be resettled.
As the French and British governments point at each other, ordinary people are stepping up to raise money for those living in horrendous conditions in Calais. We’ve been overwhelmed by the response of those who’ve not just sent us donations but have set up their own crowdfunding pages on JustGiving.
It is bizarre that this needs to happen but EU governments consistently fail to meet their obligation to protect and assist vulnerable people who find themselves on their territory.
While the blame games and negative rhetoric persist, organisations like ours will continue to assert that the humanitarian imperative comes first: the right to receive, and to provide, assistance and protection. Even in western Europe.
It is in no one’s interest, not least unaccompanied orphans who are far from home, for this crisis to continue.
Doctors of the World is currently the only aid organization providing medical care in Calais.