The refugee crisis in Calais has again hit the headlines in recent months after the French government’s announcement of its intention to dismantle camps housing refugees near the Channel Tunnel. I spoke to Kosta Antonopoulos, Policy & Advocacy Adviser on Migration for Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF), on what the organisation does to help migrants and how the closure of camps, including The Jungle, will affect the situation.
According to Antonopoulos, the news that The Jungle would be closed quickly spread around the camp, bringing with it an atmosphere of ‘anxiety and uncertainty‘ among those who had been stranded at the site a long time with no definitive solution for their predicament. He expressed his concern that this had led to further disappointment and desperation for those people who were so close to ‘achieving their dreams’ of reaching the UK, and that such ‘uncertainty and disappointment’ has led to increased tensions between communities and individuals.
I next asked about the health problems MSF faces in the jungle, which Antonopoulos said differ for adults and children. He explained that MSF is supporting the most vulnerable groups within The Jungle, including women and unaccompanied minors, through a variety of different initiatives. These include outreach activities and psychological support programmes for those facing mental health issues. He added that MSF is currently working on a Youth Centre with other NGOs for minors in the Jungle that offers assistance including mental health support, access to legal information and other services. He expressed particular concern for the well-being of children, describing them as the most ‘vulnerable and threatened’ in the camp.
When asked about MSF’s plans after the complete closure of the camp, Antonopoulos explained that MSF plans will depend a lot on the actions of the French and the UK Governments as well as the European Union. He added that while MSF is not opposed to the closure of Calais, the organisation believes that any alternative solution must not take the form of an attempt to sweep the issue ‘under the rug’ – emphasising that the effect of the closure on groups such as unaccompanied children has yet to be seen.
I then asked about how the UK public could help. Antonopoulos urged voters to engage in discussions with their local councils and local MPs by sending letters to show them that the public are interested in a political solution to the refugee crisis. He suggested that participation in local events organized all around the country could show public support for the situation faced by refugees and present a ‘positive voice’ to counter ‘anti-immigrant negativity’ on the issue.
When asked whether anti-immigrant sentiment had proven a barrier to a successful response. Antopoulos said that the plight faced by migrants in Calais has not received the necessary level of ‘attention, compassion and solidarity’. He suggested that ‘fear and resentment’ on the part of local communities has been ‘fuelled’ by ‘punitive policies and hostile media’. Antonopoulos did acknowledge, however, that there was significant positivity and support from a ‘large swathe’ of society. He further explained that ‘several’ individual volunteers and groups are actively ensuring that the ‘right needs’ are addressed and covered sufficiently in the media.
In terms of the need for an international response, Antonopoulos urged both the British and French governments to to stop the blame and focus their efforts on finding a ‘long term lasting solution’. He described international law on the situation as clear and said that it needed to be followed through the implementation of ‘the right humane and fast-tracked procedures’, saying that this was simply a matter of exercising the political will and organization.