We read the headlines and are told the news. Endless death tolls, violence, poverty and war. We watch the commercials on television pleading for our help. It all seems so far away and so very easy to dismiss. We take our national security very seriously. We’re fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan, to bring peace and security to the forefront. Day after day and month after month, we see our soldiers sent home in caskets and we witness the aftermath and devastation. Still, the West seems largely unmoved by the ongoing tragedy and crisis. Maybe we have become desensitized or maybe it's because it seems to be a world away. But after spending a morning with Jonathan Turtle, I understood in a real way how much awareness and political willpower is urgently needed to help the plight of the refugees fleeing from these war torn areas. There is a price to war, not just in tax dollars and fallen soldiers, but a human price tag. One that far exceeds any kind of monetary value.
Jonathan Turtle aka JT, is a student at the University of Toronto, studying for his Masters Degree in Theology and Divinity. He's also spent time working within the community, reaching out and lending his time to children and youth, coaching and mentoring. When his local church asked him to come along on a mission trip to France, I don't think JT was prepared for what was in store. The team spent 22 days abroad, connecting with various faith groups and specifically doing outreach with the Roma, Afghan refugees and Muslim youth in Paris. Jonathan and the team also visited Calais, famously known as the Jungle, and were incredibly moved by the stories and experiences of the refugees making camps there.
Calais is a port city in France with ferries, cargo ships and trucks, and is a popular spot from which refugees launch the final leg of their journey. Many refugees’ passages to safety are perilous and often life-threatening. Some are smuggled in by human traffickers and have paid upwards of almost 15 grand. Some have families giving away all of their their money to get their sons and daughters to safety. Others are duped, sometimes dropped off in different countries than originally promised, while others are told they have to pay back traffickers for their escape. Most are hoping to make their way to the UK. Police and immigration officials have a strong presence in Calais and there are several security check points. Few refugees are successful.
Within Calais, there are large wooded areas and forests with different make shift camps set up through out. There were over two thousand people living there and the biggest camp had 1,500 residents. Its inhabitants were largely young men between the ages of 16- 26 and children as young as 10. Eritrean females were in fewer numbers due to the cultural atmosphere of their countries, not many could escape. Of the females who were living in the camps, they were well protected by some of the other men. Outreach organizations visited the Jungle a few times a week offering food and other basic necessities. With no official status within the EU or France, many are forced to live in squalor, resorting to prostitution and petty crime to survive. If caught trying to cross over to Dover, UK, refugees are sent back to their original point of entry, which is usually Greece and in some cases back to the war ravaged countries they escaped from. Unfortunately, Greece and most European countries don’t want any part of the refugee 'problem' either.
Jonathan met two young men in particular while on the mission, whose stories spoke to his spirit and stayed with him long after leaving France. I want to share these stories with you.
John, 17 was an Afghan refugee living in the Jungle. His father was involved with the Afghan Military. When John was 13, the Taliban came to their home and captured his father. With all of his siblings and extended family present, John's cousin was forced by Taliban soldiers to shoot John's father. The family was left devastated. Much rage, guilt and anguish ensued. With the ongoing threat of violence and murder by the Taliban and family crisis, John fled Afghanistan. His family members helped pay to get him out.
Farid, also a 17 yr old Afghan refugee (fourth from the left), was able to escape because of an uncle living in the UK, who helped pay for his trip from his war-torn homeland. Like so many countless others, Fareed's long and arduous journey ended in France. When Fareed was younger, his entire family and extended family were killed in an explosion. Fareed survived but lost his right arm. His ultimate goal was to join his uncle in the UK but sadly, instead, he ended up living on the streets in Paris. His entry to both France and the UK denied.
These are only two stories among thousands who are surviving amongst the most deplorable conditions. One migrant literally burned each of his finger tips in order to stop police and immigration from identifying him and sending him back. There were numerous stories that spoke of abuse at the hands of law enforcement and wide spread discrimination from most recieving European countries. The European Union is said to be tightening its borders and a lawyer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees calls the European system “unfair”.
What was even more shocking to Jonathan and the team was the police presence in most Parisian parks who did little else but observe. Street kids were frequently solicited by men for sex and some felt they had no other way to make money to survive. Boys were pointing out people in the streets and parks to the team, calling them "Bad Men". No arrests were ever made and no protection was offered to these obviously at risk youth. It seemed police were not concerned with arresting local pedophiles and clients, but were there to monitor the ‘illegals’ situation.
When I asked Jonathan if there was any one important message he could send to the world with hopes that they were really listening, he said this:
"It's really complex. In France, they do give out refugee status but they have a limit and quotas. The actual numbers of refugees are far greater than what most European governments allow. What we need to do is to really experience compassion and love for our fellow human beings. Realize that yes - they’re from another culture and another country that we are not familiar with, but we’re more similar than different. These sorts of situations should really move us and break our hearts, where humans are treated as less than humans.”
On September 22, 2009, France bulldozed the Jungle and detained more than 278 refugees calling them 'illegal migrants'. Some of those apprehended were children. There has been virtually no updates or information as to the fate and whereabouts of these vulnerable people. Both the European Union and the United Nations have done very little in terms of advocating their plight or educating the world about the aftermath of war. It cannot be illegal to be human. We must take action by spreading awareness, ending discrimination, and realizing that when we take on the enormous task of war for peace, we MUST accept responsibility for the people and families who are affected by it. We cannot criminalize innocent people for the simple act of trying to remain alive. A humane solution will come when politicians and world leaders garner the will and support to do something about it. Upon hearing news of the eviction, Jonathan and the team were affected deeply. They continue to speak out and will return for another mission next summer.
Afghanistan, Human Rights, Political Asylum