Contrasting Refugee Camps of Calais & Dunkirk

Andy Matheson, Panahpur Chairman, has a surprising reflection after visiting the refugee camps in Calais & Dunkirk earlier this month

It is often in the midst of suffering that we discover the strength of the human spirit. I have seen that with my own eyes on many occasions as those in situations that appear hopeless find the inner resources to do something that will make a difference to themselves and others. Most recently I saw that in Calais as migrants who had come from all over the world were camped out in tents, shacks and caravans all with the minutest chance of ever making it across the Channel. The human spirit was evident there in the number of enterprises launched in the midst of that transient community. People making a little money from cooking and serving food to the supply of hot water for showers and even some programmes of entertainment. The circumstances were basic but you can’t stop people having ideas or using their initiative when given the opportunity. In fact, the contrast from the Calais camp to the newly built government facility at Dunkirk could not have been starker. In Dunkirk everything was ordered and similar, from the small wooden houses to the queues for getting your food. In that camp everyone had what they needed in terms of food, clothing and shelter and the place was clean and tidy but there was also a sense in which people were being robed of their dignity. Here were people with nothing to do being served hot meals prepared and served by western volunteers. Yet, I bet you that in the queue for food were some outstanding cooks who would have loved the chance to prepare a meal for themselves and their fellow refugees.

When we give people the basics of life but not the opportunity to use their gifts and abilities or to think and plan and design we rob them of their humanity for we are all programmed to be creative – it’s a part of our nature. This is such a tension for those working in relief and development because the line between them can be so thin. Relief is the provision of the basics to enable people to live and not die but as soon as people have the basics required they soon become restless for the deeper more meaningful parts of their existence and then we are in a ‘development’ scenario. Good ‘relief’ work is about supplying what people need, good ‘development’ on the other hand is about never doing for someone what they can do for themselves. John McKnight in ‘The Careless Society’ talks about how in inner city America people are emasculated because a relief approach is in the on-going DNA of the government’s response to what is a ‘development’ scenario. As I left the Dunkirk camp those I travelled with asked me for my reflections on what I had seen. Now, my experience is in the Global South so I have no pretension to be an expert on Europe or the needs of refugees. My response was simply that having a large group of young men in a situation where everything they require to live is provided but where they have no opportunity to make a contribution is a ticking time bomb. Something will erupt at some point. Even those who have been through incredible trauma just to make it to France will, at some point, need the opportunity to create and contribute. That is why business and job creation and entrepreneurship is so important in building a better world.

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