‘We identify ourselves as human beings’ If it passes without amendment, the Nationality and Borders Bill will put UK law in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention by criminalising people who arrive on these shores without a visa — even when they have a legitimate claim for asylum under international law.

On Monday I will hop onto a train and then into a car and travel down to St Austell for the beginning of the second longest bike ride of my life and the first that has required more than a few days’ planning.

Spell It Out, a 2,400km world record-breaking ride across the south of England, began as a hypothetical exercise during the Thighs of Steel Adventure Inventor application process back in March. Finally, after five months of intense communication, organisation and logistics, the cycling begins.

It’s a huge relief.

Compared to the uncertainty of sitting in front of a computer screen trying to convince people to go on a long bike ride, actually going on that long bike ride will feel like a doddle. Even when the elevation chart looks like this:

Since we launched the Spell It Out fundraiser in May, over fifty cyclists have collectively raised more than £24,600 for Choose Love. We’re still some way off our target of £100,000, but I can feel the momentum building: we’ve raised nearly a grand in the past twenty-four hours.

~

I had an interesting chat this morning with a friend who works for Fat Macy’s, a wonderful social enterprise currently raising funds to open a new training academy in East London.

We were talking about how charities, social enterprises and other projects that do what we called ‘meaningful work’ get funding, bemoaning the fact that it often depends on the indulgence of wealthy individuals or companies.

‘High net worth’ funders are the lifeblood of many charities and their directors and trustees will spend a significant amount of their time schmoozing with those who have spent their lives earning the big bucks and now want to ‘give something back’.

Thighs of Steel has always been different. We don’t actively seek wealthy backers and we deliberately set our ticket prices low, widening participation to include people who are unlikely to have high net worth networks of privilege.

We think it is important that we have ninety cyclists with big hearts rather than ten cyclists with deep pockets.

Because human beings are important.

~

Researching this story earlier today, I was struck by the words of lawyer Jack Pelele, writing on Refugee Action about his experience as a refugee in the UK asylum system:

We must remember that behind our numbers and the fateful journeys we go through, we are people who have dreams, identify ourselves as human beings who were once useful to ourselves and our communities and can still be. Our value and worth do not end in victimhood or burden to those from whom we seek sanctuary.

Hang on — ‘we identify ourselves as human beings’ — I’m sorry, but how othered do you have to feel before you find yourself forced to assert your very humanity?

Well, funny you should ask. You see, Spell It Out has taken on a whole new level of urgency in recent weeks, as the government pushes forward with its barbaric overhaul of the asylum system.

If it passes without amendment, the Nationality and Borders Bill will put UK law in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention by criminalising people who arrive on these shores without a visa — even when they have a legitimate claim for asylum under international law.

In practice, there are no legal routes to asylum in the UK. And the only alternatives to legal routes to asylum are illegal. This government, and the right wing press, depend on this tauntology to justify their existence.

Tightening border control forces people into ever more desperate and dangerous routes to safety and the proposed bill will not only criminalise refugees themselves, but also any organisations or individuals who try to offer them safe harbour — including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

And this comes on top of an asylum system that is already founded on detention and destitution.

How’s that for othering?

~

Thighs of Steel aren’t politicians, we’re not law-makers — we’re cyclists.

Over the next month, forty more cyclists will hit the road and help us create the world’s largest ever GPS drawing, on a route that spells out ‘Refugees Welcome’ from Cornwall to Kent.

Without big money backers, our ninety-plus cyclists depend on a solidarity network of hundreds, thousands of friends and followers stumping up £5, £10, £50 of their hard-earned.

It’s true that one millionaire can single-handedly transform the fortunes of a struggling project stripped of funding by the pandemic.

But thousands of small-time donors generate enough energy to show the world that the people of Britain still believe in compassion to those facing tragedy.

We think that’s important.

Because we also identify as human beings.

DONATE HERE

~

Many thanks to everyone who are making Spell It Out possible: the hard-working Thighs of Steel clan; the hosts we’ll be staying with, from Warmshowers and Workaways to farmers and friends; St Austell Holy Trinity Church for helping us with our Grand Depart and Migrant Help for meeting us at the finish line in Dover.

And, of course, bottomless thanks to the ninety-plus Thighs of Steel cyclists — and their donors — who are doing what they can.

Join us, if you can.

April 4th, 1984

Today was the fifteenth anniversary of the #1984Symposium, convened by Documentally to celebrate Eric Blair’s birthday.

Even without his bronchial difficulties, it seems unlikely that Orwell would ever have lived to see today—his 118th birthday—but, as we sat around the blooming roses on his grave, we couldn’t help speculating on what he might have made of the political world that we have (in the mot du jour) ‘co-created’.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is famous for its depiction of a totalitarian society held in a state of perpetual war, all citizens constantly under surveillance and swiftly and invisibly punished for any break from orthodoxy.

You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.

The irony is that, while Orwell imagined the imposition and central control of surveillance by ‘Big Brother’, what we actually have is a kind of popular surveillance.

We freely choose, even pay for devices and apps that monitor much of our lives and that data is used in inscrutable ways by basilisk technology companies. In return we get to know exactly how many steps we’ve done in our new running shoes. It’s pretty cool.

~

Surprisingly, there’s not much in the published work of George Orwell on the subject of refugees. Perhaps that’s because refugees were a more established and less maligned demographic during the violent decades in which Orwell wrote. Certainly his view of Russian refugees in Paris was by-and-large positive:

In general, the Russian refugees in Paris are hard-working people, and have put up with their bad luck far better than one can imagine Englishmen of the same class doing.

The longest Orwellian passage I could find on the topic of forced migration is not in any of his journalism, but actually in the first few pages of that enduring novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Winston Smith is at home in Victory Mansions, where the electricity is cut-off during daylight hours and where the hallways smell of ‘boiled cabbage and old rag mats’. Upstairs in his flat, Winston hides from the all-seeing eye of Big Brother by tucking himself into an alcove designed for a bookcase and begins to write an illicit diary.

April 4th, 1984.

Orwell tells us that Winston writes in a ‘sheer panic’, vomiting out onto the page the ‘interminable restless monologue’ that he’s been carrying around inside his head for years. Capital letters, grammar, full stops are lost in Winston’s literary blood-letting. It’s an assertion of humanity, a purging of sin—for which, ultimately, he will pay.

It’s also a film review.

Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Seventy-five years split the writing of that sentence and today, with a shocking resonance. In his work and war, Orwell met countless refugees and, as both citizen and BBC propagandist, would have seen countless reels of cinema footage of people fleeing violence.

Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank.

Orwell was a journalist who wrote novels. What events inspired Winston’s diary? And what history have we made that ships full of refugees today inspire similar contempt in the comments section of our major media?

then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms.

Both during and after the Second World War, many thousands of Jewish refugees crammed into often leaky boats and were set adrift on the Mediterranean. Their reception wasn’t always welcoming.

In 1947, the SS Exodus, carrying 4,500 Jewish refugees, was stopped by British authorities off the coast of Palestine and the ‘illegal immigrant’ passengers returned to camps in Germany.

little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood.

~

Like all humans, Orwell was very much a product of his age and upbringing. Despite his BBC career, the only extant footage of the man is as a schoolboy, playing the Wall Game at Eton College. Enough said.

Orwell may have spent the majority of his career fighting the war of words ‘directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism’, but his age and upbringing also invested him (for example) with what fan-boy Christopher Hitchens called ‘a marked dislike of the Jews’.

This tension between solidarity and hate ran through British society in the 1940s and, I would argue, that it runs yet deep. Not only with regard to Jews—I use that as a specific example in Orwell’s work—but with regard to the whole question of the alien outsider, the migrant, the refugee.

With the twin benefits of both posthumous and historical distance, Orwell is a valued and objective observer of our modern times. See if you can draw parallels between the internment of the refugees in Orwell’s 1940 and what is happening in our name, in this country, today:

Naturally, every thinking person felt that it was his duty to protest against the wholesale locking-up of unfortunate foreigners who for the most part were only in England because they were opponents of Hitler. Privately, however, one heard very different sentiments expressed.

[…] A very eminent figure in the Labour Party—I won’t name him, but he is one of the most respected people in England—said to me quite violently: ‘We never asked these people to come to this country. If they choose to come here, let them take the consequences.’

Even today, we can still hope that every thinking person in Britain feels it’s their duty to protest the detention, destitution, deportation and death of ‘unfortunate foreigners’.

But what shall we do about the violent suspicion, the daily hate and the perpetual war on outsiders, from the highest ranks of The Party to the lowest feed in your timeline?

~

Thank you to Documentally and all attendees, intentional and serendipitous, for creating the #1984Symposium and allowing these conversations to evolve.

What’s your solidarity archetype?

This Sunday is World Refugee Day: the one day of the year when we all gather around the solstice firepit to remember that there are essentially NO safe and lawful routes into Europe or the UK for people fleeing terror and persecution. None.

To claim asylum in the UK, you first need to get to the UK. There are no visas for asylum seekers and the UK is an island nation with a militarised border. Ergo there are no safe or lawful routes to the UK for refugees.

After six years of what can only be described as ‘frugal’ hospitality, David Cameron’s ‘Vulnerable Persons’ scheme stuttered to its conclusion in February, having technically fulfilled the former Prime Minister’s 2014 promise to resettle 20,000 refugees in the UK.

Although we must remember and celebrate the stories behind each of those 20,000 lives, we must also bear in mind that this parsimonious figure is less than two percent of the number welcomed by Germany over the same period.

David Cameron’s largesse vanishes into the fractions when considered alongside the 5.6 million Syrians still living in precarious conditions in Turkey, Lebanon and other neighbouring countries.

What of the future? Surely today’s government couldn’t be any less welcoming, could it? In its first month of operation, the bastard son of the Vulnerable Persons scheme resettled 25 refugees—a tenth of the number ushered over our electrified border under its predecessor.

Millions, thousands, percentages, fractions, tenths: it’s easy to wallow in statistics instead of doing more to change them.

FREE QUIZ: Discover YOUR solidarity archetype!

The Capitalist

Refugees are great for the economy. Free movement of labour could double the global economy. Refugees in particular are overwhelmingly of working age and, if they’re allowed to work for heaven’s sake, quickly pay more tax than they hypothetically absorb. Germany’s pension pot, for example, has been given a real shot in the arm with the injection of 1.1 million refugees into the workforce since 2014. Heck: this analyst argues that Germany needs half a million immigrants a year.

The Gregarious

Did you know that Jesus was a refugee? And Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google? And Albert Einstein and Freddy Mercury? Talented, resourceful people coming to this country? Yes please! Plus we LOVE falafel, don’t we! And pizza. Ooh—and Phở. Who do you think brought all that delicious food over here, Deliveroo?

The Idealist

Borders don’t actually exist. We invented them not that long ago and we reserve the right to uninvent them any time, right about… NOW. They were developed as an unwieldy and temporary solution to a problem that scarcely existed—and certainly doesn’t exist today, in the frictionless Internet Age. The humans we label as ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘immigrants’ or ‘migrants’ or ‘economic migrants’ have as much right to roam the world as we do and we have an obligation to defend their rights.

The Compassionate

There are 82.4 million displaced people in the world, living in daily fear of torture, violence and persecution. Shouldn’t we help them if we can, however we can?

The Paranoid

WE ARE NEXT. Maybe you’re not black, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, homosexual, transgender, disabled, neurodivergent, German, French or Huguenot. Maybe, for you, it’s always been THEM. But you can bet your last penny it’ll be YOU next. Wouldn’t we sleep easier now, knowing that, when the brownshirts come a-knocking, we have built up a solidarity network that might save us?

The Wealthy

We have so much more than we need. The wealth of the world is so unevenly distributed that it gives me a migraine. It wasn’t fair when we were born, it won’t be fair when we die and it’s certainly not fair now. But, while we’re alive, we must do more to balance the books and give every human being as good a chance as possible to do great things. Starting with those who have lost something we didn’t even think could be lost: their country.

[[…INSERT YOUR FAVOURITE ARCHETYPE HERE…]]

And then do more to live it out.

No more ‘hostile environment’ We need to tell Priti Patel and this government that our country will always stand for tolerance and compassion and that we will continue to offer a safe haven for those fleeing their homes

Spell It Out is a 2,400km bike ride along the south coast of Britain that follows a quixotic route which will spell out the words—well, I’ll let you see for yourselves:

Yes – that is an actual bike route. Credit: GC and OKH!

The ride, organised by Thighs of Steel (obvs), is a direct response to our government’s creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for refugees.

Priti Patel is right now rushing through an overhaul of UK asylum law that will put us in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, closing down legal routes to the UK for those fleeing political and religious persecution as well as those who are trying to join family and friends already in this country. What does she think these people will do instead?

It’s a complete horror show.

We need to tell Priti Patel and this pettifogging government that our country will always stand for tolerance and compassion and that we will continue to offer a safe haven for those fleeing their homes. We are stronger together and the tide will turn.

Join us any time—12 June to 26 September

If you would like to join Spell It Out as a fundraising cyclist, then hop on over to the Thighs of Steel website. You can sign up to ride any of the letters (100-240km each), with anyone you like, at any point between 12 June and 26 September. The more people who take part, the bigger our voice and the bigger our positive impact.

If you would like to show your support, then please share the website or crack open your wallet / PayPal and donate to my fundraising page (live now!). All of your money will go directly to organisations that offer refugees the warm welcome that our government withholds: legal advice, psychological counselling, vocational training, language lessons and more.

What’s this about a Guinness World Record?!

The 2,400km route will also be the world’s biggest ever GPS drawing by bike, smashing the previous record by about 1,600km.

We’re still thrashing out the logistical details, but please reply to this email if you’re interested in helping us break a world record—we’ll need cyclists, van drivers and overnight hosts across the south of England. Watch this space…

A message from a refugee stuck in the Napier Barracks

This heart-rending message was written by a young Iranian man I met in Samos last year. I first met Nima when he was volunteering at a restaurant that helped to feed hundreds of other refugees trapped on the Greek island.

Nima already had his travel documents: he could have left Samos any time. But he was prepared to wait months and months for the bureaucracy to approve papers for his best friend, Omid, so that they could travel onwards together.

Omid and Nima were inseparable. Brothers in a world without family.

The day before I left Samos last October, Omid was granted his papers. They celebrated with a dinner party in the restaurant. A moment of hope on an island of despair.

A year passed. Omid and Nima finally reached London, as they’d always promised, together.

It was in London where I was given the freedom and opportunity to feel normal again. After all this time I felt like a human, no different from every other human.

Normality was brief. A few days ago, Nima was thrown into a camp called Napier Barracks.

Alone.

The only thing I asked for was for Omid to come with me. Don’t leave me alone. Please. We made it this far, together. Why wouldn’t we continue together? It’s not my journey. It’s our journey. And doing it without him translates into emptiness. An emptiness that doesn’t fit inside me.

Join us for World Refugee Day

They say that every dog has its day—and some marketing departments take that literally. Next Friday, for example, is Pet Sitters International’s Take Your Dog to Work Day.

A quick scan of the internet tells me that Tuesday was Bloomsday (I’m listening to Ulysses at the moment as it happens). Wednesday, meanwhile, was World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought and yesterday was National Freelancers Day (I took it off work).

Today is World Sickle Cell Day. A sprinkling of sickle cell facts: sickle cell diseases are most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and kill over 100,000 people a year—but the sickle cell trait offers some protection against malaria. An iron fist in a velvet glove.

But tomorrow is World Refugee Day. Ah—that explains my headline!

Why should I care?

If you’ve ever crossed a border without being beaten up, then, in my own personal opinion, you are in credit. The closest I’ve come is a hard stare from a Serbian border guard. I owe it to my passport to care.

There are now nearly 80 million displaced people in the world, including nearly 30 million refugees. That’s a lot of people—but not in a Daily Mail kind of a way. Pretty much zero of those people have come to the UK.

Okay, not zero: precisely 0.43 percent of the world’s refugees have found sanctuary on this ‘sceptred isle’. For comparison, Turkey hosts nearly 13 percent of those humans.

Uganda, a country with a GDP a hundred times smaller than the UK, hosts ten times as many refugees. I don’t know about you, but I did not know Uganda was that poor—or the UK so rich.

I don’t think we’re doing our bit, do you?

Yay, progress! (Except not for people fleeing war, sorry)

You might not believe it from the headlines, but many indicators of global quality of life are improving: the number of people escaping from extreme poverty, for example, or the number of girls accessing education, or child mortality rates.

In fact, take a few minutes to play around with all the good news using the awesome Gapminder tools. It’ll put a smile on your face. Then come back for the bad news…

Things are getting better. Source: Gapminder.

Unfortunately, for refugees, the world is a more hostile place today than it was a decade ago. As the latest UNHCR report states:

Over the last decade, only four million refugees were able to return to their native countries, compared with 10 million the previous decade. Roughly 0.5 per cent of the world’s refugees were offered resettlement in 2019.

0.5 percent?! Wow. We need more than one day to solve this problem. But let’s face it: there are other problems in the world, so…

Seeing as we’ve only got a day—let’s ride our bikes?!

This Saturday, in solidarity with refugees all over the world, Thighs of Steel and Help Refugees are riding their bikes all the way from London to Khora’s home in Athens—about 2,000 miles.

I’m asking—nay begging—for your support. As cyclists, as donors, as megaphones.

If you or your friends would like to join us for the day, then you can set up your own fundraising page here: https://help-refugees.secure.force.com/aroundtheworldsignup

Or you can easily join in without setting up your own page by sending your lovely donors to the main fundraising page here: https://help-refugees.secure.force.com/aroundtheworldmain

The theme for this year’s World Refugee Day is Every Action Counts. Whether you ride 1 mile or 100; whether you raise £1,000 or simply chuck in a tenner from your own pocket, every action really does count.

It’s only one day of the year, but your contribution tomorrow could make a real difference to refugees—people who truly understand the meaning of the trite saying ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’.

What will happen to the money?

We’re fundraising for Help Refugees, a grassroots organisation that grew out of the upsurge of empathy for migrants in 2015. Here’s what they say about how they spend the money raised:

Together, we are supporting hundreds of thousands of people—with access to medical care, sanitation, food, emotional support, and much much more. This isn’t the world we want to live in, and we are working to change it, but while refugees are forced to live like this, we will be there for them. Thank you so much for making this possible.

Thighs of Steel is the major donor to Khora, a voluntary organisation in Athens that exists to support displaced people, refugees, asylum seekers, homeless people and vulnerable groups in general.

During the Covid crisis, Khora volunteers have been preparing and delivering food to around 2,200 vulnerable people every other day. All this extra support costs money—as much as £24,000 per month. This remarkable act of solidarity relies entirely on money given by strangers.

Imagine…

I’ll finish with this little poem from Lemn Sissay, which the legends at Refugee Week are sharing as the jumping off point for the first of eight Simple Acts you can take to stand with refugees.

I will not limit myself
I will not be afraid
If it were not imagined
How else could it be made?

If it can be imagined, it can be made. Another world is possible.

This isn’t the world we want to live in, and we are working to change it, but while refugees are forced to live like this, we will be there for them.

Join us. Thank you.

Border Breakdown

As you may have heard, Turkey has opened their border with the EU, giving refugees the chance to try their luck at crossing.

This has very little to do with humanity; it’s a power game Turkish President Erdogan is playing, trying to leverage either more money or more support for his military manoeuvres in Syria.

But humanity will out, just as the 2016 EU-Turkey deal never will.

The EU was supposed to give Turkey loads of money and ease restrictions on free movement for Turkish people. In exchange, Turkey would accept returns of ‘irregular migrants’ and enforce the EU border in Turkey.

In the meantime, those who break the line of defence will find their journeys stopped in the five ‘hotspot’ islands of the Aegean: Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros, where their asylum claims will be processed (interminably slowly), like as not destined to be returned to Turkey.

The deal has trapped millions of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.

This was never going to work really, was it?

1) There’s no amount of money you can throw at a problem like this.

The only solution is to flip the script and give refugees the right to work for money themselves from Day 1.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees accords refugees the right to work — but most countries don’t fully honour this commitment. It’s insane.

People are working to have this absurdity overthrown in the UK. You can join the campaign here.

2) Hard borders are unenforceable.

Even the Iron Curtain was permeable. The folly of a hard border demands a Turkish coastguard that is omniscient and omnipresent. It’s not. So boats get through to the island hotspots in Greece, inside the EU.

A hard border also demands that the Greek island communities repulse the new arrivals. But humans don’t do that. We have too much in common; too much solidarity.

As mushy-minded flimsy fools, we are too touched by the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. Despite reports of black-clad militants in speedboats, Greek volunteers rush the boats with water and warmth.

The xenia of welcome can’t be sustained, of course. Conditions in the island camps are sickening and, see point one: there is still no amount of money you can throw at a problem like this. Let people work.

We’re leaving the EU, not Europe. In theory, we could use our new status outside the supranational bloc to opt out of the collective punishment of border brutality and welcome refugees directly.

I’ve got to say, though: that seems unlikely to happen.

More likely is that we can continue to show faith in humanity. Sign a petition. Or…

Let’s tackle it together / AKA: Why I’m cycling 3,000km+ this summer

With Thighs of Steel this summer I’ll be cycling 3,000km, across the Carpathian mountains, through Transylvania and the Balkans, from Bratislava to Athens.

It’s an odd way to remember that our borders are trapping millions of people in intolerable conditions. But it’s my way.

Today, there are more than 42,000 people living in horrifying camps on the Aegean Islands — stuck there until such a time as we collectively choose compassion over nationalism.

Read this story, told by a woman living in Vial camp on Chios, to find out what life is really like in a Greek refugee camp.

And, of course, that figure of 42,000 is dwarfed by the 3,500,000+ Syrian refugees trapped in Turkey.

It’s easy to feel hopeless, but I think we can make a difference.

That’s why I ride with Thighs of Steel and why, as part of the core team this year, I’m doing all I can to help the other 100+ cyclists raise tonnes of cash for Help Refugees.

The main beneficiary of the money we raise will be Khora, a grassroots community centre in Athens that offers displaced people hot food, legal support and friendship. The centre is run entirely by volunteers on solidarity and donations.

I visited Khora last year and met a wonderful bunch of people who are already making a difference. The work they do is of immense practical and psychological support to actual human beings every day.

Alee is a long-term volunteer and refugee from Pakistan who found Khora after the factory where he worked was shut down in 2016.

‘I didn’t come here to volunteer,’ Alee told me. ‘When I came here, I was homeless, I was jobless, I was penniless — even hopeless, to some extent.

‘I was at the verge of mental collapse,’ he says. ‘I mean, I could have been suicidal. I could jump from the fifth floor. The Khora volunteers kept me alive. Honestly, I’m telling you, they kept me alive.’

Fluent in multiple languages, including Greek, Alee started volunteering as a translator on the Khora info desk, during refugee hospital visits and with the legal team.

Now Alee spends most of his volunteer time at the Khora Free Shop, where refugees and others can pick up clothes, shoes, toiletries, books, toys and other things they might not be able to afford.

‘Khora is about giving hope as well as help,’ Alee says.

If you think that helping refugees is a generally good idea, then there’s loads you can do.

  • If cycling is your cup of tea, join us! We are three-quarters full, but there’s still space for you. It’s a great bunch of people, passionate about making change happen.
  • If you can afford to donate to the Thighs 2020 appeal, then I promise you that even the most modest gift will do things that simply wouldn’t happen without your contribution. Honestly. Like paying the motorway tolls so that a library van can get out of Athens to the refugee camp in Corinth. Without that handful of Euros, the van doesn’t go and the kids in the camp kick cans in the dust instead.

Thank you.

The Perils of Perception

Wandering the aisles of my local food shopping emporium the other day, I happened upon a misfortunate newspaper stand.

Before I could divert my hapless footwear in the direction of the sundried tomatoes and other preserves, I was revulsed by a series of headlines, all screaming something or other about immigration and Australia.

At first I thought that Boris Johnson might have re-requisitioned the earth’s largest island as a penal colony for The Crown. Then I remembered that it only feels like we’ve gone back to the eighteenth century.

The 2020 version of history could be recalled as bitterly, if we allow it.

The thing is, I can’t help feeling like the whole ‘pulling up the drawbridge’ immigration strategy is based on a gross misperception of who immigrants are and what they do when they get here.

To illustrate those misperceptions, we’re going to have a fun little quiz — YAY! — excised from The Perils of Perception by Bobby Duffy, the managing director of social research company Ipsos MORI.

Okay: ready?

What proportion of the UK population are immigrants?

If you said 25 percent, then congratulations! You have matched the average answer given by UK residents in a recent Ipsos MORI poll.

You’re also factually wrong by a remarkable 12 percentage points!

On average, we Brits think that a quarter of the UK population is an immigrant. That’s insane. The true answer is about half that figure: 13 percent.

In our heads, we’ve more or less doubled the number of foreign-born nationals in this country. Wow.

Okay, now our heads are a little tidier, here’s question two:

What proportion of immigrants to the UK are refugees and asylum seekers?

About a third? Bingo! That’s exactly what most people said, well done!

Yep: on average, people in the UK think that there are more refugees and asylum seekers than any other category of immigrant: more than those who came here for work, to study or to join their family.

Yep: we are wildly wrong.

Refugees and asylum seekers make up around 10 percent of the immigrant population — fewer in number than any of those other three categories. Cool.

Now onto the final question:

If you got question one wrong by 10 percentage points or more (and most people did), why do you think that was?

Think about this one carefully now — and be honest.

Almost half of everyone asked this question replied:

People come into the country illegally so aren’t counted.

Ah-ha — the figures aren’t accurate! That is true: there was something in the news about it.

But, sadly for The Daily Mail, all those lorry-loads of illegal immigrants couldn’t make up for our absurdly inaccurate guesses.

Even the most lurid estimates of illegal immigration, from a group campaigning for greater immigration control (Migration Watch UK), would add only 1.5 percentage points to the immigrants’ share of our population. Not 10 or more.

Never mind — press on — it doesn’t matter anyway because a gallant 45 percent of us, when challenged on our reasoning, added:

I still think the proportion is much higher.

Q.E.D.

Okay, we’re wrong about the tidal wave of immigration — but what is to be done?

In 1963, Dervla Murphy cycled from Dunkirk to Delhi. The book she wrote about her journey, Full Tilt, is full of stories of hospitality, from the Pathan tribesman who helped her fix a puncture, to the nameless Pakistani women who gave her unbidden deep tissue massages at the end of every day’s riding, and the Indian family who nursed her while she spent a few days enjoying good, old fashioned dysentery.

Towards the end of her journey, high in the Karakoram Mountains of Kashmir, she is beckoned over by an old man to help him dig an enormous thorn out of his foot.

After so many months owing her life to the generosity of strangers, Dervla pulls out her knife and spend a quarter of an hour in surgery.

She then reflects on the contrast between the baked-in hospitality of Afghanistan and Pakistan with how people behave back home in Europe:

Here [in Kashmir] one is merely another human being … and it’s taken for granted that one will help if necessary just as when one needs help it is unfailingly given without anyone stopping to consider inconvenience or cost.

When, I wonder, did we forget to be mere human beings?

It’s a numbers problem

When we talk about ‘immigrants’, ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’ our brains collapse and die. Statistically speaking, we can’t get our heads around the numbers.

By 2018, there were roughly 361,000 people living in the UK who had originally come here as asylum seekers. That’s a huge number.

But it’s only 0.6 percent of the total population of the UK — and nearly two-thirds of them had, by 2018, lived in this country for more than 15 years.

In other words, most successful asylum seekers have been in this country longer than our 11.5 million children under 15. How ‘foreign’ are these asylum seekers, really?

I could squirt these massive numbers into your eyeballs all day, but it wouldn’t make a jot of difference: they are all stratospherically incomprehensible. We simply can’t empathise when populations get that big.

Another question:

What’s the largest population size our puny brain can empathise with before it starts to struggle?

Congratulations to those of you who said one (1).

Yes: one whole human being. For populations in excess of one, we start to struggle.

This has been empirically tested by Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. In a series of experiments, Slovic and his team looked at how much money people were willing to donate to help starving children in Africa.

Slovic summarises the outcome:

Donations to aid a starving 7-year-old child in Africa declined sharply when her image was accompanied by a statistical summary of the millions of needy children like her in other African countries. The numbers appeared to interfere with people’s feelings of compassion toward the young victim.

One starving child = pity. Millions of starving children = brain-melt.

Slovic calls this effect ‘psychic numbing’: the sheer scale of tragedy drives us to apathy.

And, as Slovic discovered in a follow-up study, psychic numbing begins at the vast number of just two human beings:

Feelings of compassion and donations of aid were smaller for a pair of victims than for either individual alone.

One starving child = pity. Two starving children = not so much.

No wonder we’re pulling up the drawbridge: our brains, if not our borders, are being swamped in statistics.

Wait — optimism coming up!

Remember Alan Kurdi? Of course you do. That’s the point: one human being.

Kurdi’s death was the story of one human being, tragically drowned while escaping to Kos — emphatically not the multitude of stories about the 7,000 or more nameless refugees who have landed (alive, thankfully) on Kos in the past two years alone.

The widespread media reports of Alan Kurdi’s death in September 2015 broke the dam on our natural instincts for hospitality, generosity and compassion — so apparent to Dervla Murphy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In fact, Thighs of Steel cyclists raise money for one of the appeals set up in that compassionate summer of 2015. Help Refugees is still going strong, although donations are harder to come by in recent years — a symptom of growing apathy around support for refugees.

I argue that this apathy is not because we have forgotten how to be mere human beings, but because our puny brains have been swamped by hundreds, thousands, millions and, occasionally, bazillions of — not immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees — but numbers themselves.

We need to go back to one.

When faced with one ‘mere human being’ in crisis, we respond with compassion and generosity. We do, we all do — yes, even the Daily Mail readers among us.

Think of the hoary line of the racist: ‘I just think people should go back where they came from — oh, I don’t mean you, Mr Melaku, you’re alright!’

In our ones, we’re all alright. So let’s not think then of the millions, but think of the one. Think of Dervla Murphy’s ‘mere human being’.

The old proverb more or less agrees: look after the ones and the millions will look after themselves.

~

Thanks to M.G. and F.M. for the reading suggestions. If you know a great book I should read, chuck it onto the Books Make Books thread.

If you’d like to get your head round more misperceptions, I encourage you to browse the Ipsos MORI Perils of Perception data archive.

Factfulness

A dear friend of mine is currently reading Factfulness, an optimistic book about facts written by development darling Hans Rosling and his able collaborators.

The book opens with an absolute minefield of a multiple choice general knowledge quiz, which you can take here.

I’ll wait.

As you may have noticed, the quiz is intended to blow your mind with how much better life in our global village is today than most people (including experts) believe.

Less people live in extreme poverty than we think, more young women have access to education than we think, and global life expectancy is higher than we think.

In 2017, Hans Rosling’s Gapminder Foundation asked nearly 12,000 people in 14 countries to answer these questions. They scored on average just two correct answers out of the first 12. No one got full marks, and just one person (in Sweden) got 11 out of 12. Fifteen percent scored zero.

In fact, chimpanzees would have outscored the 80 percent of humans who did worse than random chance when they took the quiz.

There are two reasons I like this book, despite not having read it:

  1. The disparity between how well humans did – 2 out of 12 correct answers – and how well we should do if we simply picked one answer at random from the three given – 4 out of 12 correct answers – shows that our sources of information (AKA the news media) is systematically biased against reality and in favour of negativity. Newsless since 2017, I have long been an advocate of the No News is Good News information diet. Now I have some evidence that I might also be better informed.
  2. Although the general drift of the book is that things are, in general, getting better, the authors don’t argue that this is a result of anything other than decades of extremely hard work. Nor do they make the argument that everything is rosy in our planetary garden. As Rosling mega-fan Bill Gates puts it: ‘the world can be both bad and better’.

But one thing that immediately struck me as I was discussing the quiz with my dear friend was the absence of any questions about displaced persons.

And, as the 2019 Aegean Boat Report reminded me earlier this week, the world can also be both bad and worse.

At the end of 2018 – the latest year for which UNHCR have data – there were 74.79 million ‘persons of concern’ across the world, including refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and stateless persons.

Ten years earlier there were ‘only’ 34.46 million such persons of concern. The number of human beings suffering has more than doubled.

Bad and worse.

UNHCR only have solid data going back to 1951, but, for reference, Wikipedia states that World War II created 11 million displaced people.

The last big surge in refugee numbers was after the break up of the Soviet Union. In 1992, there were 17.83 million refugees according to UNHCR figures.

At the end of 2018 there were 20.36 million – and this excludes the 5.5 million registered Palestinian refugees cared for under the auspices of a different UN agency.

Bad and worse.

Raw refugee numbers have doubled in the last decade, but the biggest single reason for the twenty-first century surge in UN persons of concern is down to a huge increase in the number of those displaced within the state they used to call their own.

In 2012 there were 17.67 million internally displaced persons in the world. At the end of 2018, there were 41.43 million.

This figure includes those driven from their homes in Syria, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine and Colombia. They don’t meet the technical definition of ‘refugee’, but when you’re fleeing for your life it doesn’t much matter where you draw the border lines.

I’m a huge fan of Hans Rosling’s factfulness because it reminds us where we should be putting our efforts. The problem of displaced people – whether we call them refugees or not – is bad and getting worse. It deserves our attention.

If the mixing of peoples was the order of empires and the ‘unmixing of peoples’ the order of nation-states, what’s on the horizon?
Kapka Kassabova, Border (2017)

‘Here is no work; there is war’: Refugees in İzmir

In Europe, we think we have a refugee crisis.

According to Full Fact, 17,205 people were granted asylum in the UK in 2018. Over the same period, Germany granted asylum to 139,555 people.

Meanwhile, there are nearly 100,000 refugees living in Greece, including over 35,000 on the Greek islands, in conditions that have been described as a humanitarian disaster.

But let’s have a little perspective, shall we? In Turkey, there are over 3,600,000 Syrian refugees, living with the limited legal rights granted under ‘temporary protection’, in the shadow of a war zone.

So, while on Samos, I had to take a couple of days out to visit İzmir, one of the most important transit cities for refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece.

İzmir is positioned with easy access to the strip of coastline that faces Lesvos, Chios and Samos, three of the Greek island ‘hotspots’ where refugees can register for asylum in Europe.

Syrians have been coming to İzmir for decades: easily evidenced by the dozens of established cafes and restaurants doing quick business around Basmane railway station in the city centre.

After a hearty lunch of fuul and khubz in a canteen overflowing with Syrians – young and old, male and female, refugee and resident – I asked around for someone who spoke English and was directed to a young guy we’ll call Ahmed.

Ahmed told me that he’d only been in Turkey for 20 days – and had spent 15 of those in prison. He’d already tried to cross to Samos twice and both times he’d been picked up by the Turkish coastguard after helicopters spotted his boat.

According to Aegean Boat Report, the Turkish coastguard have stopped 2,699 boats like Ahmed’s from crossing to Europe this year. Only about a third of the refugees who leave Turkey on boats arrive in Greece.

~

Ahmed tells me that he’s got a brother in Athens who crossed the Aegean to Greece before the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee agreement that has made the coastguard so vigilant.

In the 2016 deal, the EU promised Turkey €6 billion in financial aid as well as visa-free travel through Europe for Turkish citizens. In return, Turkey would better patrol the European border and re-admit refugees who reached Greece illegally.

In reality, the Greek leftist Syriza government, in power until this summer, proved reluctant to send refugees back to conditions where their human rights would not be respected.

The new Greek conservative government has promised to make far greater use of the returns agreement, but it is yet to be seen whether such a course of action is feasible, let alone defensible.

~

After being picked up by the coastguard, Ahmed and the others in his boat were taken to a detention centre. He told me that he was beaten up by the police and that the detainees shared living quarters the size of a basketball court with as many as 1,500 others.

Ahmed spent five days in detention before being deported back to the border with Syria. But he – and all the friends he made in the detention centre – came straight back to İzmir to try to cross again. ‘Here is no work; there is war,’ he says. ‘What can we do?’

~

Ahmed isn’t even supposed to be in İzmir: he doesn’t have the right papers. He’s supposed to stay in the province bordering Syria where he first arrived in Turkey.

Throughout our conversation, Ahmed’s eyes were darting around, looking over my shoulder for the police who often sweep through Basmane checking people’s papers.

Earlier that day, I’d spoken to Onur, the head of an official refugee support NGO in the city. Over a glass of tea in his office, Onur politely apologised. He was sorry, but he couldn’t tell me much about the situation for refugees in Turkey without getting the approval of the Directorate General of Migration Management.

But Onur was able to tell me that there were around 180,000 Syrians in İzmir – significantly more than the official figure because of irregular migration between provinces by refugees like Ahmed.

Onur told me that refugees can change their papers when they move to a different province, but Ahmed explains that this is not the case for İzmir, Istanbul, Ankara or any of the other few places where you might be able to live – or escape to Greece.

~

Here in İzmir, Ahmed shares a room in a hotel with his new friends. Despite splitting the single room between five people, one of their jobs today is to find somewhere cheaper.

The whole area around Basmane is a maze of cheap hotels, fast food joints, shoe sellers and cigarette pushers. The hotels are mostly full of Africans, who stay for one or two nights and then move on. Syrian refugees tend to stay in run-down houses, scarcely fit for human habitation, infested with mice and cockroaches – but at least they’re cheap.

Life here is hard. Ahmed has only one friend who can speak Turkish and he has to do all the translating for the group. Ahmed speaks great English, but that’s not much use here. He studied English in school for eight years, but since then he’s lived through seven years of war.

‘I’m 25,’ he tells me. ‘If I don’t go to Europe, I have no future anywhere.’

~

Samos Update: There are now 400 more refugees on Samos than there were when I arrived – up to 6,492 according to Aegean Boat Report. That’s despite the transfer of more than 700 people to the mainland a couple of weeks ago.

‘Here is nothing special’: Snippets from Samos

Two weeks is a long time on such a fevered island as Samos. The sights, sounds and stories could each fill a book, I’m sure, but I’ll have to content myself with reporting these snippets that I don’t have time to do justice to.

~

After I left Samos, a friend sent me a short text message concerning the distribution of open cards that saw 700 people transferred to the mainland. ‘Did you know that during the big transfer they actually broke up families?’ she asked me, rhetorically. ‘Half the family would be on the list and have five minutes to pack. If the dad was on the list and he wasn’t there, they just left him.’

~

I met a young man – let’s call him Aarash – a 17 year-old from Afghanistan who grew up in Iran. He came to Samos alone and was excited to show me the ‘house’ that he had just finished building with the help of resourceful friends made at the camp. It was a wood-frame shelter stapled with tarpaulins.

Minors aren’t given any money to survive, so rely on kindness and solidarity. He was given a sleeping bag by an NGO and a mattress by the camp. Older refugees who’d taken care of him used some of their money to buy tarpaulins and wood.

Four people will sleep on that mattress, but it’s a significant upgrade from the flimsy tent they had been living in for the past few weeks.

Aarash goes to an NGO-run school in the town and learns English, Greek and German. They feed him breakfast and lunch, so he doesn’t need to rely too much on the revolting food handed out at the end of a long queue by the camp authorities.

~

There is one doctor for 6000 refugees on Samos – medical, not psychological. Not everyone has flesh wounds; most of the scarring is on the inside.

~

One founder of an NGO on Samos told me that, while grassroots organisations like his ‘want to go out of business’, the big, transnational NGOs are already planning their budget for 2021 – ‘they need to stay in business’, he says with disgust.

~

I met a 27 year-old man whose ‘Greek age’ is 17. It’s a calculated gamble on his part: if at his interview they accept that he is indeed only 17, then he is will be classified as an unaccompanied minor and put on the priority list for transfer to Athens.

Without giving away too many details, this man’s home country is in Africa; he stands little chance of getting refugee status if the authorities discover his real age.

In the meantime, however, as a 17 year-old, this man does not get the financial support that older asylum-seekers receive; he lives by volunteering for the Samos NGOs and gets food in return. He has chosen short-term penury in the hope of longer-term advantage.

He looks 27.

~

‘Here is nothing special’ – the words of an Ethiopian woman, looking around at the disgusting camp and reflecting on why she bothered coming to Europe.

The Oldest Warzone

The two most shocking stories I heard while travelling came as a pair, one from each side of the Aegean border.

The first I heard from a Turkish volunteer in Izmir. This was her friend’s story and she prefaced the whole by saying that she was only repeating the otherwise unbelievable – and barbaric – tale because she trusts her friend absolutely.

The two friends volunteer for a small organisation in Izmir that tries to help refugees integrate into Turkish society. It started as a place where refugees and locals could come together to cook and eat a meal. Now they also distribute warm clothes during winter and help refugees navigate Turkish bureaucracy. Just last week, for example, the volunteers helped a Syrian boy enrol in a local schools, something that his parents couldn’t have done alone.

Recently, the friend accompanied a pregnant Syrian woman when she went to hospital to give birth. The birth was a success, but afterwards she was presented with a piece of paper to sign. The new mother couldn’t read the paper written in Turkish, of course, but she was pressured to sign anyway.

It was a medical consent form for the surgeons to strip her ovaries and render her infertile.

After repeating this story, and repeating her incredulity that it could possibly be true, my Turkish friend averred that the hospital’s reported behaviour was totally unethical. But she also said that it was understandable, from both a financial and moral stand point.

Turkey isn’t a rich country and childbirth costs a lot of money that the government cannot recoup from penniless refugees. But my friend also told me that many refugees in Izmir live on the streets, or in hotels and apartments that are barely inhabitable. There is little enough money to feed themselves, let alone extra mouths. It’s irresponsible to have kids in this situation, my friend cried. It is not right.

It was my time to repeat a story I’d heard a few days before in Samos. There might be other reasons that a refugee needs pregnancy and childbirth.

Two months pregnant and travelling alone, a Syrian woman arrived on Samos and was taken to the hospital for a check up. At the hospital, it was discovered that this woman had been raped during her journey to Europe. The doctor told her that, because of the rape, she was entitled to have an abortion.

The woman refused. Thanks to her pregnancy, she explained, she would be placed on the ‘vulnerable persons’ list and given priority for transfer away from Samos to the mainland. No one wants to stay for long in the filth of Samos. Pregnancy is the closest a human being here can get to a free ticket out of the camp.

These rules are made with the noblest of intentions, I’m sure, but their side effects are barbaric.

As a topper to this story, I was told a third by an Ethiopian woman in the Samos camp. She had a friend who had been transferred to Athens because she was pregnant. Tragically, after she arrived in Athens, she had a miscarriage. With no baby, the authorities tried to transfer her back to Samos.

I should say that these stories are uncorroborated, but they raised little more than an eyebrow when retold to local volunteers who have heard too many, too similar.

Women’s bodies are history’s oldest warzone: a millennia-old war fought between state and self over who has the right to new life – in all senses.

Fire on Samos: Engineered Catastrophe (AYS Special)

It’s said that the Greek islands are where time stands still. The waves and the shore, the sun in the sky, old men in the plateía, the stars. Well, time certainly doesn’t stand still on Samos any longer.

Over the past two weeks, refugees, activists, volunteers and townsfolk alike have been rocked by a series of convulsions that have created what one long-term volunteer described to me as, “the toughest conditions I’ve ever seen on Samos”.

Samos is one of five designated refugee ‘hotspots’ across the East Aegean, the liquid border between Turkey and the European Union. These hotspots, which also include the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kos and Leros, were created in 2016 as holding pens for people wishing to claim asylum in Europe.

The hotspot system means that refugees arriving on Samos are stuck here until their claims have been assessed — a process that often takes a couple of years. But, with more people arriving on the island than leaving, the system is heading inexorably for failure.

The official 2011 census put the population of Samos Town at 6,251. The most recent figures from Aegean Boat Report for the town’s refugee population is 6,458 — with 599 arriving in the last week alone. Meanwhile, the official capacity for the refugee camp is just 648 (yes, that’s not a typo — six hundred and forty-eight).

With a camp almost ten times overcapacity and a refugee population to match the town itself, life in Samos is tense. Everyone is fed up.

The Camp

The official refugee camp and the informal ‘jungle’ shelters that surround it are pitched precariously on the steep slopes above the town. Conditions are predictably awful; a pattern for refugee accommodation repeated so often across Europe that it’s at risk of sounding ‘normal’.

There aren’t enough tents to go around, there aren’t sufficient toilets, showers and sanitation, there isn’t electricity or lighting, there are no kitchens or cooking facilities, and nowhere near enough drinking water taps. Normal.

Over winter, Samos gets more than twice the rainfall that London does. The downpour turns the hillside camp into a mudslide. Worse. Outside of the official camp, there are few (if any) toilets: 6,000 people with little choice but to shit and piss wherever they can. Every winter, the refugees’ cheap tents are washed away on a tide of mud and piss and shit.

The recently elected mayor of Eastern Samos, Giorgos Stantzos well knows these problems. But the people I spoke to in the town were far from certain that their leader was helping to solve them. In fact, some thought he was creating conditions that would lead to catastrophe.

The Attack on NGOs

On Samos, there are a dozen or so refugee support organisations who do almost all the work necessary to give refugees some hope of a future on planet earth, let alone in Europe.

There are organisations that offer legal advice, others that hold language classes in Greek, English, German, French, Farsi and Arabic; some that cook and serve food (the less said about the food provided by the camp the better), others that put on fitness classes for kids and adults.

These solo volunteers, grassroots organisations and larger NGOs exist only so long as the local Greek authorities, led by Mayor Stantzos, turn a blind eye.

At 9.30am on Friday 11 October, representatives of every branch of local government — the mayor’s office, the police, the health service, the fire department, building regulators and the tax office — marched en masse into the offices, kitchens, warehouses and schoolrooms of the various refugee support organisations on the island.

Do you have this certificate? Do you have that invoice? Where are this man’s papers?

These organisations, funded by hundreds of small-time donors like you and me, face the threat of gargantuan fines upwards of €10,000 for the slightest infraction — a missing invoice for tomatoes or a building certificate they didn’t realise was (or has mysteriously become) necessary.

Needless to say, the cost of such fines would be unbearable. Then who will teach Greek, English or German? Who will show a path through the asylum labyrinth? Who will feed the hungry?

It was an overwhelming display of power. Not, you’d have thought, the actions of an administration that wants the best possible care for the refugees in their fiefdom.

The Catastrophe

Then, last Monday 14 October, a fight broke out in the queue for food at the camp. The usual story: frustration exploding into violence over long waits and crappy meals. Three Syrian men were stabbed in the fight and taken to hospital.

That night, Afghan and Arab refugees started throwing improvised ‘gas bombs’ at each other. The fire department were called, but, according to eyewitnesses, stood idly by as the fire ripped through the camp, turning tents and shelters into ash and making hundreds homeless — even more homeless, if it is possible, than they were before.

The police told refugees to abandon the camp and go down into the town, where they were looked after by — who else? — the NGOs who’d been the subject of such official hostility only days before.

And the Mayor? His response was to close the schools in the town. One Samos resident I spoke to was furious at his actions: ‘What message does that send to people? “Be scared!”’

Mayor Stantzos didn’t start the fight and he didn’t start the fire. He only inherited this Herculean, Sisyphean and certainly thankless task in June, just as refugee arrivals were rising again.

The Mayor is very careful to point the finger of blame for the disaster at the Greek government and the European Union. But by shutting down the schools and launching a bureaucratic assault on grassroots refugee support NGOs, he is at least contributing to an atmosphere of catastrophe.

And perhaps, when neither Athens nor Brussels will listen to anything but the most lurid headlines, a catastrophe was exactly what the island needed.

Everyone saw how last month’s deadly fire on Lesvos resulted in quick transfers to the mainland. Is it any surprise that some might see chaos as their only chance for peace?

The Hunger Strike — and Open Cards

In the days after the fire, refugees from Africa started blockading the food distribution in the camp in protest at — well, in protest at just about everything.

On Saturday, the blockade was broken when the camp authorities started handing out the precious ‘open cards’ that would allow some refugees — mainly single women and families — to leave Samos and travel to Athens and the mainland.

Grimly, the catastrophe has ‘worked’.

The distribution of ‘open cards’ — they’re actually just stamps on refugee documents — is a step forward. Migration ministry secretary Manos Logothetis has said that, by the end of this week, 1,000 people will have been transferred off the island. On Monday, 700 refugees did indeed leave Samos — but on the same day 200 arrived on boats from Turkey.

This is what passes for good news on Samos. The reality is that even the transfer of as many as 1,000 people only rolls conditions back to how they were in March, beyond the point when aid groups were already warning of a “humanitarian disaster”.

The reality is that life on the mainland is rarely much of an improvement for most.

Every time I visit the margins of the union we’ve created, my opinion becomes ever more certain: there can be no resolution to this crisis until Europe implements a sensible policy of open borders and freedom for all to work.

Samos: Open Cards and Protests

Listen on Substack.

It used to be said that the Greek islands were a place where time stands still.

The waves and the shore, the sun in the sky, old men in the plateía, the stars.

Well, time certainly doesn’t stand still on Samos any more. It’s only 24 hours since my last audio from the island, and already I have news.

After a food blockade that lasted since the fire on Monday night, this afternoon the authorities started handing out the precious ‘open cards’ that would allow some refugees – mainly single women and families, mainly African by all accounts – to leave Samos and travel to Athens and the mainland.

Meanwhile, at the seafront, a group of Arabs are now protesting: where are their ‘open cards’?

An hour ago, I went down to have a look. A thin line of police stood in front of a banner the Arabs had unfurled.

We demand the European Union and the United Nations save our children.

The sun sank into the sea. I took some photos and started to record audio.

Then I was pulled away by police. They asked for my passport and told me to delete the photos, not only from the photo gallery, but also from the ‘recycle bin’.

(Luckily, my phone is old and slow so I was able to restore them minutes later.)

The distribution of ‘open cards’ – they’re actually just stamps on refugee documents – is a step forward. The news is going around that by next week 2,000 people will have been transferred off the island.

And this is what passes for good news on Samos. The reality is that even the transfer of as many as 2,000 people only rolls conditions back to how they were in February when aid groups were already warning of a “humanitarian disaster”.

Weirdly, the photos that I later took of the Frontex banner were self-censored by my phone. Who knew Sony were so left-leaning?

Audio: Samos Refugee Protest

You can now listen to my first audio update on Substack.

I wish this first edition could be more fun, but this morning I was at a demonstration led by hundreds of refugees from Africa and Afghanistan.

They were protesting the deplorable conditions at the Samos Vathí refugee ‘camp’ and in particular at the injustice of being trapped on the island.

All everyone wants to do is leave. But instead we have politics.

Thank you for listening – please do let me know what you think. Do you like audio? Would you like more? Should I stop saying ‘and, erm’ all the time?

Much love,
dc:

As Predicted: Fire on Samos

A week is a long time in politics, especially when that politics is throwing gas bombs at your tent in a refugee camp.

On Monday morning, I wrote an email to The Guardian.

I thought they might be interested in the news that I shared with you last Friday: that the mayor of Samos seemed to be engineering the conditions for a catastrophe by putting unbearable pressure on the international organisations who are supporting refugees with food, shelter, clothes, education, entertainment and legal advice.

The final line of my email to the International Desk was:

While refugees on Lesvos have at least the sympathy and support of the island, on Samos the mayor is bent on pushing the situation to catastrophe: a riot, a fire – anything to make Athens and the EU take notice and do something.

That night, after an earlier dispute in the long queue for food, Afghan and Arab refugees started chucking gas bombs at each other. A huge fire ripped through the camp, turning tents and shelters into ash and making hundreds homeless – even more homeless, if it is possible, than they were before.

I couldn’t help but send what was admittedly a pretty snarky follow-up email to the heretofore silent International Desk:

Huge fire in Samos refugee ‘jungle’ tonight, hundreds evacuated and homeless. Maybe someone will take notice now!

Silence at the International Desk. Well, I guess no one died and something kind of similar happened a few weeks ago on Lesvos, so…

~

Correction: On Wednesday, The Guardian published this piece about the Turkish military ‘push’ into Syria, which contained the following brief mention of the fire on Samos:

On Monday a fire broke out at an overcrowded camp above Vathy, the port town of Samos, after inter-ethnic clashes.

‘Inter-ethnic clashes’. Really?

Factually not inaccurate, but this throw-away line does no justice to the events of the past two weeks.

Worse, this kind of journalism perpetuates the narrative that political decisions – international, national, local – have no effect on how human beings like you and I behave.

This ‘no effect’ narrative is easy. It’s easy to simply put the fire down to ‘inter-ethnic clashes’. Far too easy. Lazy you could almost say.

~

In October 1963, Bob Dylan wrote a song about a boxer who died as a result of injuries sustained during a bout earlier that year.

‘Who killed Davey Moore? Why and what’s the reason for?’ Dylan asks, as the referee, the angry crowd, his manager and the gambling man shrug their shoulders and pass the blame.

The last to pass the blame is ‘the boxing writer’, who points the finger squarely at Davey Moore’s opponent.

An easy narrative. It’s easy to simply pin the blame on a foreign boxer who ‘came here from Cuba’s door’. Far too easy. Lazy you could almost say.

~

What is my narrative, then?

Who can blame refugees for fighting over food when the food always runs out before the whole of the two-hour queue has been served?

Who can even blame the mayor for cooking up the conditions for catastrophe, when nothing else has convinced the EU to put an end to this barbarism?

There is only one practical solution to this crisis: open the borders and let these people work.

In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw that this was the only practical solution. She was not supported by the rest of the EU, and now has been compelled to fall in line with our other so-called ‘leaders’ and join them in refusing these people justice.

Which is all a bit of a shame because a recent report found that the million or so refugees who came to Germany in 2015 have been ‘integrating’ into society faster than expected: around 400,000 are already employed. This is better than past migrations, such as after the Balkan conflict in the early 90s, and particularly impressive given how difficult it is for Arabic speakers to learn German, let alone start a new life in the country.

But the ‘open borders’ narrative is not so easy. It makes it hard to answer the question I’m often asked: ‘What can we do?’

In short: we can give our time and/or money, either directly to the grassroots refugee organisations who are supporting people on the ground, like those here in Samos; or we can use our elevated European status to advocate for the only just political solution: open borders.

Samos: Tales of Shutdown

ABOUT SAMOS: Samos is an island ruled by legend and beauty. Everything around the virgin landscape is made of colour and light. Each step one takes is a revelation. [Visit Greece]

ALSO: Samos is one of five designated refugee ‘hotspots’ across the East Aegean, the liquid border between the Middle East and the European Union.

These ‘hotspots’, which also include the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kos and Leros, were created in 2016 as holding pens for people wishing to claim asylum in Europe. This means that refugees arriving in Samos are stuck here until their claims have been assessed – a process that often takes a couple of years.

RESIDENT POPULATION OF SAMOS TOWN: 6,251 (2011 Census)
REFUGEE POPULATION OF SAMOS: 6,085 (Aegean Boat Report, 11 October 2019)

Refugee population numbers are always difficult to get right: the Aegean Boat Report figures are slightly higher than the official UNHCR count. Local NGOs estimate the figure to be even higher, with perhaps as many as 7,000 refugees on the island.

The difficulty comes because, when refugees receive a second refusal to their asylum application, they dare not renew their protection documents in case they are picked up by the police, and so they are missed in official counts.

But they are still here. And still they arrive.

Last month alone, 2,124 more people arrived on Samos from Turkey. The numbers of new arrivals have more than doubled compared to September last year. [UNHCR]

MAXIMUM CAPACITY OF SAMOS REFUGEE CAMP: 648 (six hundred and forty-eight, IOM)

~

The refugees on Samos predominantly live in and around the refugee camp, on the hillside that overlooks the island’s main town. A few are able to rent accommodation in the town, but most live in shelters and tents pitched on the steep slopes.

The steep slopes.

As I write this email to you, the sun is shining on another bright October day. Like me, you probably have a strong image in your mind of the Greek islands in summer: vast blue skies and a sun that bakes. In summer.

The Samian winter – which runs from the end of October until mid-April – is perhaps mild by British standards (although British standards do tend to assume a house and central heating).

But the rain.

We had the first sighting last Friday. A storm broke while I was leaving Ikaría. The wind blew, the rain gushed, local Greeks ran for cover, children screamed, and the power cut out for several hours.

Over winter, Samos gets more than twice the rainfall that London does. The downpour turns the panoramic refugee camp into a mudslide. Worse. Outside of the official camp (population 700), there are few (if any) toilets: 6,000 people with little choice but to shit and piss wherever they can.

Their cheap tents are washed away every winter on a tidal wave of mud and piss and shit.

~

On Samos, there are a dozen or so refugee support organisations who do almost all the work necessary to give these people some hope of a future on planet earth, let alone in Europe.

There are organisations that offer legal advice; others that hold language classes in Greek, English, German, French, Farsi and Arabic; some that cook and serve food (the less said about the food provided by the camp the better); others that put on fitness classes for kids and adults.

These solo volunteers, grassroots organisations and larger NGOs exist only so long as the Greek authorities, including the camp administration, shrug their shoulders or turn a blind eye.

I won’t repeat what has been said to me, but I haven’t yet heard a single good word said about the leader of the camp administration. It is fair to say that none of the grassroots organisations have any kind of a relationship with the people that run the camp.

When I arrived last week, all the volunteers I spoke to told me that the local authorities were trying to shut down all the refugee support NGOs, harassing them with spot-checks from the mayor’s office, the police, the health service, the fire department, the building regulators and the tax office.

Today it happened.

Starting at 9.30am this morning, representatives of every branch of local government marched en masse into the offices, kitchens, warehouses and schoolrooms of all the refugee support organisations on the island. It was an overwhelming display of power.

Do you have this certificate? Do you have that invoice? Where are this man’s papers?

~

I will have to leave you on a cliff-hanger, I’m afraid. As I write, an emergency meeting of NGO coordinators is taking place. Right now, people who are only trying their best to help are licking their wounds and comparing the size of their fines.

These tiny organisations, funded by dozens – hundreds – of small-time donors like you and me, are under threat of gargantuan fines up to €10,000 for the slightest infraction – a missing invoice for tomatoes or a building certificate they didn’t realise was (or has mysteriously become) necessary.

Needless to say, the cost of such fines would be unbearable. Then who will teach Greek, English or German? Who will show a path through the asylum labyrinth? Who will feed the hungry?

For the past two months, volunteers at one community restaurant have fed around 550 refugees every day, serving a free lunch to the camp’s most vulnerable residents, including the elderly, disabled, and pregnant and breast-feeding women.

But with the authorities seemingly determined to shut these NGOs down, how long can this restaurant survive? The restaurant founders spent four months getting all the right certificates and licenses to run a kitchen above board. But if the shut-down is not successful today, then what about tomorrow? Tomorrow’s tomorrow?

Then everyone will have to go back to standing in line from two in the morning to get a breakfast of one plastic-coated croissant and a carton of juice.

After today’s assault, perhaps some of the NGOs here on Samos will have to end their operations. Perhaps the crack-down was also intimidation, a message to the EU from a Greek government that has had enough. Perhaps, to some extent, life will go on as before.

This is Greece; we don’t know.

Athens: Where the baby never stopped crying

There is an organisation here in Athens called Kids Klub who – among other things – help construct playgrounds in the squats that house refugees.

SIDE BAR: Why are refugees still living in squats? Indeed – why are they still living on the streets? That’s a question you’d have to ask the Athenian municipality.

Constructing playgrounds for refugee children seems like a marvellous idea, and when I found out about the project I was delighted. But not everyone – not even everyone who supports a state-free world and No Borders – sees it quite that way.

The disagreement orbits the essential question faced at some point or another by everyone who comes here wanting to support refugees:

Should we try to satisfy the immediate material needs of people in a shitty situation; or should we instead focus on the massive, long-term, systemic political or bureaucratic action that might just lift people out of their shitty situation, permanently?

~

Over the past few weeks, at least five squats in the Exarchia area of Athens have been evicted, the playgrounds torn up, destroyed.

Understandably, the volunteers who’d helped build the playgrounds were utterly distraught at seeing their work undone and hundreds of their friends rounded up, loaded onto buses and driven to a detention centre in Corinth that doesn’t even have beds, let alone toilets.

But this wanton act of violence – when viewed from the other side of Alice’s looking glass – was entirely predictable.

~

I had a conversation with a friend grown tired of the whole unhappy cycle of emergency aid and eviction. Their fatigued conclusion was that perhaps the last few years of volunteer efforts (including their own) have been misplaced and that the current complaints about the government and police action are more self-righteous than justified.

Clearly the police response was (and continues to be) barbaric – no one on earth deserves to have all their worldly possessions thrown into a rubbish truck and driven out of the city to be incinerated – but it was not unforeseeable. As a permanent living situation, the squats were completely unsustainable: a humanitarian, but illegal response to an emergency without end.

It is an unfortunate circumstance that we live in a world where one can’t simply appropriate an empty building to house destitute people. This is bullshit, of course, but it’s the bullshit in which we haplessly wallow. The squats were always going to be evicted, if not yesterday, then today.

My friend, a staunch supporter of refugee freedom who lives as they preach, couldn’t help but wonder whether the majority of the last four years of tireless volunteer action, spent on slightly improving the day-to-day lives of refugees in unsustainable accommodation, had in fact been squandered.

The squats have now been evicted and what do the refugees have to show for all their work? Almost nothing.

Yet what might have been possible if all those volunteers had thrown themselves with equal vigour into political advocacy?

Perhaps the painful sacrifice of day-to-day humanitarian support (and playgrounds) would have been offset by a significant concession from the government to make refugees’ lives in Greece more sustainable in the long term (or at least got them out of the country).

Perhaps more work on refugee integration might have reduced rather than exacerbated the local Greek resentment that has proven fertile ground for the new right-wing government.

These remarks are enough to earn you plenty of cold shoulders, by the way. They represent a voice not often heard among the volunteers of Athens.

~

Chatting to another friend on one of the regular protest marches through the city, I heard the other, blunter, side of the argument.

‘It’s all very well saying that political action should take precedence over humanitarian action, but a lot of the people in the squats are friends or relatives of people outside.

‘What would you do if a friend of yours couldn’t afford food and has a crying baby? Tell them that first we need to talk politics? No. You say, okay let’s get you some food, and then we’ll talk politics after your baby has stopped crying.’

The problem is that, in Greece, the baby has never stopped crying. You may not be hearing so much in the news, but last week around 1,600 refugees arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos alone.

~

Of course, I’ve only been in Athens for two weeks. Emma Musty, a long term volunteer with Khora, has written about the recent squat evictions on her blog: Athens Evictions: How many homes can one person lose?

There will be no resolution to the problem posed in this article. Sorry. There is, of course, urgent need for both emergency humanitarian support and long-term political change.

One organisation that at least tries to balance the two is Khora – one of the projects funded by Thighs of Steel. They run both a Free Shop that provides refugees’ immediate needs and an asylum support team that aims to lift refugees out of their shitty situation for good.

I have spent today interviewing the unheard voices of long term Khora volunteers. It’s been a fascinating day and I hope to share some of those conversations with you next week.

In the meantime, if you want to do something today to remind a refugee that they are not alone in this nasty world, then you could do a lot worse than to record a charity record with some really famous people, film a video of you and your buddies wandering around some desolate sand dunes, pump loads of money into promo, get it to Christmas number one, hit Top of the Pops, give a speech at the BAFTAS in which you cry (mainly because you accidentally poked yourself in the eye with the wrong end of a cocktail umbrella), before FINALLY transferring the proceeds (after agent fees) to a massive international charity who promptly misappropriate the funds on schmoozing pop stars for next year’s charity record…

OR you could just donate to Thighs of Steel. 😀

Why Mahmoud wears cologne

The incidental benefits of cycle touring are well known: fitness, tan-lines, an insatiable appetite. But I think I can say without fear of contradiction that cycle touring isn’t particularly famous for its promotion of good personal hygiene.

This year, I am proud to be a part of the Thighs of Steel core team for the glory run to Athens. During those last three weeks of riding, I’ll probably have only 8 showers and wash my clothes twice. Most days, I’ll wake up in the sweat I accumulated the day before, and step into the clothes still encrusted with grime from yesterday’s riding.

Most days, our only chance to scrub will be in rivers, lakes and perhaps under a bucket. Shampoo, perfume and pomade are, for most of us, redundant.

But not for all of us.

~

Mahmoud couldn’t actually cycle, but joined the van team for two weeks from Paris to the Pyrenees. He couldn’t ride because of a long-term knee injury sustained during the Syrian war. He now lives in Germany.

One thing you should know about Mahmoud is that he is very particular about his personal hygiene. Every morning, he combs wax through his styled hair. He applies perfume to neck and wrists, and coats himself in a layer of antiperspirant.

Where most of us have perhaps one change, Mahmoud seems to have a bottomless wardrobe of crisp, clean clothes. He refuses to swim in our wonderfully wild rivers and lakes because the water is dirty. It’s a fair point, and one that he emphasises with good old soap and tap water.

He does everything he can to hold back the inevitable tides of sweat and grime that two weeks’ camping set down. His careful preening is a good-humoured joke. Good-humoured because he wears his fashion lightly; a joke because, standing next to us cyclists, he looks superb.

~

‘I had days where I slept with the blood of other people on my body,’ Mahmoud says. ‘Because you sleep when you are tired, you don’t care about yourself. You can’t imagine the dirt – sometimes I slept in some shit.’

We’re sitting on an artful block of concrete on the banks of the Garonne in Bordeaux and Mahmoud is explaining why he is such a stickler for cleanliness.

‘Because of this trauma – why do I have to be dirty? Why do I have to smell?’ His voice rises in incredulity that anyone would choose dirt.

‘Everything is in my hands now. I don’t want to go back to those days. I have a developed nose and any smell could bring me flashback – I don’t want any flashback.’

~

‘I feel like cleanliness makes me trust myself more,’ Mahmoud explains. ‘If somebody smells in front of me, I take a step back.’

As a refugee, Mahmoud feels like ‘the whole society has taken a step back from me already.’ He doesn’t need to add bad hygiene to the repulsion.

Mahmoud met Harri and Annie, two of the brains behind Thighs of Steel, at a grassroots community centre in Athens. ‘At Khora, everyone was lovely,’ Mahmoud says. ‘Fucking amazing lovely people. But Khora was a small world, really.’

The small world of fucking amazing lovely people doesn’t care whether you’re a refugee, whether you’re dirty or smell bad, or are dressed in cheap clothes. But the big world does.

~

‘The big world really doesn’t like you, really doesn’t want you, and doesn’t accept you,’ Mahmoud says. ‘So I have to do what other Syrians do. They spend money to wear Adidas, to wear Gucci – why? To fit into the society, so people know they have money, so people stop judging them. You cannot afford Gucci if you are not working.’

‘I could lie to myself and say everyone is nice – no. People smile in front of your face, but they don’t like you. They smile in front of your face for the society. Do you think that everyone talks to me nicely?’

‘For me, to look good and to be clean could help me in front of society. People might accept me.’

~

Thighs of Steel is Europe’s biggest charity relay bike ride, taking 9 weeks to cover the 6,000km from London to Athens, with a frankly silly detour via the Pyrenees to make it more than 90,000m climbing over three of the continent’s toughest mountain ranges.

Over the past four years, Thighs of Steel supporters have raised more than a quarter of a million pounds for grassroots refugee organisations like Khora. Already this year we’ve raised more than £50,000.

If you want to help…

If you have any trouble donating, let me know – the website isn’t always the friendliest. Thanks!

Talk Migration: Help Refugees

Last Sunday morning, more than 40 people crammed into a wide circle to ‘talk migration’ under the wooden beams of Impact Hub in Kings Cross.

Talk Migration was a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights, organised by Thighs of Steel.

Every year, Thighs of Steel cyclists come together to fundraise for grassroots refugee organisations around Europe. In 2019 they are aiming to raise £100,000 with their legendary London to Athens relay ride.

A bicycle bell called us to order and the smiles rang out…


We started the day with a talk by Philly, one of the founders of refugee support charity Help Refugees.

Help Refugees started as nothing more than a heartfelt response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Calais in the summer of 2015. A few friends and a crowdfunder aiming to raise £1000.

A week later, they’d raised over £50,000, and were receiving 7,000 donations a day – tents, sleeping bags, clothes, toiletries. They rented a warehouse in London, another in Calais, and Help Refugees was born.

Almost 4 years later, Help Refugees are now supporting more than 80 grassroots projects in 12 countries.

This year, 120 Thighs of Steel cyclists are aiming to raise £100,000 for Help Refugees. The funds will be split between grassroots organisations along the Thighs of Steel London to Athens cycle route.

Campaigns Help Refugees support in the UK


Thank you to Thighs of Steel for putting on Talk Migration, a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights.

If you want to support Help Refugees, then you could do a lot worse than donate to my Thighs of Steel fundraising page 😀

Talk Migration: The 21st Century Slaves of Indefinite Detention

Last Sunday morning, more than 40 people crammed into a wide circle to ‘talk migration’ under the wooden beams of Impact Hub in Kings Cross.

Talk Migration was a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights, organised by Thighs of Steel.

Every year, Thighs of Steel cyclists come together to fundraise for grassroots refugee organisations around Europe. In 2019 they are aiming to raise £100,000 with their legendary London to Athens relay ride.

A bicycle bell called us to order and the smiles rang out…


Our second speaker was Michael Darko, part of Detention Action’s out-reach programme Freed Voices.

Freed Voices are a group of ‘experts-by-experience’ whose mission is to increase awareness of the grim day-to-day reality of life in detention.

Michael’s story

Michael Darko was born ‘on his grandmother’s lap’ in Ghana. He spent just 4 years in Ghana, before travelling with his family to Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, finally settling in London when Michael was 12.

At no stage in the journey did Michael have any identity papers – no birth certificate, no passport, no visas, nothing.

When Michael was 15 his father abandoned the family, leaving them to fend for themselves. As the oldest, Michael dropped out of school to look for a job. Because he had no papers, Michael could only pick up casual work in Hackney Market, but at least it was enough to support him and his 4 siblings.

A year later, however, social services found out about the unusual family structure. Michael was still just a kid and, with bills piling up, the family lost their home.

Forced into a corner, and still head of the household, Michael fell in with a gang on the streets of Hackney. Unable to stomach the violence, he ran away and ended up in Northampton. There, he got a legitimate job at a logistics company – but only by using another man’s identity.

Being a smart guy, Michael rose through the ranks until he was earning £40,000 a year as a team manager. Then his luck ran out.

The man whose identity Michael had stolen made a claim for benefits – the computer threw up an error, and Michael was tracked down, prosecuted for fraud, and sentenced to 20 months imprisonment.

Michael accepts the punishment for his crime: he stole another man’s identity and deserved his sentence.

But what happened next was out of order.

Into detention

The day before he was due to be released from prison, Michael’s immigration status was investigated. Having no papers, he was told that he wasn’t going to be released after all.

Not only that, but because he was uncooperative with the investigation, Michael was transferred immediately to a high security prison. He languished there for another 12 months until his sentence was completed.

At this point, Michael had paid his debt to society and, if he’d been a British citizen, he would have been justly released. Instead, the Home Office transferred him to a detention centre – for an indefinite length of time.

Michael ended up staying there for another two and a half years.

Inside detention

During those years, Michael had plenty of time to study and he became an expert on immigration law. He helped 48 fellow detainees avoid deportation by writing their judicial review applications. In response, he was threatened with prosecution.

The irony is that Michael only ever wanted to work to earn a living. This right was denied to him in free society, but inside detention, compliant asylum seekers are allowed to work – for the princely wage of £1 per hour.

Almost all detention centres in the UK are now run by private companies, who run their business for a profit.

Over the past few years, the Home Office has reduced the amount they pay these businesses to £86 per detainee – and now these private companies need to find alternative streams of income to keep up their 20-30% profit margin.

One way they can do this, of course, is by exploiting these 21st century slaves.

Released

Michael appealed for bail 15 times and was finally released in December 2014 after taking charge of his own legal defence and making a request for his Home Office file.

In those papers, Michael found out that the Home Office knew that the Ghanaian authorities had no record of his existence and would not accept his return.

Rather than dropping the deportation, the Home Office was keeping Michael in detention, waiting for… What?

The day before his arrest for fraud, Michael was a high-earning, tax-paying member of British society. By the time he became a free man once again, his detention had cost the tax-payer around £100,000.

And for what?

‘My story is not an isolated case,’ Michael says, ‘and it shouldn’t shock you. It is a fraction, a fraction.’

The system

Michael doesn’t disagree that immigrants who have committed a crime should be deported. It’s the interminable wait that he feels is unjust.

Why does the deportation process only begin at the end of a custodial sentence? ‘The wait is mental torture,’ Michael says.

In fact, the whole asylum system is designed to work against the people it is supposed to protect. During Talk Migration, we discussed two such ways: the denial of the right to work and the denial of the right to healthcare.

Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act of 2013, access to legal aid has been made increasingly difficult. This means asylum seekers are often faced with expensive legal fees that they can’t pay without looking for paid work – in contravention of the limited rights granted to them.

If they are caught, their asylum application can be rejected out-of-hand and they can be sent into detention. A vicious cycle.

That’s not the only way that the deck is stacked against asylum seekers.

Until they are granted indefinite leave to remain, asylum seekers have no recourse to public funds. This means that they can’t use the NHS for anything other than emergency care – and even then they will be expected to foot the bill.

One very common reason why an asylum seeker might need to use the NHS is during childbirth. On their journey, it’s not uncommon for female asylum seekers to be the victims of rape. The pregnancy comes to term in the UK – so what can they do?

Childbirth is primary care, but any pre-natal check-ups are not. This means that female asylum seekers come to hospital (if at all) at the last minute. This, of course, leads to poorer health outcomes for mother and baby.

But there is worse to come. A routine birth costs the NHS around £6,000, and asylum seekers are expected to pay 150% of the costs, so are hit with a bill for about £9,000.

Of course, there is no way that most asylum seekers can afford to pay these bills. You might be wondering why the NHS bothers to chase them at all. Well, it’s got nothing to do with covering their costs.

If a person makes a claim for asylum and they owe more than £500 to the NHS, then their claim can be thrown out without further consideration. These bills are an easy way for the Home Office to strip people of their refugee convention rights and deport them back to the country they fled from.

Our health service is being used for political ends to punish vulnerable refugees. Hats off to the healthcare professionals who do what they can to push back against the system and end the sharing of patient data between hospitals and the Home Office. You know who you are!

What happens after detention?

The strange thing is that most detainees are never deported: more than half are eventually released back into the community. Back to where they started, but with one crucial difference – they are traumatised through their detention ordeal.

Up until the moment of their incarceration, most detainees are simply trying to make a new life under extremely difficult circumstances. But if anything is going to traumatise, criminalise and radicalise, it’s the dehumanising conditions of detention.

This psychological trauma is not treated by the Home Office, of course. It falls on the community to absorb the damage. So if you think that you aren’t doing enough, take heart from Michael’s assertion that, ‘any little thing you do makes a big difference’.

How can that possibly be true?

The perception of detainees from the inside of a detention centre is that the whole country hates you. This is desperate.

Remember when you felt like everyone in your class hated you for letting in a goal on sports day? Now imagine that, but it’s not just 30 classmates, but 66 million.

This makes even the smallest gesture of support incredibly powerful to a detainee because it shows them at a single stroke that not everyone hates them. And if one person doesn’t hate them, then perhaps there are dozens, hundreds, millions of people out there who, in fact, support them.

Detention Action are currently recruiting for volunteers, particularly listeners with language skills. They are also fighting for a 28-day time limit on detention.

This limit would end the uncertainty, and reduce the trauma caused by detention. So far the campaign has the support of around 70 MPs.

Find out more

Watch and read Michael’s story on Detention Action, on The Guardian.

On life in detention: Working Illegally (28 minutes, 2015)

On life in Brooks House detention centre: BBC Panorama Undercover: Britain’s Immigration Secrets (60 minutes, 2017) on BBC iPlayer [Not currently available], or HDDocumentary.com


Thank you to Thighs of Steel for putting on Talk Migration, a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights.

oh merde it’s a FUNDRAISING LAUNCH!!

Click here to cut the crap and go straight to my Help Refugees donation page…

This summer I’ll be cycling ~1,800km from Rome to Athens because I vehemently believe that borders are really dumb.

Everyone should be able to roam the earth freely and that’s why I support the work that Help Refugees are doing to help stateless human beings get a foothold in life.

As one of the lucky, lucky people on earth who haven’t had their home village bombed to pieces, I like to do what I can to support those who aren’t so fortunate. If that involves cycling an awfully long way in 35 degree heat, then so be it.

If you think that helping refugees is a generally good idea, then I’d be super grateful if you could donate whatever you can afford.

Click this link to make that happen.

Having visited projects supported by Help Refugees all over Europe, I can reassure you that the work they do is of immense practical support to actual human beings every day. (I’ve published a lot of these stories on my blog – drop me a line if you want a direct link.)

Thank you in advance for being so generous! And stay tuned because your donation will get you free entry to a very exciting thingy that we’re planning for the start of July….

Oh now you’re interested! (Donate by card or Paypal…)


+++ There’s still time to join this year’s ride. Maybe London to Paris, or Milan to Venice? If you want to ride with yours truly, then sign up for Rome-Bari or Corfu-Athens!

Crossing the Border

If the wind changes direction, this man is in deep trouble. His mouth is so firmly down-turned that I wonder how he feeds himself.

He shoves out his hands, and I take two steps back. He stares at me, my little wine-red book on his counter.

The muscles in his face are drawn taught, toughness without any sign of strain. Only his eyes move: up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down. Matching photo to face, face to photo.

He flicks through the document, then slides it into a machine and stares expressionless at his monitor.

He returns to my face and my photograph. Except for his eyeballs, his face is completely frozen – do they teach that in border control school? Continue reading Crossing the Border

Diavata Camp, Thessaloniki

Before driving to Diavata camp, we had to pick up our interpreter. Being all-smiles Syrian, he was first compelled to cook up huge plates of falafel, mutabbel and hummus, and feed us until we could take no more.

Then we drove out to the camp.

Diavata is hidden away in the warehouse suburbs of industrial Thessaloniki. No one could come across these people if they didn’t know they were here – it’s a long way from the polished waterfront and expensive international chain coffee. Weatherbeaten old gypsies are on their haunches outside, selling vegetables and huge watermelons laid out on tarpaulins. Continue reading Diavata Camp, Thessaloniki

From Chios to Crisis

I’m writing this from Chios, hoping that my phone reception doesn’t flip into Turkish and I get charged £12.50 per megabyte. First world problems, I suppose.

Where I am now is less than 5 miles from Turkey: the mountains of Anatolia rise easily over the horizon. It’s the tantalising gap between Asia and Europe, between fear and safety for refugees from the wars in Syria and beyond. Continue reading From Chios to Crisis

Things I Have Learnt About Khora

The generously observant among you will have realised by now that I’m raising money for a community centre for refugees in Athens called Khora.

I promised you all that I’d do my best to find out where our money is going, and that I have done. Thanks to sunset on Strefi. Continue reading Things I Have Learnt About Khora

Learning Arabic from a Syrian wanted by ISIS

I just spent an invigorating hour with M., a refugee language teacher from Syria. I found him through Chatterbox, a social enterprise that matches refugees with a talent for teaching with language students like me. Fantastic idea.

I haven’t spoken Arabic properly since the last time I was in Egypt in January 2010. That’s a heck of a long time for a language to lie dormant, but I was surprised by how easily some of came back to me, and M. was amazed – ‘You’re half Egyptian,’ he very much joked. Continue reading Learning Arabic from a Syrian wanted by ISIS

From Syria to Switzerland: Hossam’s Journey

In October 2015, I met a Syrian family near Spielfeld on the border of Slovenia and Austria. They were huddled together in the cold, waiting to cross into the first country in the EU that was even slightly capable of receiving them.

At that time, nearly 7,000 migrants from Syria, Iraq and beyond were landing in Greece every day. Making a notable exception for Angela Merkel’s conscience, most European governments were doing nothing more than passing the problem as quickly as possible to their neighbours.

Continue reading From Syria to Switzerland: Hossam’s Journey

#34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

Boutiques serve coffee and fine art, grafitti scratches the medieval walls and students sit cross-legged on the cobbled squares, drinking Radler and slurping ice creams. After another thunderstorm, we see a young man in a wet suit surfing the engorged canals.

Augsburg is exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find the Grandhotel Cosmopolis, where guests arrive with or without asylum. Continue reading #34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

#25 Heidelberg Helps

Heidelberg feels less a town and more a university campus. Arriving from the industry laden north, we’re suddenly in the land of bicycles, scrubbed smiles and yoga mats. Heidelberg has a population of 150,000, a third of which are students. In the summer, they’re replaced man-for-man by tourists, gaggling in the cobbled streets, selfying under the Schloss and monkeying around with the Heidelberg baboon.
Continue reading #25 Heidelberg Helps

They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

A four year old sits on a double bunk bed, his legs tucked under, assiduously scrubbing his remote controlled car with a nail brush. His older brother is crosslegged in front of a small television, watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into Dutch. His father, ginger beard framing blue eyes, offers us tea.

We’re squatting on small square stools around a small square table in the small square room that father and his two sons temporarily call home.

Continue reading They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Hospitality is a funny game. After stopping at a roadside fruit and veg stand, we set up our Campingaz kitchen in Weissach town square. As C boils some eggs, a young man approaches. In broken German he asks us, ‘Why you cook here? I have kitchen. Come.’
Continue reading Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

The School Bus Project, Calais

One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to Calais and beyond. She told us that, while in Calais, we must visit Kate McAllister, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that’s exactly what we did.
Continue reading The School Bus Project, Calais

Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

The Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Dunkirk is to the Calais jungle as Milton Keynes is to London. Where Calais is only now having order imposed on a meandering medieval street plan, Grande-Synthe has been ordered from conception to execution. The result is that the two migrant communities could not feel more different. Continue reading Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

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Conversations in Calais

We are currently holed up in Petite Fort Philippe, equidistant from both Calais and Dunkirk, home to two of the largest migrant camps in Northern France. Yesterday we visited Calais, my first trip back there since the mass demolitions that have devastated the bustling shanty town. Continue reading Conversations in Calais

Cycling to(wards) Syria

This May, I shall set off on a 3,000 mile bicycle tour, following the routes of migration from the safe refuge of London to the bombed-out streets of Syria. Don’t worry: safety is my first priority. I am fully expecting never to reach Syria, but that is my destination of the mind.

Along the way, I shall be collecting stories direct from the mouths of migrants, aid workers, government officials and local residents, using each interview to inform the course of the journey, and sharing these stories with as wide an audience as I can, in written word, photography, audio, and video.

Continue reading Cycling to(wards) Syria

“We would like to breathe the air that you breathe” – Nabeel Taha, Iraq

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

This is the story of Nabeel Taha, an Iraqi radio presenter and cartoonist (that’s his artwork pictured), who fled his home after an exhibition got him into deadly trouble with Daesh. Continue reading “We would like to breathe the air that you breathe” – Nabeel Taha, Iraq

Calais: From Crisis to Community

Back in March 2015, the French authorities in Calais made a tactical blunder. They evicted the dozen or so migrant squats and camps dotted around the town, which had been home to 1-2,000 refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Syria, among others. Instead, they created a “tolerated zone” a few kilometers away, where the migrants could sleep and suffer until they decided that surrendering was better than staying.

The tactical blunder was to underestimate the response of civil society to this new tolerated camp. Then again, in fairness to the French, there was nothing in the air back then to suggest that civil society at large would give anything other than a flying fuck about the couple of thousand migrants squatting on their doorstep. Continue reading Calais: From Crisis to Community

“It’s time to do something” Austrian Migrant Supporter

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

These are the impressions of a young woman, who describes herself as “just a supporter”. For nearly four weeks, she had been supporting a refugee protest camp outside the police station in Graz. You can hear the story of one of the refugees, Mazin, recorded here.

This Austrian woman spoke passionately about her motivation to action. “This situation is writing history,” she explained. “When in 30 years my children ask me what happened, I don’t want to explain to them why did I just watch, why didn’t I do anything.” She sees action as a moral imperative: “I don’t see it as help,” she says. “I just see it as something you basically have to do now.”

This solidarity imperative means that, rather than becoming an aid worker, she finds herself surrounded by friends. “Everybody I met, they become friends,” she says. “It’s not like they are refugees and I am Austrian and I help them, but we’re doing something together and we become friends. That’s what it should be like.”

Unsurprisingly, she’s not terribly impressed by the governments of the EU. “They could do so much more,” she says. “If it would be about some economical crisis, they would have a solution in days.” Her laugh has real bite. “But now it’s about human beings standing around outside in the cold for hours and hours. They’re not treating people with enough humanity.”

“I always believe in humanity” Mazin Abu Khaled, Migrant from Syria

I’m very pleased to finally be publishing this, the first in a series of audio stories called Voices for Migration. The series will feature the voices of many different people, all talking about their experiences of migration – whether migrants themselves or people who have been touched by the effects of migration.

This first story is from a Syrian man called Mazin Abu Khaled, who I met while in Graz at the Elevate Festival. He is lucky to have made it to Austria, but his journey is far from over. His family are still back in Syria, but he can’t afford to pay the human traffickers who could help them escape, and is scared that they wouldn’t survive the journey in any case. “It is a death journey,” he says.

Even in Austria, Mazin is struggling. He has been waiting for his papers for months. Until his asylum claim is processed, he is not allowed to work or contribute to Austrian society, even as a volunteer. “We want to help,” he says. “We can do many things with them.” That is why he and other migrants set up a protest camp outside the police building in Graz.

Mazin’s sympathy, however, lies with less fortunate migrants, who are leaving Syria in their thousands, to be met in the EU with near indifference. The governments of the EU are not taking the problem seriously. “There is no food, no blankets, nothing,” he says. “I can’t understand it.”

So I hope you enjoy listening, and please share Mazin’s powerful story with your friends.

 

I’m a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac!

“You’re a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac.”

I’ve been called many things since I first started “getting involved” with Calais back in the summer of 2014. Rather than dismissing these accusations hurled as insults, I would rather examine them to discover from where they derive their power. Because power they have: I do feel, at times, a voyeur, a do-gooder and a megalomaniac.

I don’t think many people enjoy acknowleging these aspects of themselves, but I think it’s important to do so. Hopefully I’ll show you how listening to your feelings of voyeurism, do-gooding and megalomania can make you, not just a better activist, but a better person altogether.

“You’re a voyeur.”

This accusation is founded on the idea that the migrant camp in Calais represents a vision of the world so radically different to mine that I must be taking some kind of perverse pleasure in the encounter. My favourite term for this kind of activist tourism is, rather than solidarity, holidarity.

It’s true: my warm home in London couldn’t be more different to the waterlogged shanty tents of Calais. It’s also true that my life as a middle class white Englishman couldn’t be more different to the experience of a six year-old Syrian boy, alone in an unwelcoming foreign land with not much more than the shirt on his back.

The accusation of voyeurism hits the mark. The misery and squalor of Calais is horrifying. It does, sometimes, make me stare uncomprehendingly, and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to live through this reality indefinitely.

But this is my reality. Calais is as much a part of my life as the streets of New Cross, and we are all part of a world crowded with camps as horrifying as Calais (and many much more so). Should we airbrush places like Calais from our pretty picture? I don’t think so. The only question that remains, then, is how we should act in such a world.

Here is where we get our first insight: the feeling of being a voyeur only hits me when I restrict myself to being an outside observer. This actually happens very rarely. When I’m in Calais, I usually spend most of my time talking to people, trying to teach English, sharing food, or playing cricket. The moment I take action, the feeling of voyeurism dissolves in a shared connection with real people who react and respond themselves.

It’s simple. We can’t deny that voyeurism is part of the spectrum of human feeling, but I see voyeurism as a timely reminder that we are not here on Earth merely to observe; we are here to connect.

“You’re a do-gooder.”

The sense of “do-gooding” is undoubtedy pejorative. Do-gooders are earnest, naive, impractical, patronising, relentlessly foisting their well-intentioned, but ill-conceived ideas of betterment on people who have asked for nothing.

I won’t repeat the unfavourable comparison I’ve made before between charity and solidarity, but I do feel that the difference is hierarchy and intention. (Please note that I’m not talking about all insitutional charities necessarily, but the fundamental concept.)

Charities are classically and intentionally hierarchical: a material need is identified and filled by an outside group. The power resides in the charity. Clothes, food, or bikes are handed out from those who have to those who have not. At its best, this is nothing more than resource re-distribution; at its worst, however, the recipient is turned into a beggar for aid.

The concept of solidarity is very different in structure and intention. Solidarity recognises the natural and fundamental equality of humanity. The intention is simply to stand side by side with your brothers and sisters, in the good times, as well as the bad. What is yours is theirs, and vice-versa. It is similar to a friendship bond, rather than an institutional or paterfamilias bond.

I have always left Calais feeling like I was an equal beneficiary from whatever exchange of humanity took place between me and the people I met there.

So when you are accused of being a do-gooder, it’s a signal that perhaps you have assumed more power than you should in an equal relationship. The solution is simple: check your privilege, and surrender any top-down control you have.

“You’re a megalomaniac!”

A megalomaniac is a pathological egotist, conceited, self-obsessed, with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What has this to do with activism and Calais, you might wonder. Well, there are a couple of ways a megalomaniac might become involved.

A pre-existing megalomaniac might see in Calais and the migration crisis an opportunity for his own self-aggrandisement and fame. I’m not going to talk about those kinds of people; they have a lot more work to do than I can help with here.

What I will talk about, however, are the heady megalomaniacal feelings that an activist might get when they get media or popular attention, when they are part of something awesome, or when they start to feel possession over “their” action.

Since the middle of 2015, there has been a lot of attention on Calais, not just in the media, but on the street too. Back in 2014, no one was particularly interested in what I did in Calais. One mention of “migrants” and all I’d get was a dirty look. This autumn, however, those same dirty lookers were clamouring for tips on how to “get involved”.

My small part in the success of the Calais Critical Mass over the August Bank Holiday also meant that I ended up speaking to all sorts of national and international media, in print and on TV. A couple of things I’ve written about Calais on this site have gone viral, sending thousands of people to a blog that usually gets about 50 visits a day.

At times, it’s been hard to come down from the megalomaniacal high.

When I get this kind of attention and appreciation, my heart rate rises, I feel light-headed, and my voice goes all squeaky. It’s a pretty great feeling and it would be tempting, indeed understandable, to chase that megalomaniacal high. But I know that it is not a productive emotion to indulge.

I call these feelings “megalomania”, and not something more positive like “enthusiasm” or “ecstasy”, because they always result in me turning inwards, chasing the feeling, not the results that I would like to see in the world. The antidote to megalomania is modesty.

As we rode down to Calais in an eighty-strong mass last August, I kept telling myself (and anyone who’d listen) of the modesty of what we were trying to achieve. This was not a grandiose expedition, I kept telling myself. It would be a success if just one person made just one other person smile across the battlelines of our border.

Whenever I felt myself being carried along by incipient feelings of megalomania – “This is the beginning of the borderless revolution, and I made it happen!” – I would refocus on that one little smile, and give thanks that I was able to be a tiny part of a much greater positive force.

Megalomania is another useful signal, telling me that success is making me turn inwards. The solution is to appreciate our smallest imaginable achievement, and give thanks to all the others who make this possible. Megalomania is a call to acknowledge the higher purpose we share with the rest of the planet.

Yes, I am a voyeaur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac (sometimes)

Occasionally feeling like a voyeur, a do-gooder, or a megalomaniac is an inescapable part of being an activist (by which I mean “human”). I’m only human; I’m bound to get swept away sometimes by feelings of horror and power, fame and pride.

I see these feelings, not as enemies or insults, but as signals, important reminders to reconnect with the real reasons for why I’m doing what I do.

  • When I feel like a voyeur, I must remember to stop being an outside observer, and to connect.
  • When I feel like a do-gooder, I must remember to check my privilege, and surrender my top-down control.
  • When I feel like a megalomaniac, I must give thanks to others, and acknowledge my small role in our shared higher purpose.

As activists, we must learn to take our own temperatures (or rely on a trusted friend). When you feel yourself getting too hot, dial the temperature down by refocussing on what exactly makes you feel good about what you do. What makes me feel good is the community, being able to make a personal connection with people from Sudan, Eritrea or Syria. That’s what’s important to me.

If you can’t find any good in that moment, then it’s time to take a step back altogether. Relax, go home, clear yourself out.

Refugee Crisis: Which Side Are You On?

Last week, I visited the Slovenian-Austrian border. What I saw there shook my perception of the “migrant crisis”.

What I saw resembled nothing less than the black and white photographs we’re so familiar with from World War II: lines and lines of patient refugees, holding nothing more than a bag and the hands of their children. Except this isn’t in black and white. This is happening now.

I shot this short video to try to capture the severity of the conflict in Syria and Iraq right now, and to inspire people to realise that this isn’t something that they can ignore for ever.

The conflict in the Middle East is only escalating, displacing more and more people. 200,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq entered Greece in October alone. David Cameron has said the UK will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. That is the same number that is arriving in Austria every five days.

For all of us, history is being written in this very moment. The question is: Which side are you on?

Thoughts on Saving the World

The other day, someone accused me of “trying to save the world” through my activities in Calais, the English teaching, the UKHIP cricket match, the bike ride.

I’m not, I can’t and I don’t want to try to “save the world”. I don’t even want to try to change the world. Changing the world is not something that you can approach directly. Like happiness, any direct approach only ends in disappointment.

So my only aim, both in words and in actions, is to help people think about the world. That’s it.

I can’t change what people think, I can only invite them to think about the world.

Sneaking up on change

The best form of thought is experience. Words (like these) are good, but never enough. To think about the world deeply, you have to seep yourself in the reality, the physical reality. One experience of Calais, one connection, will always be much stronger than any news story or blog post. Words can be a catalyst, but that’s it.

So I invite people to join a cricket match or a bike ride. My sole aim is to lower the barriers to action and try to make the experience rewarding.

If that invitation is accepted, then I’m happy, because as soon as someone does something, their reality changes and that change inspires change in their ideas, thoughts and future actions.

In turn, that change in the individual will create ripples throughout their social groups, as they talk to their friends and share their ideas and actions. Eventually, in enough numbers, those ripples might influence change in our wider society. And, maybe, just maybe, that’s when the world changes.

It’s a long road, but it’s approachable, one invitation at a time. My method is certainly not saving the world, and neither is it changing the world directly. At best, I’m sneaking up on change, hoping to take it by surprise.

Process, not results

For me, none of my trips to Calais have been about what the migrants “need”. The trips haven’t been humanitarian missions or any form of charity. They have always been about forming solidarity and connections between different people, between people in this country as well as with people from Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea – wherever.

The Critical Mass bike trip was the grandest expedition that I’ve ever had the pleasure of participating in. Dozens of strangers came together and formed strong bonds of solidarity, helping each other, sharing their knowledge, skills and optimism. Even close friends discovered new sides to each other during the journey. Before we’d even left the country, the “bike ride” was already a success: it had already galvanised people to exchange and connect.

Before we’d gone one mile, I was already delighted. A healthy and happy process is always much more important than achieving what we’re tempted to think of as “results” – how many bikes distributed or how much aid delivered. My favourite results are almost immeasurable and I have to take them largely on faith: sharing, smiles, stories. These three Ss are what cause ripples in society.

Be there

The primary importance of process stems from the idea that, in my opinion, no one can say what any other human being “needs”. What do I need? I’m not even sure I know myself.

The people who live in Calais are hugely resourceful; one more tent here or there is far, far less important than the smiles and stories that one more human connection can provide – on both sides of the interaction.

Whenever I have gone to Calais, I have always learnt and discovered far more about the world and myself than I feel I have contributed – yes, even when we brought over a huge van full of tents and sleeping bags.

Everyone who I have seen go to Calais has come back inspired, their lives altered, sometimes dramatically. Many have gone on to encourage their friends to go over and bear witness for themselves. At the very least, everyone has returned with a more nuanced impression of Calais, of migration in general and with deep memories of the people they met in particular.

Those impressions and memories will hold far stronger than a whole barrage of bigoted media coverage. Nothing beats being there, planting yourself in the kinaesthetics of the reality that, to some, is just another news story.

Whatever you do, be there.

The message

So my message is very simple: go over and see for yourself. That’s all.

Go and see for yourself, try to understand, exchange stories, find out why these people are coming here and what they want. I don’t mind if you go there and decide for yourself that you still want borders and immigration controls – as long as you hold that view from a position of knowledge.

In my experience, however, people tend to return from Calais inspired to tear down these fictional boundaries between mankind. It is usually obvious, once you’ve experienced the reality, that to militarise and strengthen the border is to put yourself in the same position as the builders of Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall. Not only will it create more problems than it solves in the short term, but in the long term, sooner or later, the people will be free.

So I urge you to go to Calais and see for yourself. Obviously, don’t go as a tourist, camera clicking – it’s not a zoo. But don’t go as a charity worker or a humanitarian crisis worker either. Go as yourself, be yourself, be curious. Share your stories and your experience and be open to hear the stories and experience of others.

Understanding the Calais Critical Mass

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend, eighty cyclists rode seventy miles through Greater London and the Kent Downs to Calais. We cycled in a mass to the desolate camp ground and left our bicycles and tents for the migrants who live there.

It sounds simple when you write it down like that, but the trip had multiple and sometimes competing dimensions. My hope here is to explore these dimensions, from the superficial visceral to the more philosophical conceptual. I hope that this will help people, myself included, understand what the hell just happened.

The Ride

The first dimension was the logistics of the ride itself. Many people were not experienced long distance cyclists and none of us were riding flash new touring bikes. The road was punctuated with punctures, scattered with rain showers and undulating with hill climb, some unnecessarily arduous at the end of long lost detours (sorry about that).

But everyone who took part in the ride was gorgeous and courageous and threw themselves into the trip with optimism, laughter and steadfast determination that was quite hair-tingling to witness. All weekend, I didn’t hear a single moan, groan, quibble, niggle, whinge, whine, peeve or complaint that wasn’t soon laughed over as half a dozen other riders descended on the aggrieved to comfort or make right. Everybody made themselves indispensable.

That optimism, that coruscating energy that all eighty exhaled, pulled down all obstacles in our path and puzzle pieces fell into place precisely when they were called upon. The appearance of an eighty-seater roadside Chinese restaurant, kitchen ready to serve until midnight. The kindness of the proprietor who let us use his yard as an overnight bike storage unit. The large paddock opposite, with open gate and tree cover, for that blustery night’s camp site.

When you move in such numbers, with such force, not only does anything feel possible, but your very conception of the possible expands to encompass everything. Can we fix a double puncture in the dark? Yes. Can we climb another 17% hill on a single speed bike? Yes. Can we navigate through cat black woods in mud and hail? Yes. Can we find a restaurant, cycle parking and camping for eighty people? Of course.

The Camp

After the group bonding transformation of the ride down to Dover, there was the raw experience of the migrant camp in Calais, overwhelming at the best of times, but this was, meteorologically-speaking, the worst of times.

That night suffered the worst of mauvais Calais: a ferocious thunderstorm. It lasted from dusk until the witching of dawn: cyclonic gales, hailstones, ripping thunder and flash dance lightning directly overhead. Many of our tents were ripped apart, sleeping bags soaked, turned to mops.

Far from drowning in disaster, we witnessed true solidarity, true friendship, true hospitality. The morning, dripping up from the night before, was filled with stories of how this and that party of Syrians or Afghans, those Kuwaitis or Sudanese, had invited tentless, sleepless cyclists into their shelters with companion offers of tea, supper and pyjamas.

There’s a fancy word that I’ve stolen from various theories of agricultural development and romantic attachment called “propinquity”. It basically means closeness, in both time and space. I’ve appropriated this term to capture the idea that the physical environment in which you find yourself at any particular time is the most important factor dictating the course of your life in that moment. Propinquity is hereness, nowness.

The most important person in our lives is always the person closest to us in physical space at that moment. The physical conditions and environment that we find ourselves in are always the most relevant to our lives at that moment. It’s no good having a nice warm house back in London if you’re stranded in a tempest in Calais. It’s no comfort having a hilarious friend who’d make you laugh about how wet you all are, if she’s not with you at that precise moment of drenchery.

No: you are entirely dependent, or rather interdependent with the people with whom you share this physical space.

Some people came with vague high-minded ideas that they would “help” the migrants. This is all very warm and fuzzy, but its misapprehensions were blown away by that gale. We were their guests; despite all the donations in the world, all we can ever truly bring each other is friendship.

Of course, in among all the handshakes, hugs, nuts, sweets, oranges and smiles, there was profound misery. Tents were washed away in mud slides, even vast UN-style refugee shelters stood in inches of water, only pallets on the ground raised the lucky ones from sleeping in streams.

A young man from Kuwait, a new arrival at the camp, came to me at four in the morning, trying to find a tent to sleep and shelter in. We walked around our clutch of canvas and found him one that was empty. But the door had been left unzipped and the tempest had made home there. He crouched down, dipped his hands into the swampish floor, stood up, covered his face with his palm and wept. I put a hand on his shoulder, another around his nape, and did all I could. He walked away over the dunes, backlit by lightning.

There is a form of experience and learning called kinaesthesia. It happens when you actually do something, rather than read about it in a book or watch a programme about it on television. I believe that the only way you can truly begin to understand Calais is by taking part in such a kinaesthetic experience: by being there.

In many ways, the cycle ride was a ruse. The most efficient way to transport bicycles from London to Calais is to hire a van, pack it with fifty bikes and get someone to drive down. But then only the driver would have that understanding, that kinaesthetic experience of Calais. He could only attempt to spread his experience further through stories and maybe a blog post or a video. That’s not enough. I want everybody in Britain to travel to Calais and have a kinaesthetic experience; I want everybody to make friends and shake hands.

I always say that one trip to Calais, one cup of hot sugary tea with a Sudanese or Eritrean, is worth a full year of media stories, with their distortions, omissions, angles, exaggerations and outright lies. I think of Calais as an inoculation against the propaganda, a cool draught of reality against the slurping sugar and sour of the media and news machines. Some are hostile to migration, some are more sympathetic, but why filter through the eyes and words of others when you can immerse yourself in understanding by being there.

William James, the founder of modern psychology, said that we become what we do. I have become a writer by writing every day. You might have become a good husband by being kind to your wife every day. We weren’t born this way; we acted this way and became this way.

By cycling to Calais and staying in the camp with a family from Afghanistan, we become the person who cycled to Calais and stayed in the camp with a family from Afghanistan. That simple, but remarkable, act of solidarity becomes a part of us and makes us more empathic human beings in our future.

In some tiny way, the struggles of our own short two-day journey over land to Calais represented a scintilla of the struggles that migrants face, journeying not sixty miles, but thousands of unsettled, dangerous miles. We can never fully embody another person’s struggle, but we can stand closer with them through doing and becoming.

The Bicycle Donation

Far and away the most minor dimension of the expedition was the handover of bikes to the people in the camp. We’d cycled them to Calais and we would be walking home.

For many in the media and for some on the ride, I’m afraid that this “charitable” aspect of the ride drew focus away from the more important dimensions outlined above: making the journey and simply being there at the camp, meeting and making friends, with people from very different backgrounds. Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to share the bicycle’s gift of freedom with someone who has none, but that gift can never outweigh our exchange of friendship.

Charity, as I have said before, can quickly become a hierarchical transaction between the supposed “haves” and the supposed “have nots”. I’m not saying that recipients of charity are not living without waterproof shoes or enough warm blankets, food or sanitation; they are. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t assume that, because these people “have not” something, they are somehow below us who “have”.

Ultimately, we are all human and we all live within the same range of emotions and experience, equally. We all love and laugh, we all get frustrated and angry. We all have good days and we all have bad days. We are all surviving together.

Going to Calais, therefore, should not be an act of charity. It should always be a shared act of solidarity between you and the people you meet there, moving equally in both directions. You are not giving anything away, no hand-outs, no donations, no charity: you are sharing yourself and putting yourself into a situation where you can invite other people to share alike. In this way, there is no distinction, no hierarchy, between “giver” and “recipient”: we will both have good days.

At times I have been angry, sad or vengeful over the injustices I’ve witnessed. Of course. But I have always come away from Calais immensely grateful to the people I met, for teaching me more about myself and the world we share.

The Future

There is a fourth dimension to this trip: the future. What will I, what will you, what will we do with this experience?

First of all, we will share our stories with our friends, with our families. Do not underestimate the power of a conversation, of sharing your experiences and enthusiasm. That’s how ideas spread and ideas are far more durable than money, tents or warm socks.

Little by little, more people will hear of Calais and the conditions under which our government makes some people live. Little by little, more people will go to Calais and understand for themselves. Little by little, attitudes to migration across the country will evolve. Little by little, more and more people will understand that to support impermeable militarised borders is to stand on the wrong side of history. People will be free.

When you combine the kinaesthetic experience and the propinquity conditions of both cycling seventy miles and meeting migrants in Calais, you live powerful, even overwhelming experiences. I have looked to the skies and felt tears and a beating heart. We have all made unforgettable memories and precious friends. Keep them and use them to inspire yourselves and each other.

And let’s do it again sometime.

“LOVE. Always. It’s the most important thing in life. Everything else is just a story for your grandkids.”

Critical Mass to Calais: Bikes Beyond Borders

As you may have heard, we’re launching a critical mass-style ride to Calais in solidarity with the migrants who are living there, persecuted by the French and British authorities and ignored by the rest of the EU. Here’s a bunch of answers to frequently asked questions, which should be useful to anyone tempted to come along.

What’s the big idea?

We’re riding bikes to Calais, to give to the migrants who are living there. The best ideas are always the simplest.

Why?

The vast majority of people living in the camp have left their home countries for reasons of war and persecution in search of safety and security. Now, having been forcibly evicted from autonomous camps in Calais to a new tolerated zone, 7km from the town centre, there are in the region of 4000 people, including women and unaccompanied minors, living in conditions of poor sanitation with minimal access to support and services.

See my very short film and a couple of stories on conditions in Calais.

Most cyclists can relate to the sense of freedom, mobility and self sustainability afforded by the bicycle. For people living in the camps, bicycles are an invaluable asset, improving quality of life by increasing access to basic essentials like the local shop and support and advice services, currently an hour’s walk away. Some organisations have already began taking bikes to the camps, but many more are needed.

Where can I find out more about the ride?

This is the event page on Facebook (you don’t need to be a member of Facebook to view). You can also contact us through Facebook or by email on humans@ukhip.eu

We will also be holding a little meet and greet picnic on Saturday 15th of August, on The Rye in Peckham Rye (it’s a park) from 1pm. Bring something to share and any bike donations you have!

What is the ride route and schedule?

The ride will end in Calais over the August Bank Holiday weekend, 29-31 August. Those are the only parameters. Everything else is up to the individual riders.

More specifically, we (the original group of friends who came up with the idea) are going to set off from London (or Barnehurst, the last station in the Oystercard zone) at about 10am on Saturday the 29th and cycle along National Cycle Network routes 1 and 177 to Rochester.

Then we’ll head south, through the Kent Downs. We’ll sleep there, approximately 25 miles from Dover. On the Sunday morning, we’ll cycle the last miles and catch an afternoon ferry to Calais.

That’s us, but different riders will do things at different speeds. In any case, ferries will only take a maximum of 20 bikes, so arrival in Calais will be staggered over the Sunday.

Nothing about the ride is obligatory: some riders will only be coming as far as Dover, some will take a train down, some will part train, part ride.

A group of activists are planning a punk gig and pay what you can dinner in Calais on Sunday evening.

Can I come on the ride?

Please do! The more the merrier. All you need to do is:

  • Source your own bike to give away.
  • Pack up your panniers with food and a tent (if you’re staying overnight).
  • Book a ferry to Calais for the Sunday afternoon.
  • Meet us on Saturday the 29th.
  • Get cycling!

Let us know you’re coming through the Facebook event or by email on humans@ukhip.eu.

What will happen when we get there?

We’ll cycle the bikes and hand them over! In the evening, some people are trying to organise a pay what you can dinner and a punk gig, if that’s your sort of thing.

Some people will be staying over on Sunday night as well. You’re welcome to stay or take a ferry back that evening.

How will we get home without our bikes?

You can walk (~2km) from the camp to the port or take a taxi, a bus or hitch a lift. The ferry will take you to Dover and there are regular trains from Dover Priory (30 minute walk from the port) to London. You can also catch a coach from Dover to London, cheap if you book in advance.

What if I’m media and want to film / write about / photograph the ride?

Yes, you’re welcome to come on the ride as well! In fact, that’ll be the best way to share the story. On past excursions to Calais, we’ve had great experiences with sensitive media people coming along with us.

VICE: Playing Cricket in Calais with Screwed Migrants and UKIP-Trolling Activists by Charlotte England.

Sunday Mirror: Children of the Calais camps: Terrified refugee orphans have even lost wasteland they called home  by Gemma Aldridge

How many people are coming on the ride?

This ride is open to everyone and there is no formal sign up procedure – much like Critical Mass or the Dunwich Dynamo, if you are familiar with those rides – so we’re unable to say how many people will be coming.

While we really hope hundreds of people will turn up and “swarm” down to Calais on their freedom machines, Facebook RSVPs are highly unreliable so we can’t really know whether it will be 7, 70, or 700. Hopefully more!

Who is donating the bikes?

You are! The idea is that people coming on the ride will source their own bikes to give away. There are 7 times more unused bikes in garages and gardens in London than out on the roads!

The Bike Project will be donating as many bikes as they can for people to ride down. We’ve also had offers of bikes from as far afield as Wales, Bristol, Oxford and Norwich.

How else can I support the ride?

We’re raising money to cover expenses, like support van fuel and ferry, plus any other bike supplies the migrants might need – bike pumps and helmets, for example. Please donate and share!

Can I interview the ride organisers?

There are no organisers of this event as such. It was the idea of a bunch of friends and it’s really snowballed since then.

Perhaps the easiest thing to do if you’d like to interview the friends who have brain-childed this event is to come along to the social on the 15th of August. We’re hosting a bring-your-own-and-share picnic meetup on Peckham Rye from 1pm. See the Facebook event for a map and more details.

Contact us through Facebook or humans@ukhip.eu for more information.

Can I interview other ride participants?

We can’t speak for anyone else, but we expect some people will be up for it so long as they are sure you are not going to Daily Mail it up!

Can I interview migrants in Calais?

See my advice to media, journalists and film makers in Calais.

SEE YOU ON THE RIDE, YOU CRAZY BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE!

Advice for Media, Journalists & Film-makers in Calais

Firstly, I don’t consider myself part of the media, a journalist or a film-maker. However, I have published many writings about my experiences in Calais and have produced a short film showing conditions in the camp. I have also spoken to many journalists and film-makers who have gone on to produce content that is very much within the mainstream media, including The Independent, The Sunday Mirror, BBC radio and VICE magazine, as well as independent film-makers, bloggers and magazines.

So, although I don’t consider my primary concern in Calais to be the media – I mostly teach English and make friends – I do think it’s very important to share the stories of the people who live there and to be a part of a information movement that promotes the humanity we share with migrants and refugees, rather than one which protects the material inequality that divides us.

All that is preamble to some basic notes and advice for media producers of all shapes and sizes who want to work in Calais. Please note: this is to be read in addition to my general advice for people visiting Calais.

Before arriving in Calais

Do your research. I don’t mean reading the Daily Mail or even the Guardian. Read the Calais Migrant Solidarity and Passeurs d’Hopitalités (in French) blogs. These are both run by long term activists in Calais and are full of the important day-to-day news that media outlets skip over.

Feel free to contact Calais Migrant Solidarity (check their website for their email address and, more reliably, their phone number) – but do not expect them to do your job for you. They will not set up interviews with migrants and they will not show you around the camp. Most likely, they will guide you to their website.

Working in Calais – short term

If your trip is short – just for the day or perhaps two days – my advice would be to follow simple ethical guidelines. I’m sure you’ve thought of these points already, but I think it’s worth repeating and reiterating.

Don’t film anyone without asking their permission – even from a distance. Many of these people are “illegal” (whatever that means!) and are justifiably suspicious of people wielding video cameras because it might (unlikely, but it might) get them killed or deported. Many don’t appreciate the attention, so don’t assume anything and always ask permission. It was for this reason that I decided not to shoot any people at all for my short film, which made the results suitably bleak!

Be careful not to treat your work, and the migrants themselves, as a means to an end. Frankly speaking, many, many film makers and journalists come to the camp in Calais and I feel that some of them go looking for a big news story or to profit through their line of business from the misfortune of others.

Having said that, many migrants are very eager for media coverage in the hope that it will ameliorate their living conditions or help pave the way to a fair resettlement programme. Your work really could become a small but important contribution to justice for the migrants, but, equally, don’t abuse their hope or make promises that you can’t keep.

If you get too close to the police, they may demand your camera and confiscate your memory cards. Big media companies are usually okay, but smaller indies or activists are at risk. Stay alert.

Working in Calais – long term

If you’re lucky enough to be able to commit a week or two, a month or several trips over the course of a year or years, then congratulations! You will be able to really get under the skin of migration, deep into the stories of migrants and witness the frontline battle that rages. Courage! And remember: the best stories don’t come out of nowhere or overnight.

I first went to Calais in the summer of 2014 and I have been back there many times since. I have seen tear-gassings, evictions, pitched battles with steel bars, cricket matches, film showings and a New Year squat party – but I still consider myself an innocent novice and learn a thousand things every time I visit.

I have made a few friends, who are still unfortunately living in the camp and I feel more and more welcome each time I go back. The last time I was there, teaching English for a week, I slept in the camp and I would suggest this as the best way to get to know people and understand camp life.

However, if you want to stay in the camp, you must:
a) be brave.
b) make friends.

Luckily, most people living in the camp are absurdly friendly, but ultimately it comes down to how personable you are. It’s obvious, but be nice!

On a more practical note, unless you speak good Arabic or Tigrinya, I’d recommend finding someone who speaks English, explaining what you’re doing and, above all, making friends. If you’re one of the good guys, they might invite you to camp with them.

The camp is roughly divided into mini-encampments of 5-20 dwellings, usually split along ethnic lines. There are plenty of Sudanese and Pakistanis who speak decent English – some fluently, no thanks to me! That should get you started.

During your stay at the camp, try to contribute something beyond your project: teach English or how to shoot films, fix bikes or shelters, keep the fire going.

Finally: Remember that this is their home and respect their customs and rules.


If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments below.

NOTE: Conditions in Calais change on an almost daily basis. This advice is based on information from late June 2015.

Bicycles, Freedom and Migration

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling…I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

So said Susan B. Anthony, a 19th century American suffragette and social reformer. No wonder that the newly invented bicycle soon became known as the “freedom machine”.

Bicycles give you the freedom and independence to travel long distances without having to rely on stage coaches, horse-drawn carriages or (ugh!) men.

But today’s petrol-fuelled transportation means we’ve forgotten how hard a five mile walk to the local shops can feel. An hour and a half foot-slog is covered in just twenty minutes by bike. That’s the difference between going out and staying in.

For women of the late nineteenth century, the acquisition of a bicycle meant they could travel further to visit friends, go shopping alone or take a job for the first time. The impact of this emancipatory invention cannot be overstated.

(Okay, so maybe the impact of the bicycle can be overstated a little bit: biologist Steve Jones credits the bicycle for the remarkable explosion in diversity of the human gene pool over the last hundred and fifty years. A boast too far?)

Bikes mean freedom for Calais migrants

For the migrants stuck in Calais, the bicycle can have a similar liberating impact. The wasteground where the migrants are ghettoed is more than two miles from the town centre. That means hours of sore-slogging walks every day.

The migrants are not given more than one meal a day at the Jules Ferry Centre. Where can they get the rest of their food? From the town, a five mile round trip.

The camp nurse is only available during restricted hours and not at all on weekends. Where can migrants seek medical help? From the town, a five mile round trip.

Clothes, the library, internet access – all are a five mile round trip away, or more. The most prized possession of many migrants is a decent pair of shoes: they are worn down in a matter of weeks. Many migrants are stuck in Calais for months.

Bicycles are a gift of freedom

But there is more to the liberating powers of the bicycle than the mere practicalities of transportation. As women found in the nineteenth century, bicycles are a gift of freedom.

Migrants in Calais have spent weeks, months and years, slowly making their way north from whatever war-torn country they are fleeing. They have trusted in mafia agents and abandoned themselves to deadly rust-bucket boats in the Mediterranean; they have spent days playing hide and seek with gun-toting border guards and dodging ticket inspectors in train toilets.

Nobody makes such a journey out of choice. Nobody wants to beg and borrow for their lives. A bicycle can give migrants the freedom to go where they want, under their own power – at last! A bicycle gives the gift of self-reliance, independence, autonomy and pride.

(Not to mention that bikes are damn good fun! I watched a group of lads taking it in turns to cycle at giddying speeds round the pretty flower beds of Richelieu Park. The simple pleasures.)

Words are not enough – what can I do about it?

Glad you asked! At the end of August, we’re launching a biketilla (a bike flotilla?) to Calais. On the 29th of August, hundreds of people will be cycling second hand bikes from London to France, leaving the “freedom machines” with migrants in the camp there.

You can join us by attending the Facebook event or by sending a message to humans [at] ukhip.eu. Then just put a call out to your friends for a spare bike and get pedalling!

If you can’t make it on the 29th, then please do consider getting involved in some other way, by sharing the event or by baking us a cake to keep us fuelled! THANKS!

Charity or Solidarity? On my first day here, an Afghan bluntly asked, "Who pays your wages?" I replied that I was not being paid at all. He stared at me in disbelief. "Why are you here, then?"

A tall, thin man spots us and veers towards my companion, his fingers pressed together in supplication. “Madame – ticket, ticket, ticket!”

“I don’t have any tickets with me today. No tickets, no tickets!”

The man turns away, not so much disappointed as empty. Continue reading Charity or Solidarity? On my first day here, an Afghan bluntly asked, “Who pays your wages?” I replied that I was not being paid at all. He stared at me in disbelief. “Why are you here, then?”

The History of John and Henry and of Frederick

Late one night, after the longest English lesson in history, as we settled on blankets in the darkness of the Calais jungle, hot sweet tea in our hands, one of the Sudanese, an intense man with eyes like light bulbs, caught my attention.

“Mr Teacher,” he says, light bulbs flickering, “I want to tell you the history of John and Henry and of Frederick.”

“Okay,” I reply, thinking these sounded like odd names for Sudanese history.

So the man fixed his bulbs on mine and this is, word for word, what he told me:

John said, “My father is taking me to Paris.” And Henry said, “Oh, you are so lucky! I would love to go to Paris.” Then Frederick asks John, “When are you going?” And John replies, “This time next Friday, we will be in the car that is taking us to Paris.”

I waited for more. There was no more. I looked at the others who shared the blanket; they avoided my eye or smirked into their tea.

I looked back at the story-teller, feeling a little embarrassed. Had I missed something about this short tale, told in oddly precise English for a man who just hours before hadn’t been able to conjugate the verb “to be”?

The man clearly felt a little put out that his story had not had the earth-shattering impact that he felt it deserved and so moved swiftly on, to a story about Ellen and Helen and Margaret and Lauren.

The gist of the narrative was that, while Ellen was busy looking after her mother and Helen had gone out to buy a loaf of bread, the indolent Margeret was sitting in her bedroom listening to the radio. Lauren, our story-teller added, was at work.

Again expecting some sort of moral or narrative turning point, I waited for more. Again, there was no more.

I couldn’t bear the tension that was building around my incomprehension of this man’s clearly significant stories. “I don’t understand,” I said.

“You don’t understand me?” he cried, light bulbs flashing in exasperation. “Then why are you still here?”

I hurriedly corrected him. “No, no – I do understand you, but I don’t understand the purpose of your stories.”

“Ah,” he replied. “They are two histories that I lose in the boat.”

Slowly it dawns on me. “They were stories in a book?”

“Yes, English book. Somebody throws them into the sea.”

Now I understand. This man, one of the keenest of my students, used to have an English textbook. The “story” of John and Henry and of Frederick was clearly a model dialogue used to teach the future tenses.

I imagined my student, on the deadly Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Italy, reading and re-reading his beloved English textbook, until he had memorised its teachings perfectly.

The irony was sharp. The future tense is our way of envisaging and describing our hopes and dreams. My story-teller’s long journey from Darfur to Calais was fuelled by hope and dreams alone: the electricity that powers those light bulb eyes.

A story of hope and a future of dreams. Until both are tossed overboard.