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Reflections from the Calais refugee camps


One of our Summer School participants recently returned from volunteering in the Calais refugee camps. In this blog Isabella Pearce and her colleague Hannah Robathan reflect candidly on the atmosphere in the camps leading up to and following the historic Brexit vote of June this year.

Inside the Calais refugee camp: concerns over Brexit

Blog post by Isabella Pearce and Hannah Robathan

Inshallah (God willing) we will remain” was a phrase we became well accustomed to whilst volunteering in Calais. Helping out in the refugee camp in the days leading up to the EU referendum gave us a unique insight into the personal opinions of many of the refugees and their subsequent worries about the potential implications a Leave vote would have on their futures.

A newspaper article published on the day of the referendum indicated that “news of the referendum result was greeted with indifference by many [refugees].” (Guardian, Shock in Calais: ‘Perhaps the French and English were not best of friends after all’ June 24, 2016). This is not the impression we got; we found that people in the camps were greatly concerned.

Although we encountered various levels of political understanding, there was a tangible eagerness for discussion. Specific comprehension of the ins and outs of the campaign wasn’t necessarily the reason behind the refugees’ interest. It was more a sense of worry. In the days leading up to the referendum, we were asked on numerous occasions what we predicted the referendum result would be. One refugee, a quiet Kurdish man named Sayeed, was visibly troubled by it, asking us on a daily basis what we thought would happen.

It was difficult to know how to respond to the questions we were faced with, given that we ourselves didn’t know the full implications of what a Brexit result would mean. Moreover, as volunteers, what you say can hold a lot of value in the camp, and it would be irresponsible to say anything definite or to share your own personal beliefs or grievances with the refugees. Once we got in the camp on the 24th of June, contrary to a feeling of indifference, we were greeted by a number of people worriedly asking us what would happen to them, and questioning how or if their situation would change. While there was nervous uncertainty from some, there seemed to be a palpable sense of dejection amongst others, which could perhaps only be detected by witnessing the difference in the camp atmosphere before and after the result. One older Sudanese man we spoke to aired his sorrow and his resignation. “What will Calais be, now that the UK is out of the EU?” he asked, his question aimed at no one in particular. “The UK are running away from their responsibilities, because the refugee crisis has become too much of a responsibility. We are very disappointed”.

Perhaps he has cause for concern. The current situation in Calais is a unique one, which sees the UK border situated and maintained in France. This is the product of the 2003 Le Touquet agreement, a stand-alone arrangement between the UK and France with regards to the management of the refugee camp. Although this is not an EU law, following the Brexit vote, there have already been calls made by local French authorities to end this agreement. Just hours after the result was announced, Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais, began campaigning for the camp to be moved over to Dover. Despite the lack of support this has received from senior French Government officials thus far, movements such as these expose the tensions that exist with regard to the camp. At present the Le Touquet agreement remains intact (and its termination would require a two-year notice period anyhow), but the immediate response to Brexit by France demonstrates the potential fragility of the agreement in the long term and therefore the uncertainty that plagues the future of refugees in the Calais camp.