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'I had no words...' Fellows take action on the migrant crisis

Posted on September 17, 2015

Jean Demars has recently left his role at Praxis where he set up and developed a housing programme for destitute migrants, including support to street outreach services, volunteer hosting scheme and a cross-subsidised model of housing. He is now a consultant to the homelessness and migration sectors.

Jane Rowley is a researcher and lecturer who spent much of her career working directly with people affected by addiction. She is currently investigating the practical application of support mechanisms for ex forces personnel & their families with a focus on trauma and recovery.

They chose to collaborate in writing this blog to share some of the commonalities experienced in practice and start a conversation about how we might work more collaboratively across sectors.  This blog, using Jean’s recent trip to Calais as a starting point is intended to be the first in a conversation which we hope will be expanded by other Clore Fellows in the months to come.  

According to recent estimates, in the region of 3000 people are currently resident in the infamous ‘Jungle’ camp 5 miles outside Calais on an industrial estate. Last month I visited with a group of 80 people to donate the bikes we rode to Calais. I wanted to make a human connection with the people in the camp and consider how best the alleviation of such suffering could be supported.

Whilst the camp in Calais is not a place to ‘visit’, the chance to immediately connect with people, many of them in their teens and drawn from places of conflict such as Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Syria, was a rare chance to gain further understanding of their experience and aspirations.

Nothing could prepare me for what I experienced on arriving in Calais: the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the industrial estate, the greyness of the sky, the incredible storm, the scale of buildings and spaces for miles before arriving to a motorway bridge marking the entrance of the camp.  

People continue to arrive at Calais to endure abhorrent conditions: around 3000 men, women and children served by 5-6 taps, 1 skip for rubbish and 3-4 raised latrines. On my return, I was emotionally drained. However, taking time to think through the issues at stake and the suffering witnessed was cut short by the media storm.

Media storm and popular response

The same week I returned, all the main broadsheets published an image of a little boy washed up on a beach in Turkey. Immediately I was contacted by dozens of individuals requesting information about hosting new arrivals in need.  Other public responses have focused on people donating clothes, food and other comforts. In fact, Jane and I had made plans before my trip to distribute donated tents and blankets to the camp in the autumn ourselves.

We have since reflected that such reactive responses run the risk of depoliticising the situation by contributing to a culture of sympathy rather than empathy and solidarity. Sympathy enables us to disconnect from the stories of those fleeing war; drawing a hard line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ when our lives are in fact connected in myriad ways. It is difficult to critique sympathy when such feelings come from a good place but good intentions are not always enough, despite the immediate alleviation of suffering.

One must engage meaningfully with the issues at stake, take seriously the possible consequences of our actions and inactions. Is it good enough to keep people barely alive at a camp on the Franco-British border, when we could be using our energy and resources to support them in becoming full political subjects in their own rights?

We wanted to broaden the conversation and last week’s Clore Social Fellowship residential in Nottingham provided us with an opportunity to begin drawing on the expertise of our cohort to think about how we can make real change.

Leading change: initial conversations with Clore Social Fellows

We do not speak for other Fellows but have benefitted from their insights in developing this piece. Through our Fellowship we are part of a community of practice. We benefit from Fellows with diverse skills coming together to discuss social issues. What is of great value is the mix of expertise combined with a desire to engage with wider problems. For example, in considering the construct that people are defined by single life experiences, such as  addiction, combat trauma, homelessness or immigration status, we are not acknowledging the many assets everyone may have in addition to vulnerability and we include ourselves in this.   

Furthermore, people are vilified when they are the product of the systems they have been brought up in or making decisions according to where they find themselves. An example of this is incorrect labelling of drug users as a homogeneous group, driving the current discourse behind drug policy with flawed constructs of addiction and recovery.  Similarly with migration, disparity of opportunity has pushed people to leave their country, when they are not fleeing from war-torn countries.  

Social issues reside not with individuals experiencing them but rather the systems that have created them. In response, we strongly believe that communities are enriched by difference. Those migrants who may come to the UK, all of whom bring their own talents and experiences, can be a huge asset to our society. Nurturing communities of difference makes visible the systems that separate people into categories and instead promotes a relational model of community built on people’s assets rather than highlighting their deficits.

We are aware that more work is required to develop a substantial response leading to a new model of social action. We have three initial actions planned and hope to be joined by other Clore Social Leadership Fellows.

  • We aim to look for collaborations between British and French agencies. We will meet with French organisations working both on the ground and at strategic level. Fellows can support this by sharing their networks with us and making introductions.

  • We will organise a summit in the autumn to promote wider collaboration and maintain momentum. We will aim to develop a systemic response by bringing together people with different experiences and perspectives of the crisis.  Fellows interested in taking part in this should contact us.

  • We will host an Appreciative Inquiry into how we can build even stronger and more inclusive communities. Fellows interested in taking part in this, or using their networks to support this should contact us. 

Collaborative leadership is vital. If you want to be part of the conversation, get in touch. Email: jean_demars@yahoo.com or janerowley02@gmail.com  

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Jean Demars

Jean Demars

Housing and care programme designer

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