12 October 2015, The Tablet

Calais refugees are not wealthy, lucky or strong

by Helen O'Brien

Theresa May's take on the people who have travelled to Calais in the hope of passage to the UK is completely skewed, writes Helen O'Brien, chief executive of CSAN

The future direction of the UK response to the refugee crisis facing Europe was sketched out in a speech by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last week.

It seemed to be quite some distance from the reality of the refugee crisis facing Europe and the particular instance of the camp in nearby Calais.

No longer, she told conference delegates, will the UK provide long-term sanctuary to refugees who pass through other countries in order to claim asylum in the UK, whom she described as having “spurned the chance to seek protection elsewhere.”

Providing asylum to them rewards, she said, only the “wealthiest, the luckiest, and the strongest.”

Having recently visited ‘the Jungle’ as part of a CSAN delegation, and met many of those people living there (most of whom wish to rebuild their lives in the UK for reasons of language, cultural or family ties, or through the simple belief that the UK is a fair and just country), I can attest that they are not wealthy, lucky or strong.

Around 3,000 refugees are currently living in 'The Jungle' encampment in CalaisAround 3,000 refugees are currently living in 'The Jungle' encampment in Calais (PA)


They are, contrary to the Home Secretary’s remarks, some of the world’s most vulnerable people; people who have fled not just war, but repressive political regimes and religious persecution.

They are people living (yet barely existing) on our doorstep, who have experienced unimaginable horrors and who find themselves in Calais not because of “spurning” the chance to live elsewhere, but because they have been unable to find elsewhere the safety, sanctuary and basic support which they so badly need.

Among the many people that we saw and met at the camp were a considerable number of unaccompanied minors; some who looked as young as 12 or 13, who have travelled alone for thousands of miles across continents and who are now living without appropriate support or adequate care in the inhumane conditions of the camp.

Are they wealthy? Are they lucky? Are they strong?

It is feared, it seems, that the UK is deemed a ‘soft touch’ in comparison to the rest of Europe, and that we are being overwhelmed with the numbers of people crossing into the UK with the intention of claiming asylum.

This is simply not true. In the last year, just over 25,000 people applied for asylum in the UK, with 11,600 of these claims being accepted. In comparison, Hungary received 93,000 asylum claims, Sweden received 78,000, and Germany received over 202,000 (a figure expected to rise to up to 1.5 million this year).

Hungary received almost three times more asylum applications that the UK in the last yearHungary received almost three times more asylum applications that the UK in the last year (PA)


We are not being overwhelmed and we are not being disproportionately affected by this most global of refugee crises, but we are called to help.

For the relatively small number of people who are living day-to-day in ‘the Jungle’, the UK represents an opportunity to rebuild their lives.

To them, we are country and a society where justice is to be found. In our charities and in our churches, in our communities and our cities, we seek to recognise the humanity and innate dignity of each and every person, in particular the vulnerable, who arrive on our shores.

They are seeking sanctuary from a life of uncertainty, insecurity and danger.  Surely in our safe and democratic country we can respond with a welcome and a helping hand?

Helen O'Brien is the chief executive of the Caritas Social Action Network and visited Calais recently



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User comments (2)

Comment by: guest
Posted: 16/10/2015 22:36:34

There are many citizen-residents of UK who also lead lives of uncertainty, insecurity and danger.

The bed is only so big, you can't keep stuffing people onto it.

Why should your misery increase my misery?

It is reality that which is uncharitable, not people. So please don't indict a whole country.

Comment by: Chris McDonnell
Posted: 14/10/2015 10:38:49

Be amazed at their journey, be surprised by their courage.

The cooking stoves they left are cold and empty, the warm taste of bread is no more their Eucharist.

The only fires that burn consume the fabric of their homes, amid the acrid smell of smoke. Children’s toys and books lie strewn, the unmade bed, sheets darkened by the foetid air and dust, is empty. Their legacy of the past torn away, broken with the shattered shards of splintered glass.

A heavy bag shouldered against a man’s bent neck, the shadow of stubble and the sweat of tears. The young child carried against its mother’s breast, her anxious eyes glance down as her protective hand cradles her baby’s face. Between here and there they travel a crowded road, headed North, across open land.

Still they come, knocking at the door of Europe, men, women, children, dishevelled and tired.

Did they know what it would be like when they started out? Has the hardship of the journey been too high a price to pay for the hope of safety and security? Have those of us who look on any idea of what it has been like, what they have gone through? The tear-filled nights, the hunger, the heat of the sun and now the cold and damp?

I very much doubt it.

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