‘The borderless Republic’: Sheffield celebrates migration


A vigil held at the festival for Mohammed Alhajali, a Syrian refugee died in the Grenfell Tower tragedy. © Lydia Noon

It is lunchtime on 21 June, the hottest day of the year so far. Sheffield’s office workers, tourists, families and friends are eating their lunch, reading messages on their phones and smoking cigarettes in the city centre’s Tudor Square.

That is, until two drummers signal the start of an outdoor African Fusion Dance Workshop. Dancing is not compulsory but participation is – the beat is infectious and hearing it is unavoidable as sweaty beginners learn the routine and wiggle their hips.

Refugee Week has arrived in the South Yorkshire city.

Britain’s largest festival that celebrates the contribution of refugees and promotes understanding of why people seek sanctuary is more relevant than ever.

One of the Migration Matters festival’s hashtags is #Sheffieldisopen. Sheffield was the first city in Britain to win City of Sanctuary status in 2007. A decade later and cities, towns, universities and even libraries have followed suit. The festival began on 20 June until 24 June and reflects the city’s proud history and diversity.

Rather than many refugee issue themed events that preach to the converted, this festival aims to be inclusive, reflected in its line-up and its ‘pay as you decide’ approach to ticket sales. Flyers and free ice cream tempt members of the public to participate in a welcoming space, alongside artists, people seeking sanctuary and local community groups. Theatre, film, fashion shows, art exhibitions, workshops and storytelling are all in the mix.

The performance All Over & Everywhere is also in the open theatre space of Tudor Square. Tudor Square. On the first anniversary of the Brexit vote, they explore post-Brexit problems through folk dance and the creation of a ‘borderless Republic’.

‘Everyone has the right to stay or to leave,’ the five say in unison. In 45 minutes they illustrate a refugee’s journey, from losing a loved one, to living in a tent in a European refugee camp and finally going through the UK’s traumatic asylum system where residency and citizenship remain out of reach. Through paint and dance, they urge the audience, those hurriedly walking past and those actively watching the performance, to ‘resist and re-imagine’ our world.

Sheffield's Why Refugee Women group showcase the fashions from their countries of origin.

Lydia Noon

Greek political theatre artist Evi Stamatiou presents seven characters on different sides of the Brexit vote in her satirical piece Caryatid Unplugged. Taking to the stage in Sheffield’s cultural centre DINA, she explores the irony of the Conservative government’s refusal to return Greece’s Elgin marbles that have been ‘imprisoned’ in the British museum since 1817, while wishing to deport the fictional Rita, an economic immigrant, back to Greece. Asking the audience to decide whether the marbles should be returned to Greece or Rita be allowed to stay in the UK, there is silence. ‘Like the democratic process in this country,’ Stamatiou quips.

Stamatiou also questions the timing of last year’s referendum when Britain was facing mounting pressure from the EU to accept a quota of refugees living in limbo in Greek refugee camps.

Also in DINA centre, the co-author of Refugee Tales – a Canterbury Tales for the modern age – Dragan Tdorovic, reads the traumatic story of a Syrian refugee in hiding in Birmingham from his book.

At the same time, outside Sheffield’s City Council offices, a vigil is taking place for the residents of Grenfell Tower. Syrian refugee Mohammed Alhajali died in London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy on 14 June. The 23-year-old escaped war and endured a harrowing journey to reach safety in 2014, only to be killed on the 14th floor of the tower block. Speakers lament the government’s treatment of refugees, migrants and poor people while praising the volunteer and community response.

Back inside the Theatre Delicatessen, the festival hub, three young actors in Indefinite Leave to Remain, explore the challenges that first and second generation immigrants face in Britain.

In the physical performance, the mother of the central character Maria, moved to Britain to give her daughter a better life but is separated from her husband who remains in the fictional country of Matvia. Maria doesn’t want to return to a ‘home’ she has never set foot in, but her mother does.

Temperatures rise as Maria’s co-workers believe that Western intervention in war-torn Matvia would simply be ‘collateral damage’, Maria challenges their ‘othering’ and tells her co-workers that we are all the same and lives should be equal, wherever we are from.

The stories of the people that have made Britain their home and the celebration of the communities that have welcomed them is what makes this festival special.

Recent terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire have affirmed the importance of community over division. And the celebrations of Ramadan, the recent Great Get Together weekend in memory of the late MP Jo Cox and Refugee Week are uniting people in the face of Brexit, the right-wing government and the tabloid press’ attempts to scapegoat migrants and pull people apart.

As 2017’s Refugee Week draws to a close, the power of community has never felt stronger.

Find more information on Sheffield’s Migration Matters Festival at: http://migrationmattersfestival.co.uk

Human rights in the Yemeni Civil War: a word with Radhya Almutawakel


Radhya Almutawakel in Sana'a

How and why did you get involved in human rights in Yemen?

I have felt a sense of guilt about people who are oppressed since I was a child. My activism started in 2004 during a six-year war between the regime of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis, an armed rebel group.

I wrote several opinion pieces against war and its abuses. Some families of those arrested in Sana’a (Yemen’s capital city) asked for my help, and alongside other male and female activists, I stood with them. We organized several campaigns opposing detention and war.

How has life changed for you since the start of the civil war in 2015?

The situation in Yemen wasn’t good – even before the war. Since the Houthis took control of Sana’a in 2014, and the Saudi-led coalition launched their aerial military campaign in March 2015, every family in the country has been shedding tears: either for a relative lost in the war or a detainee confined behind bars.

No matter how high the mutual interests between Britain and Saudi Arabia, the blood cost is ultimately higher

Citizens are now without a state or a constitution to protect their rights. Political parties are not providing the basic essentials for people in government or Houthi-controlled areas. Yemenis are stranded between the aerial and ground violations of the parties involved.

I am a part of this nation and the suffering of others is mine as well. But I have decided to face this situation and continue my work.

What is life like for women in Yemen?

Yemeni women have the same but double sufferings [as men]. Many women suffer from a lack of education, early marriage, exclusion from political participation and other forms of discrimination. But if a woman has the support of her family then nothing can stand in her way; there are no laws preventing her participation in all aspects of life.

You are the chairperson of the Mwatana organization for human rights. What kind of things do you do?

Mwatana follows an investigative research approach to ensure accurate documentation of human rights violations. We play a lobbying and advocacy role to support victims of human rights abuses.

Besides publishing reports and documentaries, we monitor and publish information on arbitrary detention and forcible disappearances, facilitate contact between detainees and their families and work to set all those arrested and disappeared free. We also work on training and awareness-raising as part of our mission to create a human rights collective awareness.

Radhya Almutawakel

It sounds like risky work. Have you been the target of intimidation?

Some fellow civil society activists and I were once beaten by a group of women that the Houthi armed group sent to disperse a protest where we were demanding to know the destiny of a forcibly disappeared civilian. We were detained for hours.

The executive director of Mwatana, Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih, has been arrested twice by the Houthis and has had his passport confiscated on a separate occasion. Four Mwatana field researchers have been arrested and released at various times; one of them spent over two weeks in detention.

Britain sells weapons to Saudi Arabia, do you think this makes it complicit in the war in Yemen?

Britain hurts itself when it insists on supporting a state that has committed documented war crimes against Yemeni civilians.

Mwatana has documented the aerial attacks against civilians in which British weapons were used. Britain’s support of Saudi Arabia is not limited to the selling of weapons; it also provides political and intelligence support.

The first US drone strike under President Trump took place in the al-Baidha province and killed 15 civilians

It is so hurting and frustrating that Britain has supported Saudi efforts of preventing an international, independent inquiry mechanism to investigate violations of all parties to the conflict in Yemen. No matter how high the mutual interests between Britain and Saudi Arabia, the blood cost is ultimately higher.

The number of drone strikes in Yemen increased drastically under the Obama administration. Do you expect more of the same under Trump?

The first US drone strike under President Trump took place in the al-Baidha province [on 21 January] and killed 15 civilians – ten children and five women, documented by Mwatana. This is a very big number and the military target of the operation is still unclear.

As usual with the drone program, transparency is absent. The new worrying development in these drone operations is the accompanying ground raids which seem random and careless about civilians.

Is there enough humanitarian assistance on the ground in Yemen?

Humanitarian assistance cannot be enough because the catastrophe is too big and can only be addressed by state capabilities. Humanitarian organizations are trying to play an important role but they only bridge gaps.

The accessibility of such organizations on the ground is restricted due to setbacks posed by various armed groups. The end of the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen demands the end of the war in the first place.

Under darkness, Gazans mark a new year


View of Gaza's marina. © Jason Shawa

Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism set up in 2014, has tightened these restrictions, says Shawa.

A father and his two daughters were three of the first Palestinians to suffer injuries related to Gaza’s electricity crisis this year. They have been left with moderate burns after a candle the girls lit to do their homework started a fire in their apartment in Gaza City on 2 January.

‘At least five children have burned to death and many more injured over the last few years in similar incidents,’ Gazan Abu Ahmed writes in a message to me at night, on an electricity-dependent device. There will be more candle-related disasters during a winter of 20-hour blackouts in the crowded Strip.

As nightly temperatures plummet, so do the number of hours of electricity. Two million Palestinians have been living on three to four hours of electricity per day for the past two months, with LED lights, batteries and candles the only substitutes for most families. Expensive generators and car battery inverters pick up the slack for some households and businesses while the most privileged install solar panels; a luxury few can afford.

These alternatives fill some electricity gaps but cannot power many appliances such as washing machines, baby bottle sterilizers and water pumps, says Gazan translator and blogger Jason Shawa. ‘So you need to shift all washing, ironing and bathing to when you have electricity. Many people do such chores after midnight because that is when the power comes on’.

The power cuts are devastating for Gaza’s hospitals. Incubators, ventilators and other life-saving equipment are powered by industrial generators but fuel, and money, is running out. Even if hospitals had access to enough fuel, generators are only designed to provide emergency electricity, not for hours, days and months on end.

Israel’s decade-long military blockade has helped create Gaza’s electricity and resource crisis.

The Strip’s sole power plant has been the target of repeated airstrikes during Israel’s three military bombardments of Gaza since the start of the siege. It has also been forced to shut down several times due to a lack of fuel.

Egyptian and Israeli electricity grids provide some of Gaza’s electricity but the two countries have severely restricted fuel imports into the tiny Middle Eastern enclave since the blockade began in 2007. Egyptian and Israeli authorities have destroyed the majority of tunnels built between Gaza and Egypt over the past few years, meaning it is no longer possible to smuggle in cheap diesel and other basic necessities.

Bombing during Israel's Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

Jason Shawa

Caravans for winter

A thousand families are still living in caravans and tents two and a half years since Israel’s 50-day military bombardment during July-August 2014, with only an extra layer of nylon keeping out the cold and harsh winds.

The offensive, dubbed Operation Protective Edge, killed 2,251 Palestinians and 72 Israelis, and destroyed 70 per cent of Gaza’s infrastructure.

Some 20,000 homes were destroyed or so severely damaged that they became uninhabitable, leaving 100,000 people internally displaced and sheltering in makeshift shacks, schools, relatives’ homes, rented accommodation or in their dangerously damaged homes. Some families are still living in tents next to their destroyed houses because they are afraid that if they leave, their land might be taken – the only thing they have left.

Along with fuel, the military blockade has limited construction materials entering the Strip. The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism set up in 2014, has tightened these restrictions, says Shawa.

Lack of funds have also prolonged the displacement of Palestinians: at Cairo’s ‘Reconstructing Gaza’ conference in October 2014, $3.5 billion was pledged to help. But only $1.6 billion has been donated so far, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and Aidwatch.

The diversion of media attention to other parts of the region such as Syria and Iraq has taken the pressure off countries to deliver on their promises, while some donors say that the lack of unity between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas party in the Gaza Strip is frustrating efforts to fund projects, but the real issue, tweets Jewish Voice for Peace director Rebecca Vilkomerson, is the Israeli blockade:

Locked in

This June will mark the 10th anniversary of Israel’s military siege on Gaza. Movement has been restricted for Palestinians living in the 25-mile long enclave since the early 1990s, but when Hamas came to power in June 2007, Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade. Many Gazans describe this blockade as living in the world’s largest prison, with two million people denied access to other parts of Palestine and the rest of the world.

Since the start of the blockade, Egyptian authorities have also restricted movement by closing the Rafah crossing into Eygpt – and the only way in and out of Gaza – for days and weeks at a time.

The new year does not signal renewed hope for Gazans.

‘We are forgotten here, but we are desperate’, says 24-year-old Rana via WhatsApp. ‘Most people are even denied a medical permit to leave Gaza for urgent treatment’.

Shawa feels the same. ‘I see no glimmer of hope’, he writes. ‘We are totally locked in by Israel; they control every single aspect of what leaves or enters Gaza, be it people or food or medication or anything else. Egypt too has us locked in from their side’.

‘Okay, there is big hope’, starts Abu Ahmed, before abruptly changing track: ‘but hope was there for many years and nothing changed. Things are even worsening’.

The UN agrees. In 2015, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development published a report which said that because of ‘de-development’ caused by the economic and military blockade, Gaza may be uninhabitable by 2020 ‘if current economic trends persist’. Hurtling towards that deadline and Gazans’ basic necessities for life – drinking water, shelter, physical and mental health and employment – are becoming ever more scarce.

Rubble from homes destroyed in Israeli bombardments is used to expand the marina.

Jason Shawa

Running out

Only 10 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza have access to safe drinking water, and, according to the World Bank, unless desalination and waste water plants are given approval by Israeli authorities to replenish Gaza’s depleted natural aquifer by 2020, the water crisis will be irreversible. For now, Gaza’s poorest drink salty and dirty water from the tap, risking disease, others use water filters or buy expensive bottled water.

Unemployment is the highest in the world at 43 per cent, with young people under 30-years-old particularly affected by the lack of work. The blockade has taken 50 per cent off Gaza’s GDP and were it not for the multiple restrictions and Israel’s military bombardments, Gaza’s GDP would be four times higher.

One third of children displayed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder even before 2014’s military offensive, say The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, with many children having been born under siege and living through multiple bombing campaigns.

With Gaza at breaking point, will the rest of the world finally put pressure on the Israeli administration to end the siege?

‘Not with US President Donald Trump at the helm of the “free world” now,’ writes Shawa. ‘We have heard some of his opinions on the Middle East and none of them are promising.’

‘No. Other countries could end our suffering but they let Israel do what it wants,’ says Khan Yunis resident Rana, as her wifi signal comes and goes. ‘But we will keep on surviving, just as we always have’.

A word with Naseema Assada

Naseema Assada

© Bayan Alheji

When did you become interested in women’s rights?

I became involved in human rights activism in 2009 and I still am; but now I mainly focus on women’s rights. I participate in campaigns alongside other women on issues that affect us. We organize via a WhatsApp group.

You are a fierce campaigner against the ban on women driving. The movement has gathered pace over recent years. What will it take for the law to be changed?

I’ve driven several times. I went to register for a driving licence but was refused because I’m a woman, so I tried to sue the Ministry of the Interior. It was strategic: to change the law and achieve our rights, I needed to make a civil case and encourage other women to do the same. I had a good case but the judge refused to take it on. He said that no-one from the Ministry would have acknowledged the complaint. The Ministry is more powerful than the law, and the King is more powerful than the Ministry. He changes laws without warning and only when it suits him.

You were disqualified from the Saudi municipal elections in December 2015. But has the inclusion of other women in politics since then made a difference?

No, even men don’t have any power in municipal roles. But it was the first stage in women becoming involved in politics. Before the elections, I held workshops for women to explain why it was important for them to use their vote, or even just to register to vote – to say ‘I’m here’. Many women were prevented from registering because they needed permission from their guardians. Four of us – all of whom work for women’s rights – were disqualified without reason in 2015.

How has male guardianship affected your life?

I have a supportive husband who doesn’t control me, but other women suffer because of this. My daughter is in college 400 kilometres away in Saudi’s capital city, Riyadh, and requires guardianship to let her out of campus. The university asks me to give permission before they will allow her to travel to my home. Yes, they [now] accept permission from me, after four years! Before that, my husband had to go to court just so I could collect my daughter and travel home with her.

Your current campaign is called ‘I am my own guardian’…

We are encouraging women to think about how male guardianship is affecting their lives. I have a wristband with the words ‘I am my own guardian’ written in Arabic and English. When women see it, they come up and ask me questions. No governmental organizations in Saudi Arabia promote women’s rights, so we have to do it ourselves. Twitter is our umbrella to discuss ideas with each other. Three months ago, we started the hashtag #Iammyownguardian. Many women are now asking for an end to the guardianship system. We have sent a petition [the first of its kind] to the government to end male guardianship, and we use the media. Men support us. My brother wears the bracelet because he says it’s not just about women, it’s about all of us.

What has the reaction in Saudi society been to your activism?

Some people think that we are troublemakers as activists. It’s not because we like trouble, it’s because we want to remove trouble. Certain issues may not affect us personally, but we think about all women.

What do you think will happen this year?

The worsening economic situation means that there may be more pressure on the government to reform and make concessions to please the people. On the other hand, the economy could be an excuse for the government to become stricter. Politicians are not thinking about women at this time: they are thinking about war. Either way, we cannot stop. Things may not happen for my generation, but my daughter’s generation will win their rights.

Lydia Noon is a freelance journalist based in Britain.

Crimes of compassion for refugee solidarity


Rob Lawrie and Bahar, a refugee child, at the Calais 'Jungle' ©

Human rights campaigner and volunteer Rob Lawrie speaks to Lydia Noon about people smuggling, bike riding and refugees.

What motivated you to work with refugees in France?

A few years before the mass movement of people to Europe, I became angry with the way the UK was being run and with bankers gambling on our economy. I turned my life around and decided to help others instead of helping myself. I started running a soup kitchen in Leeds, Northern England and that’s when I first visited Calais refugee camp. But when I saw Aylan Kurdi on the beach last September – an innocent child who drowned and washed ashore – I stopped everything in my life to go to the camp to help.

You’ve said that your attempt to smuggle four-year-old Bahar Ahmadi, an Afgani refugee from the recently-demolished Calais camp to the UK was a ‘crime of compassion’. What do you mean by that?

The media came up with that term, but it stuck with me. It was a crime but it was done out of compassion – there was no planning, money or coercion involved. Adults are fleeing terrible situations but most can survive. Children are so vulnerable from every angle. Bahar lived with her father in Calais and she had close family in the UK. When I saw her one afternoon in October 2015, I made a spur of the moment decision – to bring her to safety. I was caught at the border and she was taken back to Calais. She and her father are now trying to get to the UK legally but, as of now, they are still in France over a year later – it is a long process.

A migrant walks past a burning makeshift shelter set ablaze in protest against the dismantlement of the camp for migrants called the 'Jungle' in Calais on the second day of their evacuation and transfer, France, 25 October, 2016. © REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

The year 2015 saw an outpouring of support for refugees while 2016 has seen a shady political deal with Turkey and the rise of Fortress Europe. What do you think 2017 holds?

More of the same, unfortunately. With the Brexit vote and right-wing parties succeeding across Europe, there is little appetite to help refugees. The UK might change if, as I hope, the Tory party have underestimated British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. He may not be a designer leader but he tells the truth. He’s seen the refugee camps and I think he has a real passion to help so things could change.

Would you call yourself an activist?

What does that mean? If that means smashing things up and throwing stones at police, then no. I’m a dooer: I identify who needs what and I get it to them. I raise money by taking part in endurance bike rides and holding talks around the UK and still volunteer in France and Greece.

A film is being made about your experience, what can you tell me about it?

I was approached by a filmmaker who is a former refugee from Kuwait. He lived with me for four months and came with me to Calais and Dunkirk. I’ve been given editing rights to the script which is great. The film – called Mr Rob – is not a documentary so I hope people who don’t usually watch things like this will.

Does humanitarian aid have its limits?

So much money has gone into refugee camps, but after a few weeks that money is lost, used up. The money I receive from the film will be used for direct action – to fund lawyers to help bring unaccompanied children to the UK. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt this year, it’s that no-one is the little man – anyone can challenge the status quo.

Do you believe in an open border policy?

No, but I don’t think we should be uncompassionate either. It shouldn’t matter if someone is an economic immigrant or a refugee or whatever. The UK doesn’t have streets lined with gold but it does have a responsibility to the people who live in the countries we bomb and invade.

Saving refugees’ lives, one top-up at a time


A refugee helper and a refugee overcome language barriers by using their mobile phones. G. Kraftschik under a Creative Commons Licence

A funding shortfall

‘When I arrived in Belgium, I had $134 in my pocket’, explains 29-year-old Aziz Zazatir, via his smartphone. ‘I bought shoes and a jacket because it was cold and some food. I had enough money for phone credit for four or five months, but then I ran out and couldn’t top-up my phone for the next five months’.

A former assistant for a member of the Afghan parliament, Aziz has been away from home for a year and has lived in a Belgium refugee camp for 10 months. In May, he learnt about the Facebook group, Phone credit for refugees and displaced people, through a volunteer. After requesting credit on the group’s Facebook wall, Aziz was finally able to contact his family who live in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.

‘My family were so worried about me because they didn’t know that Europe is different from Afghanistan. I was hopeless because I didn’t have any credit. By the group’s help I gave a message to my family that I am out of money but safe. They are good and I am happy.’

Good news travels fast

Mohammad likes to keep updated with Syrian news reports.

Phone credit for displaced people and refugees

These stories are what keep volunteer administrators of the page going. The group launched on 1 February and word quickly spread that strangers on Facebook were donating credit to help those stuck in Europe’s refugee camps. Strangers who understand that talking to family and friends, using GPS, accessing legal advice, keeping up with news back home, communicating via translation apps and relieving boredom is vital for refugees’ physical and mental health.

The idea for the group was born after numerous trips to Calais refugee camp in northern France, says support worker James Pearce, who co-manages the group with Rhian Prescott, a mum and part-time trainee account. He first visited the camp in November and was horrified by the conditions that men, women and children were living in. When he couldn’t visit the camp for two months earlier in the year he came up with ideas to help from afar. Having already bought a couple of top ups for friends he’d made in Calais, the phone credit idea was an afterthought when other ideas became impossible to implement.

In almost six months the closed Facebook group has grown to over 11,000 members and become a registered charity. Some 1,500 members are refugees and the others are trusted friends and contacts, added by people already in the group. Members have helped more than 1,800 people, including 227 unaccompanied children, and bought over 2,400 top-ups totalling $67,725 in donations.

The people receiving help are mostly refugees in Europe, apart from two refugees in Turkey, a British homeless person and a young person in care.

But as requests for credit have increased, so have the responsibilities involved in managing the group. It is difficult making sure people who request credit are refugees and are not receiving more than their fare share of credit, says James. And then there is the emotional involvement. ‘People have sad stories and they’re feeling shit. You end up being an agony aunt to some of them’, he adds.

Making small miracles happen

A handful of other admins share the group workload with Rhian and James. But the unpaid role isn’t for everyone. Just a few of the duties include checking new group members’ profiles, verifying requests, taking and logging requests in a spreadsheet, responding to offers, fundraising and problem solving. ‘Essentially making a small miracle happen each day with the help and support of a lot of very kind people’, writes James on the Facebook page in an appeal for help.

Each person who requests credit receives $28 as a monthly top-up, but they cannot ask for it more than once a month. Members can respond to an individual request or donate via Paypal or the group’s MyDonate page where admins resolve requests based on who has been waiting the longest.

‘It’s more than a full time job’, admits James who lives near Norwich. ‘It’s easily eight hours a day for Rhian and I, seven days a week. We do take days off occasionally’.

A lifeline for unaccompanied children

Ahmed, a 7-year-old boy from Afghanistan, texted for help when the lorry he was in with 15 other people ran out of oxygen after it reached the UK.

Cartoon Kate

For unaccompanied minors, the group is often the only safety net they have. During the demolition of half of Calais refugee camp in March, volunteers tried to make sure every child on their own had a topped-up phone, with numbers of people they could call. During the chaos, 129 children went missing and volunteers reported that people traffickers were hanging around the edges of the camp for a week afterwards, explains James. ‘It’s really frightening and phone credit is a massively inadequate response, but it is something’.

Ahmed, a 7-year-old boy from Afghanistan, is now famous for texting for help when the lorry he was in with 15 other people ran out of oxygen after it reached the UK. Lesser known is that this Facebook group bought credit for him the week before, enabling him to send his urgent message. ‘For him it was life or death’, says James. ‘I think it is for many actually’.

Smartphones also offer a social and emotional safety net. ‘In Calais camp, many people have showed me photos from back home and of their journey’, says member and art student Angharad Graham, who recently launched a public Facebook sister page for the group. ‘With the language barrier, phones have made such a difference in being able to understand refugees’ stories. It strengthens the human connection and relation to one another. To me, social media, smartphones and internet access help to keep people equal’.

A funding shortfall

Topped-up smartphones may be as much of a necessity for refugees as food and shelter, but aid agencies do not recognize this, yet. On 15 June, there were more than 100 people in the Facebook group waiting for credit; a shortfall of $2,950. Social media may have the capacity to reach people all over the world, including those who are not able to volunteer on the frontline, but there is a growing need for donations and admins are struggling. It is a problem shared by many grassroots organizations working with refugees: volunteer-led and reliant on the generosity of a small pool of people.

Zein uses his phone to speak to his mum.

Phone credit for displaced people and refugees

‘The most difficult thing’, posts Rhian to the page, ‘is not knowing when we’re going to be able to provide credit and getting messages saying “I post but no-one help”, “I’m waiting to talk to my family, please help”.’

Members are constantly coming up with new ideas to generate more money. They take part in ‘donations conga’, usually on a Friday, hunt around their homes scooping up loose change to donate while encouraging others to do the same. Recently volunteers have been contacting celebrities on social media asking them to retweet and share messages about the group. Others have started a Twitter account, are designing flyers and posters, are searching for sponsors and have begun setting up direct debits, because regular funds are vital.

The solidarity and mobilization that has been generated from members toward the organizers and between refugees and donors is at the heart of this group, and will hopefully be what ensures it continues.

‘I swear if I tell people in Afghanistan that some good people send me money for credit on Facebook they will never believe me,’ says Aziz. ‘I can’t express my happiness by words for the group’s credit help. They are struggling for us, so we will, for sure, be with them for any help that we can.’

Photo Gallery: Forced displacement in Calais Jungle


Lydia Noon

(Above) Around 200 riot police officers entered Calais ‘Jungle’ at 7am on 29 February and began evicting refugees from the southern half of the camp. They told residents that they had one hour to leave their shelters or they would be arrested. Some were escorted from their homes by police and taken on buses to undisclosed winter shelters across France. A total of 3,455 people including 445 children – 281 of these unaccompanied minors – will be made homeless over the coming days.

Forty-five-year-old Arash watched as his home was bulldozed early on 1 March. He doesn’t know where he will go, he says, as he warms his hands by a small fire that offers no defence against the heavy rain and biting wind. ‘This is my situation,’ he shrugs, kicking burning embers that land near his feet back into the fire. Many of the 6,000 refugees in Calais’ camp have lived there for months, some even years.

As a football game gets underway between volunteers and Sudanese refugees, Issa and five of his friends sit on the two small beds in Issa’s wooden hut (top right). From the Darfur region of Sudan, Issa has been living in the camp for four or six months; he can no longer remember. ‘We will sleep here tonight,’ he says, gesturing outside, where police stand protecting bulldozers dumping the contents of his neighour’s home into a skip. ‘Europe is so generous!’ he says sarcastically. ‘Thank you for your hospitality in destroying our homes.’

Please click to donate.

‘Living space’ in the Calais Jungle

Lawyers appealed against the Prefecture’s [regional government] decision to destroy the southern half of Calais on 23 February, on the grounds that forced eviction would leave much of the 3,455 population of the southern half of the camp without shelter – a violation of a fundamental human right. Despite confirmation from the court that only 1,156 alternative accommodation places were available across France, the court gave the go-ahead for the demolition on 25 February, on the conditions that no living or communal spaces be destroyed and no force was to be used against refugees. In a press conference, the French Minister for the Interior assured journalists and volunteers that the clearing of the area would be gradual, respectful and humane.

’The police are robots, I think’

On 29 February, police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and used water cannons against residents and volunteers. On the second day of evictions, the police beat a pregnant woman and her husband from the roof of a shelter with a baton. ‘The police don’t look at you or talk to you,’ says Issa. ‘They are robots, machines, I think’. On 2 March, five Iranian men sewed their lips together and are on hunger strike to protest the violation of their human rights.

‘Do you want to die?’ shout police officers to a small group of refugees and volunteers, as a fire quickly spread from a nearby hut. ‘We’re already dead,’ answers Iranian-born Arash. The police prevented volunteers from using fire extinguishers on the fire that destroyed three shelters that were still being lived in, with the residents’ belongings inside. A fire engine parked outside the camp arrived on the scene 20 minutes later.

Volunteers run to pull a tent away from the fire believing it to have gas inside. Gas, petrol and oil are used in high quantities by refugees for heating and cooking in the absence of a better option. Four police officers were taking selfies in front of the fire, said a volunteer who asked not to be identified. Witnesses believe that the police started the fire and prevented it from being extinguished, both to destroy shelters and in an attempt to provoke a response from the crowd to justify the use of further violence.

Helpers from around Europe and beyond are doing what they can to find shelter for refugees who are being displaced. ‘We have the dome [the camp’s theatre] that people are going to stay in tonight, says Francesca Davis. ‘Our priority is unaccompanied minors and families that we are trying to find homes for in the northern part of the camp. We bought 900 tents in at 5 this morning [on 1 March], before the police started their shift at 8am,’ adds the volunteer, who works with French-English organization L’auberge des Migrants. ‘We have brought unaccompanied minors phones and loaded $7.00 onto sim cards with the numbers of long-term volunteers to make sure that the kids are safe.’ Most refugees living in northern France have not felt safe for some time.

Some of the 1,155 alternative accommodation spaces for refugees evicted from their homes inside Calais refugee camp are in containers adjacent to the camp. Entry is only possible after giving a palm-print scan and passing through turnstiles. A high barbed wire fence separates these residents from the camp. In comparison to the prison-like feel of the containers, the ‘jungle’ represents community, freedom and dignity. On 7-9 March, the nearby refugee camp in the Dunkirk suburb of Grande-Synthe will also be evicted. Residents have another camp to move to based on assurances by the local authorities that it will be an open camp. But as seen in Calais, promises are easily broken.

The Calais evictions


Riot police at one of the entrances to Calais refugee camp, next to the motorway. by Lydia Noon

‘Have you got a crowbar?’

‘If the police say something, we must do it,’ shrugs the resident of Calais refugee camp Sirajafridi. ‘We can’t face them; we just want to get to the other side of the camp.’ The 30-year-old from Kandahar, Afghanistan is being evicted from the area he has been living with friends for the past three months.

On 11 January the French authorities issued an eviction notice to refugees living within a hundred metres of the motorway that leads to Calais ferry port. Some 1,300 residents, including 50 children, have now moved from the proposed ‘buffer zone’ to an area of the camp levelled and prepared by volunteers to rehouse them. Originally, the authorities had given a quarter of the camp’s 7,000-strong population just three days to move. At the request of aid organizations, a temporary reprieve was granted until today.

RELATED: Humanity adrift: Why refugees deserve better, the keynote story from our Jan/Feb magazine focusing on the migrant crisis.

The announcement came on the same day that 125 shipping containers in a fenced-off area separated from the rest of the camp were opened. With each container able to house 12 people, there is shelter for 1,500 refugees. But with a fingerprinting system in place most people are against moving there for fear of being sent back to France if they manage to enter Britain. So far, a hundred people have moved in; other containers are providing a white canvas for graffiti artists.

Tensions in the camp, now more like a shanty town, have increased since the announcement for the buffer zone was made. Two bulldozers on the edge of the camp waiting to demolish homes, were set alight overnight on 15 January and destroyed.

‘Have you got a crowbar?’

The tents are heavy and progress is hampered by biting winds.

Lydia Noon

Independent volunteers and those attached to organizations such as Help Refugees and ACTED have helped refugees move over 300 tents, 247 wooden shelters and 25 caravans over the past few days.

‘Have you got a crowbar?’ Gary, an Irish volunteer connected with British based organization Care4Calais, asks me. Another volunteer searches for a shovel. Helping hands are plentiful, but tools are in short supply. ‘There are safe areas in the camp we are moving people to’ says Gary. ‘But I think today was the biggest emotional outpour that I’ve felt from the refugees. They’re asking ‘why? Why are we moving?’

‘I’ve heard that the authorities are trying to downsize Calais to turn it into a container camp’, he adds, emphasising that this is hearsay. Other volunteers and many refugees repeat his uncertainty. Nobody knows for sure.

The sandy soil has partially buried the bottom of some of the wooden shelters but once they have been pried away from their base or lifted up from pallets, they can be transported to their new home. This is either by foot or with the shelters’ owners precariously balancing them on the back of trucks to the other side of one of the camp’s main streets.

These shelters were built in a Calais warehouse by volunteers before being transported to camp. ‘When we put them up we bashed the nails in as far as they would go, not thinking we’d have to take them down again’, explains Tom, a British independent volunteer. ‘It’s a bit crazy really’.

A female resident moves her belongings from her old home.

Lydia Noon

The one per cent

The residents in Calais and Dunkirk – home to 3,000 refugees – constitute less than one per cent of more than a million asylum seekers who arrived in Lesbos last year after making the treacherous sea journey from Turkey. They are also less than the one per cent of the one million asylum seekers who currently reside in Germany.

‘I’ve been here, in this shelter for three months,’ says Khprlwrk, from Jalalabad, a city near the Pakistani border in Afghanistan. ‘The young Afghani generation just wants to go to England. They are tired of the fighting,’ he says, adjusting his woolly hat before getting back to work removing the sand burying the base of his shelter. ‘The winter here is too hard. I’ve tried many times to cross to Britain but I’ve not been successful.’

His shelter made out of timber and tarpaulin is proving hard to shift. The shelters are heavy. It takes around 10 people to move a single shelter the size of a garden shed. As more volunteers come to help, a friend of Khprlwrk’s insists on giving me a thermal flask with the words ‘London Ambulance’ written on it. ‘I don’t need it,’ he says, flashing a cheeky grin. ‘I will be in England soon.’

25 miles from the white cliffs of Dover, everyone in the camp hopes to reach Britain.

Lydia Noon

‘We move from this place because today is our last warning from the French government’, continues Khprlwrk. ‘We will go to another part of the camp, but not to the containers. We don’t know what will happen in the next months.’

The 23-year-old fled Afghanistan, but not because of the Taliban. His father was a politician in the country’s communist party, which, he says, has caused problems for his family in an Islamic state.

RELATED: The Jungle: A photo gallery of the Calais camp

Despite a statement from the camp’s community leaders on 12 January outlining their intention to ‘peacefully resist’ the government’s plans, I couldn’t find anyone who was prepared to stay.

Most are scared of the police. Few options are open to them.

Hanshinwni, an Afghani from a border town with Pakistan, is a newcomer to the camp in Calais. He has been here for a week and is staying in his friends’ shelter. Already he has been tear gassed by the French police. The area is a site of regular clashes between refugees and the police. When small groups climb the motorway embankment, attempting to board British trucks bound for the port, collective punishment in the form of tear gas is dealt out to all residents in the area.

‘France is no good, England is good. Police are everywhere here, big problem,’ says Hanshinwni. ‘Afghanistan, Taliban! Calais, police!’ he exclaims.

Adam and his cousins put down sand to insulate the inside of their new tent.

Lydia Noon

Moving in

Near the camp’s makeshift theatre and amid a hive of activity, Adam, three of his cousins and two friends are moving into their new tent. They lay sand around the edges of the tent to insulate it from the harsh wind. They are in high spirits. ‘What do you think?’ they ask, as they survey their work. Around them volunteers and refugees work to secure down shelters that they have transported across camp, working to make their temporary houses into homes once again.

Threats and intimidation from the police are no match for the solidarity and community within the camp: there will be little need for bulldozers today.

Bethlehem Aida camp under siege


Abed lived his short life in the shadow of Israel’s 8-metre separation wall that winds its way around two sides of Aida camp, annexing the community’s land and cutting Bethlehem off from Jerusalem. The checkpoints, night raids, arrests, Israeli settlements, the distant dream of seeing the sea and visiting Jerusalem were part of growing up under occupation. by Lydia Noon

In the minutes before an Israeli sniper killed Abed al-Rahman Obeidallah, he may have noticed a large memorial for the 556 children killed during Israel’s assault on Gaza last summer.

A poster of Abed is displayed next to a memorial for the children killed in Gaza last year, entitled ‘When our children are killed’. Behind the Key of Return is a watchtower and the separation wall that zigzags around Aida camp and northern Bethlehem.

Lydia Noon

He certainly would have seen Bethlehem Aida refugee camp’s 9-metre long Key of Return – the symbol of Palestinian refugees’ right of return – when he pointed his gun at 1.42pm on a sunny afternoon on 5 October.

The soldier, about 40 years of age, knew that 13-year-old Abed was wearing a blue school uniform and carrying a school bag as he looked through the crosshairs of his rifle.

He saw the UN sign above Abed’s small 1.6-metre frame when he fired a 0.22 calibre bullet directly at the boy’s chest.

For Palestinians, Abed’s murder is a reminder that the UN neither protects them in life nor speaks out for them in death.

The spot where Abed died, next to Aida camp’s UNRWA office. On Wednesday senior Israeli officials said they had made a mistake in shooting him. Speaking to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, they claimed that their target was standing near the 13-year-old. Despite the youth posing no obvious threat, at a safe distance of over 100 metres from the soldiers, officials said there was no alternative to using live fire due to the volatile situation in the West Bank.

Lydia Noon

‘All the camp is sad,’ says Umm Mohammed, a friend of Abed’s mother, Dalal. The mother of 6 fights back her tears. ‘He was one of our children.’

Abed’s death comes at a time of increased tensions across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. For weeks Israeli rightwing groups have occupied the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, accompanied by Israeli soldiers. Access for Palestinians has been limited and worshippers assaulted.

Palestinians from Bethlehem and beyond attend the funeral of 13-year-old Abed al-Rahman Obeidallah in Aida camp, constructed by the UN in 1949 after the Palestinian nakba [catastrophe] of 1948 led to the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Lydia Noon

Israeli forces killed 2 Palestinians in separate shootings in Hebron and Doura village, near Hebron, on 22 September. The following week, on 1 October, 2 Israeli settlers were shot dead by a Palestinian near Nablus; 2 others were killed in East Jerusalem’s old city 2 days later. This provoked a violent response from Israeli settlers and the Israeli military.

On 4 October, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society declared a state of emergency after 14 attacks on the Society’s ambulances and crew, settler 'price-tag’ attacks, and bullets fired by Israeli forces left more than 100 Palestinians injured in 3 days.

Children from Aida camp’s Sounds of Palestine music group give their condolences to Abed’s mother, Dalal, and the rest of his family on 8 October. Abed is the 7th child in the camp to have been killed by Israeli forces since its encirclement by Israel’s separation wall in 2005.

Akram Ameen

Today sees the 9th consecutive day of clashes in Bethlehem between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youth outside Aida camp (population 6,000), next to Israel’s separation wall. Ambulances are on standby and debris, stones, spent rubber bullets and empty teargas canisters line the road. In the camp, residents watch the clashes from their roofs and balconies, running inside when soldiers fire teargas into the camp.

The sense of frustration with the Palestinian Authority and the international community is growing. No-one is sure what will happen next but while the 3 day official mourning period is over, the loss of Abed and the almost certain impunity for his killer will not be forgotten.

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