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22nd Jul 2016

FEATURE: This is what Irish people can do to help people living in Calais

Rosanna Cooney

Right now in a camp in Calais there are 4000 or 5000 or 75000 refugees waiting, the numbers as uncertain as their future.

The stories of desperation coming from the French port, less than a two hour flight from Dublin, are so consistently horrendous that once you listen, really listen, you despair.

People are desperate and malnourished, they are committing suicide, more than 200 children have disappeared this year and no one knows just how long this can keep going on.

Many of those in the French port of Calais are children who have already seen more in their lives than anyone should ever have to.

Jungle art 1

Verona Murphy president of the Irish Road Haulage Association (IRHA) said “the French port authorities are passing trucks through security screenings, without checking them fully, knowing that there is a strong likelihood of migrants being hidden inside.”

Ms Murphy’s implication is that the French have an ever decreasing interest in the safety and well-being of these migrants.


When Brexit takes effect, the UK will no longer be able to send migrants back to France once they arrive. At press conference this morning however  British Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that the border control between the two countries would remain in France.

“We are both very clear that the agreement should stay,” May said. Hollande added that “we consider it as our duty to apply it and also to improve it.”

How the French government intend to do so is unclear, as the plan to fully demolish the camp appears unchanged.


“Why can’t civil servants go over and process the migrants claims remotely from Calais? Why can’t the process be sped up?” asks Elaine Mernagh, co-founder of Solidarity – an Irish volunteer organisation created to help the migrants in Calais – who spoke of refugees clinging to the underside of trucks trying to escape the camp, being hit by trains and routinely dying as they try to live a life free from war and oppression.

For someone who has seen the camp, it is impossible for Mernagh to accept the politics and games being played by the UK government when the points they score mean life or death for thousands of individuals.

Many of those waiting in Calais have family in the UK and want to reunite with them while others, who haven’t been able to contact home since leaving their country, don’t know if their families are alive or dead.

Blue tents hope

This is why Mernagh is asking people to donate their old or unused smart phones so those living in the camp can have access to Wi-Fi and can stay safe when they are on the move.

“Phones are lost and easily broken in the camp but it is so important for people to be able to contact their families,” says Mernagh.

By donating your phone, you are directly enabling someone to have a secure connection to their families and to the wider world.

“You are giving them a mental lifeline,” says Rowan Farrell of Refugee Info Bus, a converted horsebox which provides a wifi hotspot for refugees. Speaking to JOE, Farrell adds, “they are not animals to be herded from country to country. They need to know what is happening so they can make decisions for themselves and take back control of their own lives and have access to information.”

If you do have an old smartphone it can be sent to Mernagh’s address, or you can contact her directly. Full information is given in the poster below.

Phones for refugees jpeg

The Irish connection to Calais exists almost exclusively at an independent level and volunteers like Mernagh have been bringing over supplies and assistance since 2013, with huge support from the Irish people.

The Irish government, however, has had little involvement in Calais.

“As a nation, we naturally empathise with people fleeing war and persecution who seek to find a safe haven for themselves and for their families. We see them as human beings. Not just numbers,” stated Minister Frances Fitzgerald, speaking on the migrant crisis in the Dáil last April.

Our official policy of Céad Míle Fáilte, however, falls short of the reality. 

dramatic portrait of a little homeless boy, dirty hand, poverty, city, street

Last September, under two EU directives, Ireland voluntarily agreed to take in 4000 migrants. The UK did not.

In anticipation of the arrival of these refugees over 900 people in Ireland pledged free accommodation, language services and goods, to the Irish Red Cross online registry.

Ten months later and just 311 refugees have arrived. The Irish Red Cross has been successful in matching just one refugee family with one of the pledged offers of accommodation.

Flag of Switzerland - Fluffy Heart - First aid. Isolated on white.

In every independent report the message is the same, it is the government who must create a safe pathway for these people. It is the government who holds the power to grant a safe and certain existence to those living in cruel limbo.

It is the government who must  accurately represent the generosity of the Irish people.

The Irish Refugee Council (IRC) recognises that one of the biggest tragedies is the number of unaccompanied minors trapped in this crisis. Speaking to JOE, Caroline Reid of the IRC says, “There are hundreds of children who are unnecessarily suffering in France right now.”

The latest report from UNICEF UK describes an incredibly dangerous environment for kids in Calais; “Children experience sexual exploitation, violence and forced labour on a daily basis.”

In France these children live in one of the richest economies in the world. Many of them are legally entitled to be in the UK where their families are waiting. All of them are entitled to an existence that doesn’t depend on their physical exploitation.

Suruc, Turkey - March 31, 2015: Syrian people in refugee camp in Suruc. These people are refugees from Kobane and escaped because of Islamic state attack.

Reid says, “there are foster families in Ireland who have offered to take in children and it is an issue the government really could do something about.

“These children would not be taking away housing from Irish residents as there are families here willing to support and integrate children.”

It is just a matter of making it happen.

Atmeh, Syria - January 14, 2013: Internally displaced Syrians, including children, at a refugee camp near the Turkish border in Atmeh, Syria

The Dáil, however, has gone on holidays.

The UK government is busy trying to leave the European convention on human rights. In France, the authorities are no longer interested in keeping the migrants from crossing to the UK and their interest in the health, safety or human dignity of those camped in Calais is limited.

And so the provision of humanity and dignity continues to be blocked by red-tape bureaucracy.

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