I am writing this on the day 'Left Field' is published.
my recent visit to the Calais 'jungle' with the Calais Sessions musicians I found that I was with the kind of people who had
worked alongside me when I co-founded War Child over 20 years ago and at the Pavarotti Music Centre in Bosnia.
The same spirit, the same radical approach to 'aid', the same love
and attention to the power of music as healer, as 'bread for the
Guardian reported on 20 April that, “hundreds of people are feared
to have drowned in the southern Mediterranean last week, in what
would be the deadliest migrant shipwreck in months.” This news was
swamped ( pun intended ) by the news of Prince's (artist formerly known as)
In recent years around 60
million people across the globe have fled their homes. Many of them
have been running from the abyss of destruction, death and chaos our
bombardier politicians have rained down on them.
In the last two years more
than one million people have reached Europe; the continent’s
biggest wave of mass migration since the end of the Second World War.
36% of them are children.
Those are the fortunate ones.
At least four thousand people have drowned to date in the
Mediteranean. An average of two children have drowned every day since
September 2015 and 340 children, many of them babies and toddlers,
have drowned in the eastern Mediterranean alone. UNHCR and UNICEF say
the total number of children who have died may be much greater.
We all saw three year old Alan
Kurdi's body picked up off the beach. Luckier ones have been found
floating on lilos. On shore they have been washed in
puddles and wrapped in plastic to keep out the cold. Many have died
from hypothermia and, among the living, many are ill. Most
shockingly, Italian medics treating refugee children estimate that
50% are infected with sexual diseases.
There are at least ninety
thousand unaccompanied children among the refugee population (a
figure stated as understated by Save the Children at a meeting I
attended in the House of Lords on 13 April 2016).
I have now visited the Calais
'jungle' twice. My first visit was with homeopathic practitioners and
my second with musicians from The Calais Sessions. On both
occasions we were welcomed with warmth and too many cups of sweet
tea. The refugees were eager to talk about their lives and what had
brought them so many thousands of miles from their homes.
How had they arrived on the
channel coast? On EasyJet? Eurostar? Hired coaches? Some of them had
walked across Western Europe. When you next fly or train it to
southern Europe, look down at the ground. Walked?
Conditions in the Calais camp
are diabolical, with cramped makeshift tents plagued by rats, water
sources contaminated by faeces and inhabitants suffering from
tuberculosis, scabies and post-traumatic stress. The homeopaths I
went with visited numerous families. Only one didn't have colds,
coughs, sore throats or worse.
Researchers from the
University of Birmingham, working with Doctors of the World, found a
piped water tap to have unsafe levels of E coli and Coliform; both
bacteria indicative of faecal contamination. 'This study exposes the
awful truth about the Calais refugee crisis' – says Leigh Daynes,
director of Doctors of the World, 'that it is a humanitarian
emergency of the first order in one of the world’s most thriving
nations … Internationally agreed standards for the provision of aid
and protection in refugee situations are nowhere to be found in
Calais. That is a blight on the reputation of European states, who
should and can do better, as they often do in refugee crises
Many volunteers are working in
Calais – doctors, nurses, musicians, youth workers at the Baloo
Youth Centre and at the Jungle Books library. At the large and well
organised warehouse mostly young people unload foods, clothing,
medicines and sleeping equipments.
On my second visit I spent
some of the time 'teaching' guitar, but quickly roles were reversed.
After 30 minutes of C, G, A and F chords, Assi thanked me, smiled and
asked if I'd like to learn Ethiopian Tizita pentatonic scales.
Atieyb had brought his guitar
on the long journey north. It only had two strings. One young Syrian
didn't want to play guitar, but told me he liked to be close to
music. 'It gives me', he said, 'sanity'.
Why did he want to get to the
UK. Most of his family had been killed – 'I don't want to talk
about that, but my sister is in Bristol. I want to go there.' Can
anyone give me one reason why he shouldn't?
His only chance right now is
to find £5000 for the armed smuggling gangs whose white vans can be
seen 'hanging out' on the surrounding roads. Guaranteed passage is
£8000. But payment in cash and up front.
As in Greece there is little
collated information on the camp's inhabitants and none at all on
unaccompanied minors. According to the EU Police Agency Europe 10,000
of them have disappeared in Europe over the last two years. Of
those missing in Calais, Libby Freeman of Calais Action says, 'Nobody
knows where these vulnerable children have ended up.”
After the south camp at Calais
was broken up in March 2016, Help Refugees reported that 'No
alternative accommodation was provided for unaccompanied minors
during the evictions, no assessment was made by the French
authorities of their needs and no systems put in place to monitor
them or provide safeguarding. There is no official regulation system
for children in place in Calais or Dunkirk.'
This is an international
emergency and it requires an international response. The House of
Lords meeting was in support of Lord Alf Dubs campaign to admit 3000
unaccompanied children into the UK. All well and good. But only 3000!
Bowing to this mild pressure and mealy-mouthed as ever, David
Cameron announced on 4 May 2016 that the UK will take in more
unaccompanied refugee children from Europe, although, as reported by
the BBC, ' it has not committed to a specific figure.'
The Greek and Macedonian
governments built a border fence in 36 hours. I was told at the
meeting that, late last year, HMS Bulwark rescued 5,000 people from
the sea. All credit, but only because the ship was in the area on its
way home from the Gallipoli ceremony – an earlier inglorious
episode. But both stories are evidence that big things can be
achieved in a big way and quickly.
As the co-founder of the UK
NGO, War Child, I have a few questions. I am aware that Médecins
Sans Frontières is present in Calais and has helped resettle
thousands in Dunkirk. That Save the Children have funded volunteer work in the camps, but that seems to be the sum of it. Why haven't other NGOs, including the charity I helped establish, joined MSF and STC and become actively involved? If that is not possible for them then
why are they not at least speaking out on this crisis?
Is it true they cannot get
directly involved because they are waiting for the French and British
governments to declare a humanitarian emergency? But doesn't NGO
translate as 'NON-Government ?
A number of other questions.
Does the French government take money from the UN to keep people at
the camps, but do little or nothing in return? Is it true that the
Calais camp has been partially, but not completely, destroyed so that
this situation can continue? Is it true that with the destruction of
the camp the French and UK governments might face court action? Maybe
I am repeating rumours and perhaps my questions are naïve. I ask
NGOs started coming to
prominence during the rise of neoliberal ideology, enshrined in the
Reagan-Thatcher years. The 'free market' was promoted with Thatcher's
'There is no such thing as society'. The answer? Government needed to
be hands-off with public provision (healthcare, education, the lot)
and NGO's were the solution. In the ten years from 1975 – 1985 the
amount of aid taking the NGO route shot up by 1,400%. Increasingly,
governments looked to NGOs to provide cheap services, be it mental
health provision or 'overseas aid' - a role that continues to grow
with austerity policies.
In return government funds
have become vital for many NGO's, with aid charities accommodating themselves
to both government and business donors. Their language today is all
about forming partnerships with these interests, rather than
the secretary-general of Civicus, a global network of civil society
organizations, has said: ‘We have become a part of the problem
rather than the solution. Our corporatization has steered us towards
activism-lite, a version of our work rendered palatable to big
business and capitalist states. Not only does this approach threaten
no one in power, but it stifles grassroots activism with its weighty
Arundhati Roy takes this
argument further: ‘Armed with their billions, these NGOs have waded
into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried
activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently
luring them away from radical confrontation … It’s almost as
though the greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the
greater the outbreak of NGOs.'
Here are some figures for the
CEO annual salaries of some NGOs engaged with refugee communities.
British Red Cross, £220K, Amnesty International £210K, Save the
Children UK £130K,, Comic Relied £130K, Oxfam £120K, Christian Aid
£120K. The CEO of War Child, the charity I co-founded, gets £95K.
(Figures from Third Sector and from War Child)
Ten-Percent Foundation, the
charitable giver for Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment consider, rightly in my view, that a charity CEO's absolute maximum salary should be
In this environment NGO's
advocacy on the part of the dispossessed is, at best, cautious. At
its worst – compromised. It takes little guts and little money to
say the situation we face on our frontiers is intolerable and that we
need to do something about it.
It takes little guts and no
money to speak up against the forcible detention of international
volunteers from 'Aid Delivery Mission' at Indomeni on the Greece –
Macedonia border. Their offence – cooking meals for the stranded
Tonight Left Field will be
launched in London. Performing there will be Eugene Skeef on djembe–
collaborator with Steve Biko and musical comrade from my time at the
Pavarotti Music Centre in Bosnia. Accompanying him will be Vanessa
Lucas-Smith on cello – one of the musical heartbeats of the Calais Sessions musicians today. They will be helping me complete my circle
– the circle you can follow in 'Left Field'.
And if you want to know who
speaks for the children, listen to the music
5 May 2016
David Wilson is a co-founder
of War Child and author of Left Field -published by Unbound and distributed by Penguin Books
NOTE: I am delighted that the Stop
the War Coalition, who I worked for after being thrown out of War
Child are organising a 'Convoy to Calais' in June. Please support them and if you join them in the Calais 'jungle' listen for the drums.