'WE ARE not animals. We are not criminals. We are human beings,' cried hundreds of desperate and defiant refugees last week. They were fighting back against the treatment they suffer because of the policies of Tony Blair and other European Union leaders. Over 900 refugees are at a Red Cross centre in a giant hangar outside Sangatte, near the French Channel port of Calais.
Hundreds of refugees marched out of the camp last Thursday with a banner declaring, 'We want our future'. They brushed past police attempts to halt their protest, and marched into the town centre determined to get their message out. Finally lines of CRS riot police barred the way. The refugees responded by staging a sitdown protest, blocking the road.
The refugees have fled, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, often in fear of their lives. They have suffered unimaginable hardship and danger in a bid to find a safe haven. Many want to come to Britain simply because members of their family speak some English.
Tony Blair said last week, 'It would be a disaster if we ended up with a fortress Europe.' That must sound like a very, very sick joke to Sangatte refugees. They are treated like criminals by European governments, and beaten, gassed and savaged with dogs if they try and cross to Britain.
The French police do the beating, but it is at the behest of Tony Blair, who has demanded that refugees are stopped from crossing the Channel. As I sat with refugees in the road, one after another showed the cuts, bruises and dog bites they had received from the police. Those who evade the police and get past the razor wire hope to cling to a freight train through the Channel Tunnel.
Four refugees have been killed and dozens seriously injured in the attempt. While I was there an official from the British embassy in France visited the Sangatte camp. Some refugees thought at first he was there to help.
Hope soon turned to anger. The British government's only message was to tell the refugees to go back to the countries they had escaped from. For some that would be a death sentence. 'We have lost everything. We love our countries but we had to leave. Why are we punished for seeking a new life?' said Abdul from Iran. The refugees get basic food and shelter in the Sangatte centre. But, as Abdul said, 'we want our freedom. We don't just want to eat and sleep-we want to live.'
Human cost of a mad system
'MY FATHER was tortured in Afghanistan. I couldn't go to school. We had to run away. We want to go to England to be safe. I just want to play and go to school.' Suhel is nine years old. He was at the front of last Thursday's protest. At his side was ten year old Saddaf. She and her family had also fled Afghanistan.
'There is war and the government wanted to take my father away to fight,' she told me. 'We ran away. I want to live like normal people.' Every one of the refugees had a harrowing story of why they had been driven to flee the homes they loved.
Ziyan is from Iraq. Her 15 year old son Qodoo is severely disabled and needs specialist medical treatment. Western sanctions mean that is impossible in Iraq. 'There are not the doctors, medicine and equipment,' she said. Mother and son fled Iraq. 'My son is bleeding badly in his mouth every day. He needs help. I hoped he could get it in England or Germany.'
Instead Ziyan and Qodoo are left in the Sangatte centre not knowing what the future holds. 'I RAN away from Afghanistan with my wife and children. One is eight years old. One is just a year old. We were kept in trucks on the way, but we got separated and I haven't seen them for two months now. I don't know where they are. I just want to get somewhere to live and look after myself so I can look for them.'
'WE WANT the governments and the United Nations to accept our refugee status. I am from Afghanistan. The Taliban persecute people because of political or religious beliefs. I was arrested, put in jail and tortured, beaten with hard cables. We are just left here in Sangatte. Nobody does anything. So we have to do something ourselves. We will start a hunger strike, and march and protest.'
'IN AFGHANISTAN there are no human rights. I couldn't get a passport. So my family sold everything they had to get me out to give me a chance of a future. It took six days to get here. I was hidden in the back of a truck with just a little food and water, and a bucket for a toilet. I only have the clothes I am wearing. I want to be a doctor or an engineer. I can speak English, and would like to come to England to study and then work.'
'I WAS working in Iraq but I am a Kurd. I was against Saddam and was beaten. My teeth were smashed by police. I had to leave. I just want to have a life, but instead I am here being treated like this.'
THE REFUGEES come from different countries and speak different languages. European governments use borders to divide people.
The refugees challenged that with their inspirational solidarity. They discussed what to do while sitting in the road in front of the riot police. One speaker addressed the Afghans. Someone translated the same message for the Kurds, and then another for the Arabic speakers.
Afghans, Kurds, Iraqis and Iranians were all together saying 'We are all human beings,' refusing to be divided by language, nationality or religion.
Fight to open the borders
THE PEOPLE in Sangatte shatter the lies and myths about refugees. Almost all come from countries denounced as 'rogue' states by Western leaders, where there are serious human rights violations. All face persecution and possible death if they are returned to those countries. They should be welcomed as refugees.
They are people like 20 year old Hamid from Afghanistan: 'I was studying but then I became old enough to be made to go and fight in the war by the Taliban. I don't want to fight and kill. I want to go to university. 'I can speak seven languages, but I am left here. What can I do here?' Tony Blair travels the world preaching a gospel of 'free' trade and the 'free' market.
His 'freedom' is for business, bankers and Western military powers to do as they please across the world. But it offers no freedom at all for people forced to flee the horrors created by that system.
Despite the horrors Sangatte refugees have experienced and are still suffering, they are determined to fight back. They are demanding the right to be treated like human beings. 'Tell the world what is happening to us,' said Ahmed from Afghanistan. 'If people in England can support us it can help.' Everyone should stand with the refugees' inspiring fight and say, 'Open the border. They are welcome here.'