I SPENT two days last week with the asylum seekers sheltering in a disused church in Calais. Everybody should know the truth about their lives. The 120 people involved were made up of 85 Iraqi Kurds and 35 Afghans. The Iraqis were bitterly aware of the hypocrisy of governments that are prepared to launch a war against 'tyrant Saddam Hussein' but act in the most brutal fashion towards people who have fled Iraq.
War will create thousands more refugees. The Afghans say that, if the president of their country needs 100 bodyguards to ensure his safety, how can it be a secure society to bring up your children? The 120 were all genuine refugees. Again and again I heard accounts of torture and of families wiped out. This is what people flee from. They had taken shelter in the church because the Sangatte refugee centre has closed its doors to new entrants. This is the result of New Labour's determination to prevent as many people as possible from applying for asylum in Britain.
British ministers, led by home secretary David Blunkett, pressured the French government to close the Sangatte camp down. Groups of people are now wandering French coastal areas, often in atrocious weather, without proper shelter or food. These refugees are picked off by the French CRS police squads, often beaten, frequently arrested and then presented with notice of removal in 48 hours. To appeal against these orders, the refugees must appear personally in Arras, a town 120 kilometres away.
This is impossible for people with no money. The refugees could not have been more welcoming. The man who acted as a spokesperson for the occupation offered me his own bed and made sure I had food and drink. Many of the people of Calais also responded splendidly. They brought food to the occupation and showed their clear support for the refugees.
Most of the refugees in the church occupation wanted to come to Britain. This is not because it is a 'soft touch' but because they speak some English and have family ties here. One man had a wife and four children in Birmingham. Why should he not be allowed to join them?
These people want to work, they want a chance of a decent life, and they want an end to constant fear and suffering. Instead a combination of the French and British authorities has now made it impossible for people to get through Calais to Britain.
The harsh measures adopted by one country in Europe are watched closely by others. So New Labour's action over Sangatte will be matched by similar moves elsewhere. There is a spiral of cruelty and toughness which is driving desperate people into even more desperate situations.
I will always remember the spirit and humanity of the Calais refugees. Such people deserve everyone's support.
Elderly woman driven to death
THE HARSH results of New Labour's crackdown on asylum were revealed at a coroner's court in Kent last week. It heard that an elderly woman fleeing Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe burnt herself to death after she was told she would have to go back. The Home Office's decision was her death sentence.
Forsina Makoni, 79, was found in flames in Gillingham on 11 May and died among the bushes where she had set herself alight. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide. He was told that Forsina Makoni had been an opponent of Zimbabwe's leader, Robert Mugabe, and fled to Britain to escape repression. British authorities told her to go back. She feared she would be killed on her return.
A police officer told the coroner that Forsina Makoni moved to Britain in May 2001, staying with her daughter and son in law in Gillingham. Her application to stay in this country was turned down in the weeks before her death and she became depressed. Forsina's daughter, Barbara Bondo, said her mother had been a very vocal opponent of Mugabe and had sought political asylum in Britain.
A friend of the family told Socialist Worker, 'This is a tragedy which has thrown light for me on the whole way the asylum system works. In Gillingham the Tories have run a campaign against asylum seekers and I will admit that I wondered if they were telling the truth about people scrounging and getting into Britain without any good reason. Now I know it is nonsense. I don't just feel angry about the Tories. I think David Blunkett drove that poor woman to her death. For the sake of looking hard he made her so terrified and so hopeless that she burnt herself.'