Six educators and six young people travelled to Calais in Northern France last weekend with the Columbans and Hallam Diocese to encounter refugee support in action. They visited Secours Catholique (Caritas France), volunteered with Care4Calais and visited Fr. Philippe Demeestere at a house of hospitality he runs in Calais. His engagement has included hunger striking for refugees’ rights.
More than 1,000 refugees, fleeing some of the most dangerous countries in the world, live in squalor and hardship in Calais. They are desperate to cross the English Channel to the UK, and hundreds have perished trying to do so.
Messages from the group on social media while in Calais challenged misconceptions, myths and negative perceptions of refugees. These included: ‘25,000 people crossed the Channel in 2022 and faith calls us to welcome them’ and ‘wouldn’t you hope to be welcomed’. The group brought warm clothing collected in Britain by Hallam parishes and Hallam’s Union of Catholic Mothers.
James Trewby, Columban JPE Co-ordinator reported that, “we were moved by the situations facing refugees, the community spirit amongst those we met, and inspired by the people who serve them and work for justice.” He added that, “we call for Britain to play its part, to live up to its values, and provide safe passage and a much-improved welcome for people seeking sanctuary in the UK.”
Since 2000 the Missionary Society of St. Columban has committed itself to “continue accompanying and defending the rights of migrants,” and to address the underlying causes of the migration of peoples.
On Tuesday, Mauricio Silva, Interreligious Co-ordinator for the Columbans in Britain signed a letter to leaders of political parties in the UK, urging them “to take a clear stand and condemn any further violence against those who come here to find safety.” The letter was signed by more than 180 organisations. Released on Tuesday and co-ordinated by coalition campaign Together With Refugees, the letter criticised “inflammatory language” and policies that “demonise” people seeking refuge, and warned of a “high risk of more premeditated extremist attacks around the country” following the violence outside the Suites Hotel in Knowsley, Liverpool, last week.
St. Chad’s Sanctuary, Jesuit Refugee Service UK, Westminster Justice and Peace Commission, and Justice and Peace Scotland were also among the Church signatories who deplored the disturbances on 10th February where several hundred far-right demonstrators protested against asylum seekers housed in a hotel by the Home Office. Witnesses at the Suites hotel said missiles were thrown and far-right supporters set a police van and its equipment on fire. There were 15 arrests. A refugee from Afghanistan was heard to say, “I wasn’t safe in my country and I’m not safe here.” The organisations called on those in charge to “create a system that is fair and compassionate and brings cohesion instead of division”.
The same day was Valentine’s Day and St. Thomas More RC Primary School was among the Birmingham Schools of Sanctuary supporting a national initiative of sending Valentine’s Day ‘orange heart’ messages to the UK government expressing welcome for those seeking sanctuary in Britain. “We are all one big family” said one message.