Refugees travelling light


Sri Lankan refugees – photo flickr

As I was packing a bag for a few days away at the beach, news items I had just read about refugees began to trouble me. Most of the articles were about people being shunted out of Calais, not knowing where they were going next.

We’ve all read about ‘The Jungle’, a ramshackle refugee camp at Calais, located close to the cross-channel tunnel which carries commerce between France and England. Since 1999, the camp has developed in an ad hoc way, attracting refugees and migrants from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. People in this camp attempted irregular entry to the UK via the Port of Calais or the Eurotunnel, stowing away on lorries, ferries, cars, or trains travelling to the UK. The French began evacuations in late October 2016, with 170 buses carrying people to French towns and villages. Predictably, this has galvanised people from the near and far right to form Not in Our Village groups.

There has been much consternation about the fate of 1,600 or so unaccompanied minors (mostly teenagers), who have been rehoused temporarily in converted shipping containers. News reports about this aspect of the evacuation are quite bleak.

Many volunteer groups have formed in the second half of 2016 to fill the void left by a lack of state support from Britain and France.  Grassroots campaign Calais Action updated the state of play in the Jungle on its Facebook page.

About 1,600 minors remained, with more than 100 sleeping rough in the burned and demolished camp, fed only by groups of volunteers. Calais Action said 1,626 minors were transferred on November 2 to reception and accommodation centres across France.

The thousands of people crammed into the camp at Calais had been given almost no notice they would be moved and few seemed to know where they were bound.

This is not something we first-world Australians tend to think about, although our 105,000 homeless people might disagree. The latter, their accumulated belongings in storage, maybe, the vital stuff in carry bags, or trolleys; they are a bit like refugees in that they are often on the move, rarely able to plan ahead.

So yes, it makes you think, when packing for a beach holiday. She Who Signed up for Airbnb managed to snaffle a beach-front villa for a few days of R&R. By definition, R&R means take almost nothing from your regular life. A few changes of clothes, a smart casual set on a hanger in case we go out, a pair of shoes, a pair of sandals, togs and a hat. And the tote bag with one’s toiletries and medications. Best not forget that.

Discretionary items might include books, DVDs, e-reader, laptop, iPod and a scrabble set.

I’m eyeing my 12-string guitar, sitting in its case with shiny new strings.

“They’ll need bedding in,” I say, taking up a degree of space in the back of the wagon, “the strings, that is.”

We have to take our own linen,” She said. “There’s still the eskies and boxes of groceries.”

Brits who took up the sponsored immigration option in the 1950s and 1960s will know that luggage was restricted to one sea trunk per person. You can get quite a lot of stuff in an old sea trunk, but inevitably bigger items like bicycles, billy carts and pianos got left behind.

It is far worse than that for so many refugees. The lucky (and smart) ones have a mobile phone and charger, a portable and powerful ally for people on the move. But for the rest, it’s a daily ritual of washing and drying their scant supply of clothes and bartering with others – a cigarette for a Band-Aid.

You may be surprised to learn the subject of what refugees take with them on the road has been well documented. Quite a few of the people depicted in this Mercy Corps article fled with just the clothes on their back. If they had personal items like jewellery, watches or beads, they were often gifts from family left behind.

These vignettes include a photo of Muhanad, 7, whose family had lived in Jordan for two years. The seven-year-old is holding a robot toy, a birthday gift from his grandfather ‘who is now in heaven’.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) interviewed 30 refugees in its 2015 feature “What’s in my Bag”.

In 2015, nearly 100,000 men, women and children from war-torn countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia fled their homes and travelled by rubber dinghies across the Aegean Sea to Lesbos, Greece.

“Refugees travel light, for their trek is as dangerous as it is arduous. They are detained, shot at, hungry. Smugglers routinely exploit them, promising safety for a price, only to squeeze them like sardines into tiny boats. Most have no option but to shed whatever meagre belongings they may have salvaged from their journeys.”

Aboessa, 20, a mother from Syria, left home with a packing list almost wholly dedicated to her baby, including a hat, an assortment of medication, a bottle of sterile water, and a jar of baby food.

Iqbal, 17, from Afghanistan, at the time stranded in Lesbos, brought a tube of face whitener cream.

“I want my skin to be white and hair to be spiked — I don’t want them to know I’m a refugee.”

The contents of Iqbal’s kit: one pair of pants, one shirt, one pair each of shoes and socks, shampoo and hair gel, toothbrush and toothpaste, comb, nail clipper and bandages. He also had 130 Turkish lira, US $100, a smart phone and back-up cell phone and SIM cards for Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.

So just for the sport, I’m drawing up an emergency list of stuff I’d need if I had to flee without notice: medications, glasses, hat, one change of clothes and a jacket, wife, one pair of shoes and a diatonic harmonica on which to play Aussie campfire faithfuls like ‘The Road to Gundagai’. Of course I’d take a smart phone and charger, and a small laptop with which to read online and write and broadcast the news.

February 24, 2019: “Conditions are bleak here in Moree, where we have been herded across the border. Since the Make America Great Again Act of 2018, Queensland and the NT have been annexed as the 57th and 58th States respectively, quarantined as key US defence and resources protectorates. Marines and ‘volunteers’ have built a wall, to keep us out and essential workers in. A source tells me a nuclear power plant, fed from new mines in western Queensland and the NT, is being built at Port Douglas. The Great Barrier Reef is being dredged to provide new export shipping channels. Anyone ethnically or culturally suspect or over 50 and not employed in essential industries has been deported.

So thousands of us are squatting here in the dusty showgrounds, Muslims, grey nomads and a few hippies, squabbling over water and shade. The dump point has overflowed, it is 38 degrees and a storm is brewing. No-one knows when we will be moved on. I’ve run out of Lexapro and the chemist is boarded up. More later. Battery dying.”


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