“We must help female refugees in Calais to safety”

Alastair Gittins
5 min readSep 1, 2020

Jane Gebbie, chair of UNISON Cymru Wales Women’s Committee and Neath Port Talbot branch secretary was energised by past visits to help refugees in Calais.

UNISON Cymru Wales caught up with her to find out about what she discovered and why UNISON Cymru Wales Women’s Committee made a donation to deliveries for refugees in Calais last week.

Jane Gebbie assembling some of the items bought with Cymru Wales Women’s Committee’s donation for refugees in Calais

Jane, why is it such an important issue to get resources to Calais?

As soon as I heard Young Labour members locally in Bridgend were organising a deliveries for refugees aid trip to Calais, I knew UNISON Cymru Wales Women’s Committee needed to get involved.

The refugees are in dire need and we decided we should help.

Forget the disgusting tabloid headlines; refugees are desperately looking for a place of safety and sanctuary. They are fleeing wars and persecution because of their race, nationality or religion or their political affiliation. They might be escaping the devastating effects of climate change where they can’t grow crops because of rising sea levels.

Covid knows no borders and refugees living in makeshift camps have been particularly vulnerable to the virus.

What was it that resonated with the Women’s Committee?

UNISON women have always been involved in helping refugees and displaced women. We have always challenged discrimination against women in the past and it is important to do something wherever we can.

We haven’t spent all of the UNISON Cymru Wales Women’s Committee budget this year because of lockdown so we decided to donate £850 to help female refugees’ safety in the Calais camps. Refugee camps are often un-policed and violent places for women to be.

We know that 1 in 5 of displaced women/refugees around the world have experienced sexual violence in camps or on the move between camps and around the world 17m girls are displaced. Abuse on that scale is unimaginable but it never makes it into our newspapers.

In a camp a female refugee can’t lock a door to keep herself safe.

We remember too, all those refugees who have died attempting to crossing seas to safety when governments around the world could have put measure in place to protect them.

Jane and UNISON Cymru Wales members marching against government spending cuts. Photo credit: Tracey Paddison

What did you find in Calais?

The conditions for refugees in the camp in Calais were horrific. They were before the pandemic started but now all the aid organisations have pulled out because of the virus and it’s got worse.

Third sector and non-government organisations had no option but to withdraw and staff and volunteers from the camps as they couldn’t guarantee their safety with the lack of appropriate personal protective equipment.

Refugees are living in tents in the mud and damp. There is limited food provision; limited bottled water; limited health provision — you have to be dying to receive medical aid.

It is dirty. Accessing a toilet is difficult and there are just two taps of running water for 1,000 people including women who might be on their period. It’s unhygienic and we must do something.

Refugees have no income and no livelihood. There is no training and people are left to their own devices.

I can’t imagine being in that position. If I was scraping to survive in the same circumstances, I would like to think someone would help me.

Some women have given birth in the camp. I gave birth in a pristine hospital with access to all the medical provision I needed. If you have a baby in the camp there are no medicines, no nappies or wipes.

The conditions are so horrendous, it reinforces that people are so desperate — why would you put you and your children in that situation unless you were terrified for your safety in your home country.

The Women’s Committee was advised refugees are desperate for practical things and not clothes. So we bought a number of tents; sleeping bags; survival blankets and sustainable things like wind-up torches and solar lanterns.

Jane with UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis. Photo credit: Tracey Paddison

How do you think our governments, in Westminster and Wales, have responded to the refugee crisis?

Britain takes in only a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees. We are a rich, supposedly accepting country. If you look at Calais, we’re not as accepting as we say we are. We should be doing so much more to help people in severe need.

Welsh government has been instrumental in issuing guidance advice, support for asylum seekers seeking refuge here and lots of local authorities in Wales say they could take more people. There is a duty on councils in Wales to house refugees but the numbers we’ve taken are insignificant. In several local authority areas, for example, I know about only seven refugee families who have been taken in, despite reports in the media that these numbers are significantly higher. They have been well looked after but I think councils, whose service provision for these families is exemplary, are unfortunately reluctant to publicise this essential work for fear of making the refugees a target of abuse and reprisal.

We could do much more in Wales but I want to be clear our government is so much better than the Westminster government. The Conservatives don’t seem to want to put in place any support for these desperate people seeking safety and they allow media scare stories to take flight about refugees without rebutting them with the truth.

Refugees are entitled to just £37.75 per week in state support. No-one risks their life for £37 a week.

Migrants and refugees are people, not propaganda. There’s a duty on us in the trade union movement to highlight the facts and challenge people when they are hostile to refugees.

Refugees in Calais are educated; doctors, nurses and IT qualified people. Why not utilise their talents, skills and know-how in the Welsh economy?

What next for UNISON and the Cymru Wales Women’s Committee?

I want to go back to Calais and see what I can do to help whether it’s raising the profile of refugees or getting resources to them.

We need to help all refugees rebuild their lives with training, supplies and sanctuary.

UNISON has worked with City of Sanctuary in the past and I would like to discuss and develop that further with the Women’s Committee.

We want all UNISON women engaged and helping on this. If we were in difficulty at work, we would expect that same help and solidarity from our sisters in our trade union.

All UNISON Cymru Wales members should ask their branches how they can better help refugees. Educational visits to Calais would certainly help this. Cymru Wales Women’s Committee would encourage anybody who has the means available to support future deliveries for refugees.

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