The return of trench foot to northern France

The return of trench foot to northern France
Comment: A century after the First World War, trench foot has returned to northern France, but it is refugees, not soldiers, being forced to live in desperate unsanitary conditions.
6 min read
04 Aug, 2017
Hundreds of migrants are homeless in Calais, denied basic human needs [AFP]

Trench foot, a medical condition linked to a prolonged exposure to wet or damp surroundings can lead to gangrene and even amputation.

Practitioners of emergency medicine advise immediate medical evacuation, seeing that the pain can be debilitating and last for weeks to months.

Trench foot was endemic in the First World War trenches of northern Europe. It is becoming commonplace again, this time in Calais, where an estimated 200 unaccompanied children and 400 adults live in deplorable conditions.

The NGO Help Refugees reports that people have no form of shelter - they sleep on the ground exposed to the elements, and have no access to facilities in order to wash themselves or the clothes they are wearing, day in and day out.

Médecins du Monde workers, puzzled by the appearance of burns, discoloration and blisters on their patients' skin, inquired about the hygiene situation, and realised that the refugees and migrants had no other choice than to bathe in the canals, polluted with industrial wastewater from a nearby chemical plant.

Help Refugees has, in cooperation with their partners, L'Auberge des Migrants, conducted a survey among 227 of the people currently in the area, and have found out that NGOs are the only source of drinking water for 93 percent of those interviewed, while 61 percent of them have access to water only twice a day.

As is the case with other grassroots initiatives which have sprung up across Europe as a response to the crisis, those attempting to alleviate the suffering along with the beneficiaries are under supervision by the state - the gendarmerie, CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, riot police), national police, crime squads and the border police.   

According to volunteer testimonies, the CRS, already infamous for its ill-treatment of refugees and migrants, has managed to sink to a new low by contaminating drinking water in Calais with teargas - either deliberately or as a side-effect of "crowd control" measures. People's belongings, such as sleeping bags and blankets are regularly confiscated, they are arrested, beaten and taken to detention centres, all in an attempt to discourage "all points of concentration" of refugees. 

We live in a time when it's acceptable to deprive refugees of basic human rights and make them sleep on damp ground or hide in woods like animals, emerging only at the designated meal time

Natascha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais, said she would not respect the court decision which orders her to provide basic provisions such as water points or sanitation facilities to refugees and migrants.

We live in a time when it's acceptable to deprive refugees of basic human rights and make them sleep on damp ground or hide in woods like animals, emerging only at the designated meal time.

An MSF team, visiting Calais in June, reported that, while many of the refugees are in relatively good physical shape, they are exhausted and affected by skin diseases brought on by the appalling sanitary conditions, eye infections as a consequence of recurring tear gas exposure, as well as various sprains and common wounds.

It's not uncommon, they report, for the police to come in the night, spraying the refugees' clothes and sleeping bags with tear gas as they drive them away.

History repeats itself in Calais. In 1999 would-be refugees and migrants began gathering here and established a makeshift camp while trying to cross over to the UK. Authorities have also repeated their mistakes, investing heavily into security, fences and razor wire to separate us from the human beings found on the wrong side of the border.

Read more: Refugees still braving the soul-crushing 'Balkans route'

Britain's All-Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficking and Modern Slavery has conducted an independent inquiry into the situation faced by separated and unaccompanied children in parts of Europe and has found it to be extremely volatile, calling for urgent action to protect children on the move, since "it is not just an immigration issue but also a matter of child protection and preventing serious and organised crime. The UK must play its part in safeguarding the children and young people who are currently left without adequate protection and support in Europe".

The inquiry concluded that a safe route does not act as a "pull factor" - a fear shared by those denouncing rescues at sea - and what draws children to the UK is the language, the respected education system, family ties, sport, and an open job market. The "push factors" are constituted by terror in their home country, as well as the violence they experience at the hands of the authorities and police in France, as well as the violence they experience on their journey.

The UK government, which has not taken in any child refugees under the 'Dubs amendment' (Section 67 of the Immigration Act) in 2017 - and has managed to transfer only 200 children under the scheme so far - is encouraged by the report's authors to facilitate the registration and transport of children at risk of trafficking as well as sexual, labour and criminal exploitation, due to not having a safe legal route into the country or a support network once they have reached it.

We know that if done properly, the UK has the space to offer a safe home and future to hundreds more child refugees

The NGO Help Refugees took the British government to court over its failure to properly assess local councils' capacity to take in unaccompanied children under the Dubs Amendment. The Home Office has apparently been going out of their way to thwart every attempt to act not just on the spirit of the Dubs amendment but on its specific terms.

Help Refugees is asking the courts to intervene, to ensure the Home Office conducts a legitimate, lawful consultation with local councils: "We know that if done properly, the UK has the space to offer a safe home and future to hundreds more child refugees."

In a perfect example of the biopolitical condition of the refugee "Other", certain Conservative MPs have gone as far as calling for dental checks, in order to ascertain whether children are actually children. The idea was struck down, and the British Dental Association slammed it as deeply unethical - radiographs are only to be taken when there is a clinically justified reason - as well as an innacurate method for assessing the chronological age of a person. 

Two words come to mind when trying to describe the living conditions of refugees and migrants across Europe - extreme precariousness. They seem to live within a discursive and material framework which obsesses over their number, religion and of course nationality - which is used to pre-emptively deny their claims for international protection.

It's yet another disheartening example of how dismal the response to the so-called refugee crisis has been that so many European governments need to be reminded of the words of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention: "The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin" - and that each and every asylum claim needs to be processed on an individual basis.

Tajana Tadić is a Balkans-based graduate student and refugee aid worker with 'Are You Syrious?'

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff