‘Who wants to ride an elephant?’ How to see elephants ethically in Thailand

Elephant-riding has been high on traveller’s bucketlists for a long time. Awareness of the abject cruelty involved in forcing animals to perform for and serve humans is growing, and yet I was still horrified to hear travellers talking about this in groups, and signs advertising it around Thailand. Were they completely oblivious? Or did they just not care as long as it makes a good insta photo?

Elephants  are one of my favourite animals. I was overwhelmed to see African elephants living in the wild during my travels in Botswana and Namibia. However, I have felt extremely sad that I had only seen Asian elephants in India that were facepainted and forced to lug overweight tourists up and down steep slopes to visit forts as entertainment. It can be hard to avoid seeing animal cruelty as a vegan traveller.

A wild African elephant I saw grazing happily in Botswana

But a new trend is growing, and one which on the face of it seems to improve conditions for elephants: ethical sanctuaries.  While it didn’t seem I’d be able to see any elephants in the wild on my trip to Thailand, I was keen to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary. There are many that seem to have cropped up, particularly around Chiang Mai, advertised on boards and in hostels around the city.

But how ethical are ‘ethical’ elephant sanctuaries?

Inevitably, where there has been an increase in interest and tourist money, an increase in less than ethical businesses has followed to meet demand. While many sanctuaries market themselves as being a ‘home for happy elephants’, many still keep them in a situation of unnatural captivity. Some are still forced to play football or other activities with tourists that wouldn’t be possible if the elephants hadn’t been cruelly trained to do so.

Looking at reviews online helped me to find the right one: a review showed me an option I had been considering still shuts the elephants in tiny boxes as soon as the tourists leave.

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai

Happily, my experience at Ethical Elephant Sanctuary was wonderful and remains my most cherished memory from Thailand. Elephants here have been rescued from the tourism and logging industries.  Here was how the day unfolded:

Selfies with elephants

Breakfast with elephants

I opted for a full day and was picked up at my hostel early in the morning. After a two hour drive out of Chiang Mai, we pulled up in a giant open field where elephants were grazing. I wasn’t hopping any less than the children to get out and say hello.

First we were dressed in the cloth of the hill tribe who cared for them so that they wouldn’t be startled by us. Then we were able to feed them, holding out sugar cane and bananas that they would pluck from your palm with their ever-reaching trunks.

Going for a stroll

After a break, we went for a walk through the jungle. The elephants roamed freely and we walked alongside or behind them. Seeing them interacting with each other, pausing at will to scratch an itchy bum on the nearest tree (the elephant!), we really came to see how each elephant was a personality in their own right.

An elephant stops to scratch an itch

The importance of breaks

We had a two-hour break for lunch during which time the elephants had a break from us. This is really important for their wellbeing, as it’s not natural for them to be around humans all day. During this time they rested in the shade of an open field while we had a basic but tasty meal of veg, rice, and fruit.

Bath time for elephants

As it broke into the hottest time of the day we went down to the river to bathe and help the elephants to cool off. I was nervous as they all clambered in the same space to make sure I wasn’t going to get crushed between them.

Really seeing them up close like that makes you appreciate just how vast they are, and yet how gentle. We scooped water up to cool their bodies and helped them to rub mud against their flanks.  They retaliated by squirting water at us through their trunks!

Again, seeing them play together was really special. When they were tired of us, they got up and left the water of their own volition to return to the field, and it was when the elephant, rather than the keeper said so, that bath time was over.

Afternoon snack

Natural vegetarians, elephants generally graze all day in the wild, so by the afternoon they were ready for more snacks. It was impressive to see them munch through whole bunches of bananas in one go.

Saying goodbye

We left by late afternoon, leaving them to spend the rest of the day and evening alone. The little kid in me welled up and I felt a bit emotional leaving them, even though I know that for them this was the norm. I asked how much it was to rescue an elephant from logging: 2 million Baht (about £50k). So my dreams there were shot, but if anyone rich reads my blog, please save an elephant on my behalf.

If you can’t afford to save an elephant but would like to visit them during your travels in Asia, here are some tips for finding genuinely ethical sanctuaries.

Key things to look for:

  • Elephants should not be bound to posts by rope or chains;
  • They should not be performing for tourists or partaking in any activities they wouldn’t naturally do in the wild. Normal activities such as bathing are not okay if they are forced to do them more than they would naturally e.g. multiple times or constantly throughout the day;
  • They should not be made to interact with humans for too long without breaks;
  • You should not touch an elephant too much or climb onto their bodies;
  • They should always have access to food and water;
  • There should not be large numbers of tourists each day. Look for a sanctuary that takes restricted numbers;
  • Carers should respect the way the elephants express themselves and not force them to continue any activity.

Why vegan?

It seems like EVERYONE is talking about veganism right now. A once niche market is exploding everywhere –  not just in hipster spots in Shoreditch, but every high street in the UK and every supermarket is bursting with vegan food, products, magazines, you name it. It’s hard to say right now whether the UK is more divided over Brexit or the new Gregg’s vegan sausage roll (though I expect there is a high correlation between each side on both issues). I’ve been vegan full time for over a year now, and I was in transition and mostly vegan for the year before that. But why?

The legend.

Well, apart from enjoying looking smugly down my nose at everyone else (obvs) and the added bonus of knowing our very existence raises the blood pressure of Piers Morgan on a daily basis, there are some really solid reasons why so many people have made the transition, turning veganism from a fringe movement to a full on vegalution within just a few years.

I should just say in advance that I don’t judge anyone for eating meat and dairy (although I obviously don’t like it). We have all grown up eating this way and it’s all we’ve ever been told is normal, natural, and until recently all that has been available in a Western diet. There are so many things that are messed up in the way we’re accustomed to living out lives that we don’t see the behind -the -scenes of, and this is just one of them. I was guilty for years, even as someone who was vegetarian since childhood ‘for the animals’ of being blind, and then resistant to knowing, how abusive the dairy industry was because I really loved cheese (and god, I’m not too holier- than-thou to admit that I miss it). I didn’t want to give it up, or to have my life made any more difficult when I felt I already went out of my way enough to ‘do the right thing’.  But now this choice is getting easier and ever, and the reasons for it, when I read about them, were too compelling to ignore. So here we go:

The animals. Dairy is scary. Milk and eggs are natural by-products which animals need to get rid of anyway, right? So animals don’t die for dairy? Wrong.

To produce milk, cows, like humans, have to have recently given birth – it doesn’t just naturally come out of them all the time. So, to maintain a supply of milk dairy farms have to forcibly inseminate cows (which is basically inter-species rape). Like human mothers, the cow brings her baby to term, gives birth, bonds with the baby. The baby is then taken away from her so that humans can take the milk that was made for them. Baby boys are killed, baby girls are bred into the same system of abuse. The mother cow mourns the loss of her child just as we would. Can you imagine having your baby taken away from you? She is then pumped with hormones and her milk is taken from her for the next few months. Then she is impregnated again, her baby is taken away again, and the system repeats. There is no ethical milk, no such thing as free-range. Cow’s milk was never meant for human consumption. Why would we consider drinking milk from other animals (cats? pigs?) to be gross, but assume that cow’s milk is meant for us?

A mother nuzzles her baby


While there are scales of abuse in the industry, and supposedly UK farms conform to higher welfare standards than the rest of the world (though I’ve seen some horrendous videos of treatment of animals in UK dairy farms), there is just no way to produce milk without actively engaging in this process of abuse. ‘Organic’ does not mean ethical. Cows can naturally live for 20 years, but in the dairy industry she will only make it until six before her abused body is worn out and she is culled for meat. Not so natural after all. Realising this fact also helped me to understand vegetarianism is an illogical position; by consuming dairy, you are contributing to the meat industry even if you think you’re boycotting it.

And what about eggs? They’re chicken periods, right? So they come out all the time without harming the bird? Well, yes, if you have a pet chicken. But we go through 32 million eggs every day in the UK. To feed this drive, chickens are bred to lay hundreds of eggs per year, whereas in the wild they would have around 12, about the same amount a human female has a period to maintain a reproductive system. And more birds are needed, so hundreds of thousands of baby chicks are born every day. The cute yellow fluffy things, right? But what use are the boys, who will never give eggs? None. So the male chicks are killed by the most convenient way possible, which can include gassing, or even being thrown into a giant blender. Yes, seriously. There is no such thing as ‘free range’ – this happens at a ‘happy egg company’ and it happens at all large scale egg companies. And even if you say you only buy locally –  will you check every item you ever buy and eat that has eggs in it? Every cake, every pastry, every shop-bought sandwich on the run? The only way to not participate in this abuse is to get out of eating eggs completely.

Well I couldn’t throw him in a blender… could you?

The environment. There is a building body of conclusive scientific evidence demonstrating that the meat industry is the highest contributor to climate change, is a huge factor in wide-scale destruction of the rainforests, and is not sustainable for long-term food production. A plant-based diet is the only diet which can produce enough food for everyone without destroying the planet. What about soy being damaging to the environment? I’m asked all the time. Actually, the VAST majority of soy (about 75%) is produced for cattle feed. Which produces less calories and contributes even further to carbon emissions. If we took out the cows, we would need less soy because we could produce more food for more people with the same resources. Climate change is already causing devastation, loss of livelihood, and taking lives around the world every day through extreme weather and destruction of resources. We cannot afford to be flippant about this. Going vegan is the best thing you can personally do to contribute to reducing climate-change right now, and if we don’t, we seem to be very close to hitting a crisis point soon where it actually becomes necessary to avoid extinction.

If you think one person can’t make an impact, check out these great calculators which demonstrate the environmental impacts of different foods and types of milk.

The rainforest is being destroyed every day for the meat industry.

Reducing  extreme poverty and malnutrition worldwide. If skipping meat for more meals meant you could make sure someone else doesn’t go hungry, isn’t that the easiest way for the average person to contribute to end global food poverty?  Meat production being a less effective use of resources is not just theory, it is a large part of the reason why there are so many people dying of malnutrition on our planet right now, while others have an excess of calories. (Here are some other reasons). SO much more land is needed for breeding animals, for meat which is exported for wealthier people to eat. A report in this scientific journal demonstrates that a meat-based diet uses 160 times the resources of a plant-based one. So, for every one hundred people that go plant-based, the resources could be freed for up to 16,000 more people to have enough to eat.

Health. There’s a myth that you need to eat meat and dairy to be healthy and maintain a balanced diet that fulfils all your nutritional needs. Not only is this not true, but meat products, particularly red meat and processed foods, have now been recognised by the World Health Organisation and cancer charities as carcinogenic. There is a clear link between eating meat and getting bowel cancer, the second deadliest cancer in the UK. It increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer by 18% and pre -menopausal breast cancer by 22%, as well as pancreatic and prostate cancer.

Meat and dairy are also very high in saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and erectile dysfunction. In fact, scientific studies have shown that high meat intake directly contributes to developing type 2 diabetes. So not only does it kill the planet to produce it, it’s actually killing you too. And people say vegans are extreme…

The future is vegan! Sign at Unity Diner, London

But what about dairy? We’ve been told our whole lives to drink milk, that dairy is good for you and full of calcium. But the reality is, cow’s milk is produced biologically to make little cows grow up fast. It’s not meant for humans. Which means that by ingesting cow’s milk (a baby cow growth formula), we actually ingest a huge whack of hormones that are not meant for our species. It’s not really surprising that so many people are ‘lactose intolerant’. As the saying goes, you’re not lactose intolerant, you’re just not a baby cow, bro.

So what of the alternatives? The protein question is one I’m asked all the time. The good news is, it’s incredibly easy to get enough protein as a vegan. Animals that people eat for protein actually have to get their protein from somewhere too  –  plants.  We can just skip going through an animal to get it. Apart from the booming market in meat substitutes, there are all natural and high-nutrient foods like beans (kidney, black, edamame, uduki, soy etc.), pulses like chickpeas and lentils, nuts, seeds, and nut butters, and even peas, rice, and oats actually contain a surprising amount of protein, and are very low in saturated fat, particularly compared to meat protein. Calcium is found in a huge array of leafy green veg as well as fortified foods. The only thing you can’t get in a vegan diet is B12 – but I just take a supplement and that’s that. Easy. I’ve never eaten a more healthy, nutrient dense diet and I consume considerably less saturated fat.

It’s more accessible and cheaper than ever before. There was a time when being vegan meant your only option when eating out was a side-salad or chips, and making the choice was a real sacrifice that made eating socially really difficult. This is no longer the case. I admit that it is only since the vegan movement started to boom in 2016/7 that I decided it was easy enough to hop on board by trying Veganuary thinking it would be just a ‘one month challenge’, but when I realised how easy it was, I made it permanent. The majority of restaurants now cater to vegans and will help if they don’t have something on their menu already.

The fact that it’s gone mainstream means it’s also cheaper than ever. The idea that a vegan diet is only for pretentious middle-class people is a myth. Doesn’t everyone deserve to eat well? The majority of naturally vegan foods are cheap anyway (I eat a lot of oats, rice, veg, beans, chickpeas). However, if you are into substitutes (I love a big burger or fake fish finger every now and then), these are now either at or close to price parity with animal products. Case point, I have a vegan friend who only earns £10k a year! If you think about it, meat and cheese are actually really expensive, so you might find eating more vegan meals helps rather than hurts your wallet.

It’s delicious. There’s no reason why in this day and age eating vegan means just soggy soy and brown rice. I don’t find it a sacrifice, and if anything I’m eating better and more interesting food than ever. Going vegan has inspired me to expand my cooking repertoire and try loads of new recipes and ingredients I’d never heard of before. From seitan to nooch, jackfruit, banana blossom, and almond butter, there’s a world of food to discover.

Khao Sok, a northern Thai dish eaten at Free Bird Cafe, Chiang Mai.

And speaking of the world, given my love of travel, it’s been really exciting to try local vegan food as I roam the planet, diversifying my palette and showing that there really are a million different takes on a plant-based cuisine. I hope that this blog and my linked Instagram account will inspire others by showcasing how to eat and travel vegan, with some serious food porn along the way.  Going vegan is no longer a sacrifice, it’s just a way of living to reduce suffering, in accordance with our planet’s limits, that still means you can eat an incredible array of amazing grub every day –  and live longer, too.

So why not try it? Even if it’s for just a month, a week, or trying a new recipe or menu item here and there, incorporating more vegan food into the global diet will do wonders.

Unsafe abortions cost lives: understanding abortion as a human right and maternal health pandemic

Every day across the world, women are arrested, harassed, and prosecuted for having abortions. Whatever your position on the pro-choice/pro-life debate, we need to raise awareness of how aggressive and inhumane the punishments on women can be, when they reach the point where they feel that abortion is their only option.

In most of the ‘developed’ world, abortion is legalised, which means that though there are often social and financial barriers which remain set against women, they should still be able to receive a medically controlled abortion that is safe, and responsible post-abortion care, without fear of imprisonment or persecution. However, in the majority of the world, abortion is almost totally illegal. Exceptions are made in some countries in the case of rape, or if the life of the mother is at risk, however in parts of Latin America there is a total ban in all circumstances. This leads to tragic consequences for women, such as the case below.[1]

…A 28-year-old woman in the city of Santa Cruz became pregnant as the result of rape. She attempted to self-induce an abortion and ended up in the hospital with severe complications. While in the hospital, she was reported to the police authorities by her doctor, was apprehended and handcuffed on charges of illegal abortion. She spent her 10-day hospital stay under police custody and was then transferred to a prison where she subsequently spent eight months in preventive detention (IPAS, 2015).

abortion-laws-of-the-world

This map shows the status of abortion laws worldwide. (Source: WHO, 2008)

Whatever their reasons, those who actively enforce policies to criminalise abortion do so in the hope that it will discourage women from seeking them, for fear of arrest or imprisonment. These laws operate in major contradiction to global human rights laws. They also intimidate trained medical professionals to not only deny women access to the decent medical services that is their human right, but incite them to turn these women in: branding patients as criminals. By doing so, vulnerable women are forced to seek expensive and dangerous illegal abortions, either through backstreet surgeons who may be untrained, or through medications that come from unregulated sources. By forcing them to behave like criminals, the upholders of laws against abortion put women in serious, even life threatening danger- every single day. The numbers of women who have to go through this are staggering- millions suffer major health complications, and it is estimated that 47,000 die every year as a consequence (IPAS, 2014). This is the ironic, and tragic result of a worldwide campaign that is allegedly ‘pro life’.

Another inevitable tragedy of this situation is the fact that it disproportionately discriminates against those who are already in a vulnerable social position: often very young, very poor, and likely uneducated women. Though it is by no means easy for middle class women, for them there are financial means to travel to somewhere where abortions can be done legally, and to see a better private surgeon or doctor- though of course, they are still subject to blackmail, abuse, and the emotional and physical trauma of the procedure itself.

For the very poorest, however, it may be impossible to scrape together money for the procedure. The options available to them are likely to be crude, brutal, and they are unlikely to receive advice or support either pre or post-abortion. They may have to borrow, and get themselves in debt, through unregulated lending- to prevent further poverty in the longer term. Many are coerced to have sexual relations with the provider in exchange for the procedure- an outrage against human decency, but sadly widely reported (Casas and Vivaldi, 2014).

Those who identify as ‘pro life’ on the grounds of their own convictions, be they based in religious, cultural, or personal moral feeling, are perfectly within their rights to hold these views. However, whatever viewpoint you might take, there is one key consideration to bear in mind when trying to justify the escalation these personal feelings to the establishment of a global political regime in which denial of abortions is part of an enforced legal framework: the criminalisation of abortion is not shown to be effective whatsoever in reducing the rates of abortion procedures taking place each year. Statistics from the World Health Organisation demonstrate this:  ‘The abortion rate is 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America—regions in which abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries. The rate is 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds. (WHO, 2012)’ [2]

Inevitably, there are other factors associated with this that might skew the results (i.e. more widespread access to reliable contraceptives in ‘developed’ countries). However, all of these issues are relational, and a hard line conservative stance cannot be shown to have any benefit where, firstly, abortion rates will stay the same regardless of what the law dictates but secondly, because by enforcing an aggressively anti-abortion stance, ‘legal’ authorities actually put human lives at risk.  In 2003, and again in 2008, WHO undertook studies which found that, in both years, ‘complications from unsafe abortion accounted for an estimated 13% of all maternal deaths worldwide’. The criminalisation of abortions therefore inherently cannot be considered pro life, when evidence proves that it necessarily endangers life.

While laws preventing abortions may have been created with the intention of preserving life, there is no compassion in forcing a woman to carry and deliver an unwanted baby- for her, or for the child. It is for this reason that, for example, Brazil has such a problem with huge numbers of homeless street children; whose chances of a decent life are stacked against them from the start. There is no compassion in forcing a woman to go through with a pregnancy when she has suffered from rape, and will never be given the chance to recover from the trauma. There is no compassion in forcing an underage girl to carry a baby she is not physically capable of delivering safely, or without extreme damage to herself or threat to her life.

On the wider scale, it is because women are forced to have unwanted children and remain trapped in an ideology of ‘natural’ womanhood that is part of a gender binary that is damaging to both sexes, that they are restricted from securing intellectual, economic, and sexual equality with men. This inequality has a very real human cost:  because women are denied the right to make decisions over their own bodies and futures, too many die each day in inhumane, poverty struck circumstances- circumstances that could have been avoided had they had access to adequate healthcare and the freedom to make informed decisions.

It is for this reason that one of the key focuses in world health in our time must be to address inhumane denial of adequate reproductive health to women.  Because 47,000 deaths of women a year equates to 129 women dying every day- and around one woman dying every ten minutes.  Probably the time that it took you to read this blog.

 

 

There are various ways to get involved and understand more about the campaign for global abortion rights. See the list of relevant organisations below for further information.

[1] http://www.ipas.org/en/Resources/Ipas%20Publications/When-Abortion-is-a-Crime-The-threat-to-vulnerable-women-in-Latin-America.aspx

[2] WHO (2012) Facts on Induced Abortion Worldwide

List of organisations to support, and to find more information:

Abortion Rights http://www.abortionrights.org.uk/

Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalizacióndel Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugenésico
(ACDATEE – The Citizens Coalitionfor the Decriminalisation of Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion) http://agrupacionciudadana.org/en/

Center for Reproductive Rights http://www.reproductiverights.org/

IPAS http://www.ipas.org/

Marie Stopes International https://mariestopes.org/

Planned Parenthood https://www.plannedparenthood.org/ 

Women on Waves http://www.womenonwaves.org/

I’d like to keep adding to this list so if you support, work for, or know of more pro-choice organisations please let me know and I will include them.

 

Sexual harassment as a solo female traveller: my experiences in Latin America

Many people warned me that sexual harassment would be bad while travelling as a single girl in Latin America. Pffft, I said. They can’t be worse than the average bloke out on a Saturday night in the UK.

I was wrong. I want to say at the outset of this post that nothing that has happened to me while travelling in Latin America in the last few months is something that has never happened in the UK. However, it is the sheer frequency and ubiquitousness of sexual harassment on this continent that makes it hard to deal with, even if you’re pretty down to earth and used to dealing with shit.

If you’re another solo female traveller you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you are another woman thinking about travelling solo in Latin America, you absolutely should do it and not be put off by this. The fact that you are considering travelling alone means I know you are tough enough to deal with it. However, here is some of the stuff I have experienced while travelling in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama,  Costa Rica, and Nicaragua:

  • Constant catcalling. This is worse where I am living at the moment in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, than it has been anywhere else on my trip. I have not once left the house without being catcalled. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is- it’s happened on the way to work (at 8am), going to buy groceries at 11am, at lunch time, afternoon, early evening- and to be honest I just don’t go out at night alone here. It can happen up to thirty times a day. One time in Colombia, as I mentioned in my blog about that otherwise wonderful country, in one walk to the supermarket in the early evening (ten minutes each way) I was catcalled no less than THIRTY SIX times. It makes no difference what you’re wearing, either- whether it’s a dress, or jeans and a long shirt, it will happen. Usually I tune out and try to ignore it, occasionally I flip out and yell at them to fuck off, but it’s not advisable because they can get aggressive. During a city tour I saw one girl break down when a group of guys started on us and started screaming and swearing and crying at them to leave us the fuck alone. I can’t say I blame her. All the girls in that group had had the same experiences.
  • Following. This one is a bit more sketchy and one to be weary of. As much as, in theory, the idea of being apparently so irresistible (even while wearing a dress covered in three-day-old food stains, and being very hungover), that men feel the need to chase you down the street shouting mi Reina, mi Reina! (my queen) is pretty flattering, in reality it is pretty frightening. Men have followed me on foot, on bicycles, motorbikes, and in cars. Always be aware of your surroundings, and don’t walk around wearing headphones (though it can be tempting to drown out the catcalling).
  • Touching. This thankfully happens less frequently but it does happen, especially if you go out at night (though this is kind of the same as in the UK to be honest). Men, just because a girl likes to party does not mean she wants, or deserves, to be grabbed at. She does not necessarily want you just because she also happens to be there and you find her attractive.
  • Hair pulling. This is a weird new one that actually hasn’t happened at home but has happened a couple of times here. Apparently it’s part of the fascination with blondes. I’ve also had hair sniffing a couple of times. They’re really obsessed with blondes. I think the fact that the only images of white women- and especially blonde women- that you see here tend to be pornographic really doesn’t help.
  • Flashing. Men are so very proud to have willies. God, it’s pathetic, and when you’re with friends, it’s laughable, but when you’re on your own it can be a bit scary- I usually pretend I hadn’t noticed, and have noticed something in a window across the street and walk in the other direction.
  • The police will not help you. I once crossed a street to get away from some blokes that were harassing me, thinking that the police on the other side would keep things a bit safer. More fool me, they yelled out the same comment. Border officials are another one- I have yet to have my passport checked without the guy (it’s always a guy) making some unnecessary comment about by appearance.
  • Taxi drivers. People always advise solo women to take taxis rather than the bus, especially at night or in big cities. They’re usually right. But the taxi driver will very often hit on you too. Sit in the backseat if you can (otherwise they’ve tried to put an arm around me or a hand on my leg). If you’re in a ‘collective’ style taxi (that picks up other people) try to pick one with at least one other woman in it- a girl I know recently had to escape an attempted mugging/assault with three other men in the car she was in.
  • They don’t take no for an answer. To start, I was honest about my single status when asked. I didn’t see why I should have to pretend to be ‘taken’ by another man to be safe. With time it just became easier to pretend I had a boyfriend/husband to put them off, or they’d assume you were up for it. Sometimes, though, they just see it as a further challenge ‘but you know men in Peru/Colombia/Nicaragua have bigger dicks right? Yeah, right.

These are the more typical things. There have been other incidents that have been more frightening- a bus conductor who trapped me in the toilet on a night bus and tried it on until I was forced to fight past him and escape (and didn’t dare go to sleep for the rest of the night). An Ecuadorean guy who I thought was my friend, but when adding me on Facebook stole all my photos and fabricated a relationship between us.

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A guy on a bus just today asked why my husband hadn’t ‘beaten my ass’ for travelling on my own (he was not joking), said that travel and working in other countries was ‘not for the woman to do’ and when I said I wasn’t interested in husbands or anyone telling me what I could and couldn’t do, said ‘oh, so you’re easy then’, told me girls wouldn’t travel alone unless they were up for it, etc., etc…

It wears you down. You deal with it and you cope, because that’s what women have always done. Some days you laugh. Some days you flip out. Some days you cry.  It’s not just Latino men- like I’ve said, everything (except the toilet and weird facebook stalking thing) is something that has happened at home, too. But at home, although it’s not infrequent, it’s unusual to be harassed more than once in a day, and it’d be something I’d actually remark upon. In Latin America, if I had a pound for every time I was harassed, I’d be able to come home and buy a nice sized house outright in central London. And I wish I was exaggerating but I’m not.

Women the world over have a very long fight ahead of us to get to a point where we’re actually treated as equals, and as human beings, as a given.  That is all the feminist movement is asking for: to be able to exist as a person, and not be harassed, assaulted, and in extreme cases, killed, because you happened to be born female. Women in Latin America, where sexism is insipid thanks to the extremely machista, patriarchal culture, have a considerably more difficult time than we do in Europe. I will always stand in solidarity with them: it is why I came to this continent, to volunteer with an organisation which works on violence against women. However, we also need to work with men. To talk about masculinity and what it means, and what it has the potential to mean. So that men don’t think they need to assert their dominance over women to prove their sexual prowess; their worth as a man. So that the men who know already that it is not okay to assume you have ownership over, harass, or threaten women, actually will stand up and support us when they see things happening, rather than staying silent and staying part of the problem. So that men who don’t realise their behaviour is harassment understand how it feels to be treated in that way. How it makes you feel like you’re not even a person.

Women are tough. Female travellers in particular have to be badasses. But it’s not easy. So to my fellow travelling ladies- keep doing what you do. You rock. But we all know we can’t take our safety for granted, and that travelling as a solo girl is very different from travelling as a solo guy. So let’s all just be wary,  while living life to the full. Let’s support each other. Let us change what it means to be a woman in the world. Let us also help men challenge what it means to be men- for the better.

‘Dangerous migrants’- a portrait of the real former inhabitants of the Dunkirk refugee camp

How many more can we take? The ‘swarm’ on our streets! We must stop the migrant invasion!

These are real headlines from the Daily Mail concerning the refugees that have fled to our shores in increasing numbers in the last couple of years as a result of growing instability in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

There have always been global wars, violence, and instability, but there is no doubt in the last years the world seems to have got darker. Civil war, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and further catastrophic bombing by intervening foreign powers, have forced more people than ever to flee their homes, lives, families, and friends, in search of safety in Europe.

In the mean-time the flux of new arrivals has made many people in the UK and the rest of Europe very afraid. It is understandable. Though I am proud to live in a multi-cultural country, and believe it is an inevitable result of our history of colonialism, followed by globalisation, and modern technology enabling easier freedom of movement, there is no doubt that the landscape of Britain has changed rapidly in recent decades. People have had to adapt to people from different countries, and cultures they struggle to understand, arriving in their neighbourhoods. There is a human instinct to be protective of your territory, and family. This fear is liable to be greater if you are already struggling, and people living in severe austerity as a result of the inequality within our own country are naturally more inclined to be concerned over competition for jobs, local resources, etc. Evidence has shown that refugees granted asylum in the UK are also most likely to be placed in the most impoverished areas, that are least able to cope with the growing demand. And in this environment, the media has capitalised on this anxiety to spread fear, suspicion, and hatred towards refugees. There has been a deliberate language choice to favour the term ‘migrants’; implying that these people have travelled for endless months, largely on foot and unsafely hidden in lorries, because they fancy a change of air, rather than because they are fleeing persecution and death in their own home countries.

daily mail refugee

Having returned from volunteering at the Dunkirk refugee camp on the day it burned to the ground, I wanted to share the stories of some of the people that I met, to put some faces to this seemingly faceless threat, and show that these people are humans with lives and fears, and families, and hopes like all of us. No doubt, there were some very dangerous people on the camp; I have been honest in my previous blog about how afraid I felt of the tension within the camp, and the influence of criminal gangs. The majority, however, were normal people that have been victims of a tragic series of circumstances we can barely imagine having to live through. They include women. They include children. They include teenage boys. Good men trying to get by and keep their head down to avoid the violence in order to protect their families. Old men. All desperately looking for a safe home and to protect their loved ones.

I have changed names where I have known them in order to protect people’s identities.

Ariya is a young mother. She has a gentle, soft demeanour, and speaks English well. She has been married for two years and has a six month old baby; the cutest and most sweet natured thing you have ever seen, with big, questioning eyes, and long, soft lashes. She was forced to flee Iran with her husband shortly after her marriage. After months of travelling, she fell pregnant. Love will out in any circumstances. She carried her baby to term while living in the Calais Jungle. When she went in to labour, she was brought to a nearby French hospital to deliver the baby. After four days, mother and newborn infant were returned to the camp, in spite of the inhumane and unsanitary conditions. After Calais was closed, she was forced to go on the move again, carrying her baby, and ended up in the Dunkirk refugee camp. She always had a positive attitude considering everything, even though she worried for her baby, who cried at night and sometimes became ill in the cold conditions of their shelter (no more than a small and dark shed).

One thing that moved me was the way in which people still looked out for others, even though their own conditions were so bleak. Roza is a large, middle aged Kurdish lady, with a cheeky gleam in her eye and a wicked smile, in spite of her only having three remaining teeth. One day she grabbed my arm in her large hand, seemingly very concerned, and insistent to drag me off with her into the camp. Her husband joined us on the way to the shelter and with slightly more English, explained ‘not able work man, not good’. They took me to a disabled man who had become ill because he was so cold at night. Through signing they requested blankets to keep him warm at night, and we went back to the centre to find some. Roza was insistent that he must have the best of the ones we had.

A young couple. They sat on the high bank at the edge of the refugee camp looking down to the swampy, filthy water below that separated the camp from the motorway. There was fighting around them, children crying, the smoke from people’s cooking blowing everywhere. They held each other, and rubbed noses, and kissed.

Belen is a very young woman, a few years younger than me, who ties her hair each day into a tidy plait and studies very hard to learn English. Belen is one of those people who is beautiful because their personality and warmth shines out of their face; she has a constant, gentle smile, in spite of everything she has been through. She attended English classes every day, turning up with her pencil and notebook, learned quickly and remembered things instantly, and asked for extra homework to complete herself in her shelter in the afternoons.

A pregnant lady. She was asked if she thought it was a girl or a boy. She said, a boy. She hoped for a boy. She had a boy before, and he was eight. He was shot three times. The third bullet hit his heart and killed him. An eight year old boy.

The children that did make it as far as Dunkirk were very obviously struggling to cope with the trauma they had been through, severely damaging to anyone, let alone at such a young age.

The very small ones were so traumatised that some of them were unable to communicate. A boy of no more than two or three, whose eyes are depths of sadness, and who just stares , silently, or cries. He is unable to interact in any way, no matter how you try to talk to, play with, or comfort him.

The middle aged ones (between about 6 and 11) are sometimes like normal children. They play, and squabble, and are boisterous, and would run around having water fights. But they are also angry. They are frustrated where they are, and apart from the volunteer-run children’s centre, had no outlet for their emotions and energy. They have also not had the chance to go to school or have an education. I was shocked, though I shouldn’t have been, at the level of aggression they displayed when we were not able to meet their demands. But really, it’s not surprising they would demonstrate these behaviours, because violence,  warfare, fear, and a fight for survival, is all they have known.

children dunkirk copyright jamie wiseman

© Jamie Wiseman

The older children (11-16) are heroes. They have a much better understanding of the situation and the difficulties the adults around them are facing, and have undertaken huge responsibilities in caring for their younger siblings, or other children around them. They have maturity far beyond their years and a calm, measured approach to assessing their situation.

I met two brothers. The older, who was 16, told me he was looking after his brother, 14. They wanted to talk to me to improve their English as they were desperate to get to the UK. He asked if he would be able to go to school there. I said I thought he would and would be in around year 11. He then intimated, through motions and broken English, that he would have to start at the beginning, because he could not read or write. I asked, did you go to school even when you were very small? And he said he had started, but then the Taliban came. Motions shooting. Then, schools close. Many of his friends killed. He said he had travelled with his brother for 11 months to get as far as France. They had come with their cousin but had lost him in Serbia. He was going to try to come to the UK soon, maybe by boat, or by lorry. I begged him not to try to come by boat. Tried to motion he might drown.

These are the people trying to reach the UK. They are people who deserve love, and compassion. The media are constantly telling us that people want to come here to change our culture, to bring violence, and take benefits from our hard-earned taxes. Everyone I met wanted to learn English. They wanted to work again, as they had at home, and regain their sense of dignity by providing for themselves. They wanted education, and to contribute to the country they had idealised in their minds as a safe haven. They just wanted a life of safety and dignity, which is the right of us all.

Because people only run the length of the earth, carrying their crying children in their arms, if the alternative is more violent and terrifying than we can possibly imagine. They only leave the homes they love, and the only life they have known, to run with a few possessions on their back into squalid refugee camps for shelter if the alternative is to be killed. See your friends killed. To see your children murdered right in front of you. Wouldn’t any of us do the same in those circumstances?

Love and peace,

Helen

Dunkirk refugee camp destroyed by fire

‘Helen, the camp is burning down’— this is the text I received from a friend a few hours after I had returned home from volunteering at the Dunkirk refugee camp. When I left I felt things were seriously unsafe, dangerous, and poorly managed by the French authorities.  Still a bit shaken from the things I had seen, I told my parents over a strong drink ‘I just have this feeling something terrible is about to happen’.  Within the hour heard the news that a huge fire had broken out in the camp which could be seen from the volunteer residence (a good 20 minute walk from the camp through a lot of forest).

dunkirk fire

Image of the fire shared by media. Source: Getty

My immediate panic was for the people. Have they got everyone out? Where are they going to go? And uncontrollable anger, because if people were killed as a result of this the government MUST be held to account for the gross neglect that led to this situation, which could have been avoided if it wasn’t for the total absence of organisation and humanitarian oversight to deal with the unfolding crisis. In particular I was scared for the many children, and devastated this could happen to them in the place they were supposed to be escaping danger no one should ever live through, let alone at such a young age.

Thankfully I was told that all the residents were standing outside the camp. I’ve now learned from the news that about ten have been injured, some stabbed in the fight that broke out that led to the fire, apparently between Kurds and Afghans. Most of the people that were living in the camp are Kurdish, from Iraq and Iran, but since there have been more Afghans arriving following the demolition of the Calais camp, and the situation had become overcrowded and tensions had increased as people were forced to live in unimaginable squalor.

I am worried that the right-wing media will interpret this incident as a way to further demonise refugees. From my perspective, having spent the last week working in the camp, something like this was inevitable. The conditions in which people were forced to live, and a lack of professional humanitarian management have created and exacerbated a situation that is now extremely dangerous, in which the majority of people, who are harmless, ordinary people forced to flee war and terror on a scale we can’t imagine, have become further victimised and endangered while seeking refuge from one of the most developed and wealthy nations, France, and being denied refuge within another, our own ‘Great’ Britain.

This news report claims that Kurdish refugees were living in ‘chalets’. The reality is that in this camp that is ‘internationally recognised for meeting humanitarian standards’, up to 8 people shared ‘shelters’, that are little more than small, filthy, dark, dingy, and rotting garden sheds, with no heating or electricity. I am amazed they survived the winter. They had no safe way of cooking and so many are going to be permanently damaged from the smoke pollution. Disease is rife and many people suffer from scabies. The huts were packed together, and the camp is so overcrowded, that it’s no wonder that if a fire started it would spread quickly. The people have nothing, and are forced to beg volunteers as we pass by for a pair of shoes that aren’t falling apart, or a blanket to stay warm at night. People are desperate. And in this environment, a mafia group has taken a lot of control. Though the media frequently presents these gangs as typical refugees, the reality is that most people living on the camp are as scared of them as we would be, and have lived in this fear unable to escape for a long time.

refugee camp

A picture of the camp I took before the fire

This is well known to the company that manage the camp ‘Afeji’. I should have taken it as a warning sign that Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), a world leading humanitarian organisation that created the camp, pulled out several months ago (though there seems to be no publically available explanation as to why). Afeji seem to be little more than a logistics and so called ‘security’ operation, with no real interest in managing or preventing the criminal activity within the camp that victimises those with less power, including women and children. It is widely known that human traffickers operate within the camp, but no steps are taken to prevent exploitation of those that are desperate enough to be forced to turn to them for help.  And why do they take such a risk? Because we fail to offer them a safe and legal way to find passage to safety.

To describe the various dangers and failures in the camp would take a lot of words, and I will have to share this at another time once the situation is better understood and there has been more time for reflection. I had intended to write about the people of the camp, and their lives, and share their stories so that people better understand the situation for refugees in Europe. I had intended to stay for a month volunteering in the Women’s Centre. I knew the conditions would be difficult and potentially dangerous, but I had imagined that there would be organisation and systems available to support volunteers, most of which, including me, are relatively young and not trained to deal with humanitarian crisis situations such as this. This proved to not be the case and within the first few days I was unhappy with the situation on various levels. Over the weekend you could feel the tension in the camp rising, and on Sunday we were forced to close the Women’s Centre after an incident and leave. I felt at serious risk for my personal safety and that of my fellow volunteers, who felt the same.  I really felt we were lucky to get away without injury.

There were various other things that had happened, both in and outside the camp that meant even the accommodation provided from the local council didn’t feel safe or secure. I couldn’t sleep for anxiety. I was worried what would happen the next day on the camp and from an awful premonition of danger.  I struggled with the decision to leave all night. A friend made the point to me ‘do you feel like you can genuinely improve this situation?’ and in all honesty the answer was no. I was not equipped to deal with this. It should never have been left to un-managed volunteers to step in where the government has failed, it puts both the volunteers and the vulnerable people on the camp at great risk.

At this point I strongly feel that the camp needs specialist intervention. The volunteers that work there are incredible people-  brave, selfless, and endlessly giving individuals, some of whom have been there for many months and given up their whole lives to support vulnerable people they otherwise may never have met. Those people have my endless admiration. But we were still really only a bunch of well-meaning lefties in our early twenties. What is really needed is for a humanitarian organisation or body to take control and provide the support of staff that have specialist training for crisis situations such as this. An organisation that will work with the authorities to ensure that in handling this situation now, refugees are treated as people, with rights, who deserve respect and support, and safety.

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Cry for help scrawled on the side of a shelter in the camp before it was burned down

It is well known that the government really wanted to shut down the camp soon, knowing how out of control it had become. As I have written this news has come through that the authorities will not rebuild the camp. My fear is that all the poor people who had lived in the camp will end up homeless on the streets, as has happened in the aftermath of closing the Calais jungle, and victimised by police treating them like criminals. I heard stories from volunteers who had gone to Calais of disgusting cruelty to homeless refugees from the police, who slept at night on the streets with their sleeping bags open, because there had been incidents where they would be sprayed in the face while they slept (with some kind of pepper spray or immobilising agent, I was not clear) and then seized while they were unable to get out and run away.

It was some of these people who were coming to the camp in search of refuge after the Calais ‘Jungle’ was shut down. The situation would never have got this bad if the French and British governments had dealt with that crisis in a responsible and humane manner. As it was, they drove these people into this situation and now should bear the burden of responsibility for de-escalating it and creating a stable environment in the aftermath. I do not believe in all faith that they will step up.

We (British and French), or at least our governments, are complicit in creating this atrocity from our intervention in wars in the Middle East in the last years that has exacerbated danger to the point that people have had to flee to our shores. And our governments are directly responsible for this happening right under our noses, only just over 100 miles from London.

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Another picture of the camp before the fire

As the aftermath unfolds we must put pressure on them to take a responsible and humane course of action. I don’t know now what will happen, and what assistance will be needed, and if I will need to return to help. I am waiting to see news of some plan of action.

For now people have been temporarily taken to local gyms to stay, and there is an emergency appeal for donations to replace what was destroyed, including food, clothes, blankets and sleeping bags, emergency blankets, shoes and trainers, and backpacks. Please, please donate if you can. I am very afraid for what will happen to these people.

Let us support refugees and demand a different approach from those in charge. We must, for once, act with humanity, and with love. Though I am not religious, I pray for these people’s safety.

I will write more in time. Keep watching the news.

Love and peace,

Helen