On Saturday I decided to travel to Calais, to visit the refugee camp known as the Jungle. I had been meaning to go for a few weeks and I had got in contact with a group who were helping to organise a solidarity day of action. We have all seen pictures and heard reports but nothing really prepares you for what you see, hear and feel. What I’m writing doesn’t do justice to the situation, it can’t do. These are just my reflections after going for a day, so I can understand if you take what you are reading with a pinch of salt. Others have been on the ground for days and weeks and may come away with a different impression but after speaking to a number of refugees and volunteers, adding into my own experiences of the day, I think and hope that this is a reasonably accurate representation.
I had gone on my own but was fortunate to meet three other people when we got to Calais who were equally lost as I was trying to find a way to the camp. We eventually found a taxi and asked for Jules Ferry. Maybe because of my pronunciation (I tried saying it about three different ways to see if that would work) he didn’t seem to understand and it didn’t until I asked on the off chance ‘the Jungle?’…’ahhhh le Jungle, oui, oui’. As we drove he explained where a good rendezvous point would be if we needed a taxi back. As we drove in he pointed to the cars lined up on the side ‘lots of English, no?’. The vast majority of number plates were from the U.K. with a few from France and the Netherlands. One car had opened their boot ready to hand out supplies but suddenly a number of people rushed in trying to grab what they could. It wasn’t aggressive or violent in the slightest but, understandably, people were trying to grab what little they could.
Despite being completely unsure of where we were, we thanked the driver and started walking in the direction which most people were walking in. After a few minutes we arrived at the gates of the Jules Ferry Centre and there was already a mass of people there. I asked someone why they were all waiting and he said the the centre opened the gates everyday at 12 o’clock so people could wash, use the toilets and use plugs to charge their phones. When gates opened a little after 12 there was a surge with dozens of people running to get to the centre first. I asked Farooq why he was not also going and he said that there was no point as he would have to queue for another few hours anyway. This was the only place on the site where there was running water and access to the most basic facilities.
I talked to Farooq further. He laughed at the fact that I was wearing Wellies, or ‘snow shoes’ as he called them, when he was wearing sandals. He spoke good English and he told me what life was like in the camp, that he had lived there for about 2 months after spending years travelling across Europe. He told me that his home had been destroyed, that he could never go back to Syria, that the war had taken his family.
During the day, through English, broken French and a handful of words in Arabic I shared stories with other people who no longer had a home, who will never be able to return to their country. Stories from those who have been separated from their families, or had lost them forever. Some people had lived in the camps for months, others were newly arrived. Sadam, pictured, came from Sudan and had lived in the camp for 6 months and 2 days; he had counted each and every single day. Although their voices and stories may get lost in the hundreds and thousands that need to be told, each tragedy was unique and no less heartbreaking than any other.
As we meandered through the camp, the size and scale of the site began to hit home. Walking in we had only grabbed glimpses but as we walked further in the reality of the situation really hit home. Of course, through the media you get an idea of the conditions but it was worse than you can imagine. It was a wasteland sat on mud and sand with the vast majority of shelters being made out of bits of wood and tarpaulin. Rubbish and dirty water was gathering in various places and only a small number of toilets were apparent – some portaloos with others made from chip board.
The population of the ‘Jungle’ is estimated at around 4,000 people and as we walked I thought about the potential situation as we head towards winter. A small number of women and young children sleep in the day centre but the vast majority of people are exposed to the elements with sparse sanitation and hygiene. As the day went on and I talked to more people, it also became clear that, although the vast majority of the camp seemed peaceful, it remained a dangerous place, especially at night. I was made to feel incredibly welcome and I never felt any element of threat but there were stories of an underbelly who were seeking to exploit the situation through theft, exploitation and aggression.
Little of this was apparent on Saturday, however. As we walked through the camp and out into Calais towards the port, hundreds joined us. There were banners, singing and cheering and it struck me that it felt almost celebratory. Here were people who who had lost everything except hope. The crowd was led by the chants of a boy standing on the shoulders of others shouting ‘no jungle, no jungle’ and ‘freedom!’. It was infectious and inspiring but also bittersweet. Here was a boy who was a leader, who was fighting for life whilst too often we choose to turn the other way.
Despite the positive atmosphere, it was impossible to ignore the constant shadow hanging over the camp. The camp had rapidly grown and was now sitting side by side with the razor-sharp fences which are meant to keep people out (or penned in). Although there are no police in the camp itself, they remained a constant presence, watching and recording from above. As you would expect, as we neared the port that presence increased with the addition of automatic weapons, vans and layers of very fresh looking security fencing. The look of suspicion the police viewed me and my passport with as I passed back through was almost humorous. Then again I get that look every time someone looks at my passport photo.
As we reached the end of the march we gathered just outside the port where the ‘re-facing of the fence’ was underway and we continued to meet more people as speeches and music was played out from the makeshift, portable stage on the back of a lorry. We were asked to lie down as words of remembrance were read in English, Arabic and French. The name of each person who had died trying to make the crossing was read out with the country from where they had originated from and the date they had died. They weren’t statistics or another news story about a nameless migrant death. They were people who had risked everything including their lives to try and find peace and freedom. The minutes silence which followed was absolute.
Although there were few young children in the Jungle there were plenty who were teenagers who were missing weeks, months, years of school. One boy had a sign that read ‘do you think I can achieve greatness living here?’. It was he who I gave a bag of supplies to, basics like a jacket, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shower gel and shampoo. People looked through the gates as the cars drove to and from the ferries and I felt guilty when we made to leave; we had been asked whether we could take people back in our cars and even though they knew we couldn’t, it was still difficult to say no.
Earlier this week you may have seen a national newspaper’s outrage – ‘Four out of five migrants are NOT from Syria: EU figures expose the ‘lie’ that the majority of refugees are fleeing war zone’. On yesterday’s evidence it would seem that, although a significant number of the people in the Jungle are from Syria, there are also a number of people who are not. I met people from Sudan, Eritrea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chad, Kuwait and Pakistan with many more from other countries in the Middle East and Africa. Am I therefore as equally ‘disturbed’ as Sir Bill Cash that not all those people I met in Calais were not ‘real refugees from Syria’? No. Look at the countries I’ve listed. These countries have suffered civil war, terrorism, human rights abuses, corruption and oppression. Just because the these countries are often absent from the news it doesn’t mean that the plight of the people who have fled these places is any less ‘real’, that their stories are any less tragic, that their desperate situation is any less deserving of help.
Many of you may already know of charities and organisations near you who are sending donations and aid to Calais and across Europe; if not I would point you in the direction of CalAid. If you want to come to Calais yourself then let me know; I plan to go again in October and would appreciate the company. If you have read this and feel like saying ‘we’ve got loads of problems to sort out in this country’ then you’d be right, we do. So I have linked details for a local food bank, a night shelter and a volunteering hub. They all need your support and I know they would be grateful for it.
I would just add this. Food will cure someones hunger for a day and a coat will keep them dry and warm during the cold and the rain but, vitally important as these donations are, these can only sustain and will not provide the answers to the critical problems of this crisis. So please write to your M.P., M.E.P., local Councillor or to anyone with any influence or power who may be able to set the wheels in motion in bringing about solutions. Be under no illusion, this is a humanitarian crisis on the scale we have rarely seen before. People are dying and will continue to die unless we in the U.K. and across Europe can find permanent homes and safety.
N.B. – Just this morning there were stories coming out of Calais of the police forcibly removing people camping in the the overflow of the Jungle.
One final thought. I’m not someone who likes to preach and I understand the necessities of economic investment and the nature of a world that often works in a way that is at odds with our ideals; I generally consider myself more of a pragmatist and a realist. However, I think it’s perverse, disgusting and shameful that we can find hundreds of billions for nuclear weapons, sell arms to some regimes that are causing the misery noted above and make multi-national trade deals across the globe. We spend millions if not billions on making our trains go half an hour faster, fixing potholes, providing faster internet and building stadiums for sport with seemingly blank chequebooks. Yet we cannot find room or money for more than 20,000 refugees over 5 years? We cannot formulate diplomatic solutions and consensuses with other countries to share the burden of this crisis? That we would prefer to clear camps rather than provide the most desperate people with the most basic human conditions? I would feel embarrassed to call ourselves a civilised society at this point in time in the knowledge that, on our doorstep, there are thousands of people in the most desperate of circumstances and our Government would prefer to keep it’s fences high and it’s doors firmly shut. It is inhuman and it is wrong.