Last weekend I went back to ‘the Jungle’, the refugee camp in Calais. It had been four weeks since I had last been and just like the first time, the memories of the things I saw and the people I met will remain with me.
I’ll start with some small positives, even if only in comparison to the situation last month. The aid effort on the ground has started to take hold. There has been an installation of a number of clean, running water outlets for the first time. Tools have been filtering into the camp which has meant that some of the shelters have a more permanent look about them, even if they are still predominantly made out of tarpaulin, chip board and wood pallets. A handful of power generators have resulted in an increase in hot food outlets and donated caravans will offer protection against some of the elements for a number of families. There is a small library and school called ‘Jungle Books’ giving access to books and basic education as well as small medical and dentist caravans. These volunteers and the people who have donated towards and supported them are providing small mercies and lifelines to the estimated 4,000 population of ‘the Jungle’.
But these are indeed small mercies in the overwhelming context of the desperate situation of ‘the Jungle’, a situation that continues to deteriorate as we head towards winter.
The weather has turned with ever increasing amount of rain and cold and the waste land, predominately consisting of mud and sand, cannot cope. In less than an hour of being there my shoes were trashed (I had forgotten to bring my ‘snow boots’/wellies) and when the rain started lashing down again, my clothes became soaked. In some parts of the camp the ‘roads’ had disintegrated so badly that only vans and 4x4s could realistically make it through. Although some wellies and walking boots were making their way into the camp, most still had trainers or sandals on. Clearly, this made walking tough, but also led me to wonder what the ramifications health wise would be if people were constantly exposed to the damp and cold.
There was also a visible increase in the amount of women and children living in the camp and by children I mean toddlers and babies. The world was shocked when it saw pictures of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach and in the last few days we have seen more images of children stranded between borders as the countries of Europe shuts their borders. Many of these children will have known nothing else but war and displacement and are set to spend a winter under plastic sheets and surrounded by mud.
Maybe it was because the weather had turned so badly but the atmosphere had changed. The elation and the buoyancy that I was surprised to find last month seemed to have all but gone. Though hope remained, it felt tempered with an idea of the struggle ahead. The cold had begun to set in as had the wearing down effect of the conditions. Last month, hundreds of people came to stand in solidarity with those trapped in ‘the Jungle’; songs were sung and shouts of ‘migrants are welcome here’ were repeated. There was, naively perhaps, a feeling that people in power would listen, that compassion would take precedence over politics, that there would be a hand of humanity offered to those doing no more than surviving on our doorstep. But here we are, another four weeks on and nothing has changed. Yes, the selfless work of aid workers and their backers has offered a lifeline, but there, in ‘the Jungle’, it feels like the world has deserted them, by building fences and turning away.
As I left the camp, I saw the remains of the ‘the Jungle’s’ ‘overflow’, a section of the camp that had been cleared without warning just days after I visited in September. The police had destroyed shelters and tents along with the few possessions that they may have contained. Books, photos, clothes, asylum papers all gone, taken from people who already have nothing left.
Earlier in the day I had met Ali, a 22 year old who had fled from Sudan arriving in Calais around a month ago. His shelter was one of those to be destroyed along with his books, phone and clothes; he was detained by the police at the time (a multi-day period on this occasion). He and his friends had invited me into their shelter for a cup of tea after I had helped carry a gas canister back and their hospitality was touching, insisting that I take one of their stools to sit on with another to put my tea on. Ali was the only one who could speak fluent English (despite repeating modestly that he was still learning) and he told me his story, one that I can’t do justice to by trying to retell. However, we did make a deal that I would return in a few weeks with books and we would try to write his story together. Why did he ask for books? Why did he not ask for shoes to replace the flip flops he was wearing or a proper coat? Because he is desperate to complete his education that was interrupted when he left Sudan in the middle of the night. Because he wants to continue improving his English even when he is in ‘the Jungle’. Because he sees an education as a route to his ultimate goal; becoming an aid worker in Sudan.
I struggle to find the words to adequately describe such a place. Reports and pictures somehow do little justice to the sights and feelings that meet you when you are right there in the camp. Perhaps this is because when you are there you notice the things that are sometimes missing from the stories. You see the rubbish piling high, strewn all over the wasteland. You feel the rain and mud soaking into and clinging onto your clothes and shoes in the space of an hour whilst seeing people have to queue in these conditions to gain access to food and sanitation. Day after day, week after week, month after month. You’re aware of the shadow of the police and hear stories of their aggression, racism and oppression. You walk past portaloos, medical clinics run out of caravans and water taps sunk into the ground and you’re torn between a feeling of thankfulness that there have been some basic improvements but disbelief that we can leave fellow human beings in these conditions.
Please continue to help in whatever way you can, whether it is through providing financial support to the number of charities on the ground, sending donations in the form of clothing and other necessities or writing to your local M.P. or Councillor. There are solidarity marches happening across the UK or, even better, get yourself down to Calais. It is only an hour and a half across the channel and could cost you less than £20 by ferry. By taking just a bag full of essentials (coat, shoes, toothbrush, flashlight etc) you will be making an important contribution; small in the grand scale of the crisis but vital to the individuals that will benefit from your generosity this winter.