On this month’s journey to the Jungle camp in Calais I was joined by a number of staff from Wilsons, my favourite law firm, a bias which is based on the fact their office is based opposite White Hart Lane. Wilsons had amassed a huge collection of donations themselves and we transported these to Islington Council who, in partnership with CalAid, have a 12 hour a day, 7 day a week donation point.
We got to Calais without any real difficulty. Being only a week after the tragic events in Paris, I had envisaged that there would be a much tighter security presence, but other than an extra layer or two to passport control, there were no issues for us (the police presence around the camp has visibly increased, however).
The original intention was to help with with a big clear up operation across the camp with the volume of rubbish spiraling out of control. However, the conditions made this impossible and everyone went to the CalAid warehouse to help sort the mountains (quite literally) of donations as well as putting together ‘welcome packs’ for newcomers to the Jungle. These packs contained vital essentials, a including hygiene bags, hats, gloves and protein snacks. I stayed out a little longer giving out donations from my rucksack including exercise books, pens etc to Jungle Books. I also wanted to find Ali who I met on my last visit and, as promised, I had brought writing materials amoungst other things. As I reached the part of the camp where his shelter should have been it became quickly apparent that this was not going to be possible. This part of the camp had changed beyond recognition, with dozens of other shelters squeezed in and around the space his shelter once was. I briefly considered asking people where he might be but the idea of enquiring after ‘Ali from Sudan’ was fairly ridiculous. Plus, there was no guarantee that he was still in the camp.
The weather was terrible. The wind was relentless and had taken a number of tents with it and as I walked through the camp I could see people struggling to salvage what was left of their shelters. The rain came down almost sideways and soaked clothes, hair and skin. It seemed to get right into my core and it took me hours to overcome this feeling even after getting onto the ferry. The thought of home, of warmth meant that, no matter how bad the weather was, you knew that in 8 hours time, things would be better. This is not a luxury extended to thousands in Calais, Dunkirk and across Europe and it was almost impossible to empathise; what must it feel like to be in a permanent state of damp and cold, with little hope of respite?
Earlier, I had been struck by the amount of people I saw who wrapped themselves in their blankets, blankets that were getting soaked in the rain, the same blankets that would be used for bedding that evening with no chance of drying out. So, as we prepared to leave, we walked through the Jungle handing out dozens of waterproof jackets and ponchos to anyone we saw without a coat or a similar substitute. Sure, the phrase ‘drop in the ocean’ springs to mind but still, that’s around 50 people who will be able to keep their clothes dry for a period of time.
That night reports of another fire breaking out in the camp emerged. This, coupled with the devastating weather which had destroyed a huge number of tents, convinced me that we had to get as many tents into the camp as quickly as possible, rather than wait again until December. As soon as I was back in Suffolk I contacted Lucie and Sara, asking whether there was any way we could get the tents in the warehouse out to Calais. It was a happy coincidence that Luke and his father-in-law Ak were heading out that following Monday with building materials and space in their van. The van was packed up with tents and other supplies and we delivered them to a warehouse run by Care 4 Calais who will distribute across the camp.
Luke and Ak were staying out for another couple of days with the intention of helping out with building shelters, so we walked round the Jungle talking to people, giving out some waterproofs and looking for potential sites for Luke and Ak to work on. What never ceases to amaze me is the innovation and resourcefulness shown by many people. The many uses for wood pallets, in particular keeping shelters off the mud. The different ways to keep tents intact on the ground, using make shift tent pegs and ‘burying’ the sides. Old and worn down duvets and blankets being recycled and used as insulation. The people who pull together to foster a sense of community, joining together to build shops, restaurants and places of worship.
I am conflicted by the sense of permanence that is developing in the camp. Obviously, I am desperate for conditions to improve, offering proper shelter, protection and sanitation. On the other, does it give legitimacy to the camp, a get out clause to governments who have utterly failed to deliver any sort of practical, humanitarian solutions to this crisis? The camp continues to grow and the amazing work of charities and their volunteers will only sustain survival and provide basic humanitarian resources; it must not be and cannot be a perpetual situation.
That evening as I settle down on the ferry, a few hours from home, warm again, I turn on the Wi-Fi on my mobile. My Twitter is ablaze with the Labour Party, my Party, ripping itself to shreds over whether or not we will support bombing in Syria. Threats of resignations; leakings, briefings and spinning; hazy Conference resolutions and arguments over who has what mandate; free votes and whipped votes; decade old wounds; Ken Livingstone; polling and trolling. All seemed to take precedent over the core issue at hand. I felt anger. I felt frustrated. I felt shame. I felt despair.
The reality is is that nothing will change for the people stuck in the Jungle without international cooperation and political will. Now, with focuses turning once again towards increased military activity in the Middle East, the people caught in the middle will be forgotten. I fear the window of opportunity for a progressive, sustainable, humane plan for this refugee crisis has passed and now we must all we can to help people survive the winter.
A bright note to finish. Over the past few weeks I had been helping out at a donation point near Halesworth, Suffolk with the objective of getting a container full of donations to Syria. The group had already been going for over a month and it was staggering seeing how much they had already achieved. On Saturday, nearly 700 boxes and bags full of clothes, blankets, food, toiletries and more were packed into the lorry which will be distributed by Syria Relief into the most critical areas. It was a emotional moment; the dispatch of the lorry was the culmination of 2 months hard work with hours upon hours of organising, sorting, boxing, labeling and packing. It was a testament to what can be achieved when ‘normal’ people can come together and work to make a change in whatever way they can. There was, of course, nothing normal about the dedication shown by the volunteers and the amount of donations received from people across Suffolk. As ever with these ideas, it did take a certain few individuals to drive the project and so, to Sara, Lucie, Lex, Val and Louise, thank you for all the work you did in making an incredible difference to so many people. Thank you also for your help and support with my trips to Calais; I really am grateful.