The refugee crisis: my week in Calais and some ideas on what action we can take here in the UK.
Last month I was at home in London browsing the internet when I came across this video on the Guardian website. It features a little boy with a swollen and clearly painful leg. The journalist asks him how it happened and he replies:
“In Syria, I was playing outside. The army came and told me they want to buy me a treat. They kidnapped me and ran over me with their car. I don’t know what to say.”
I didn’t know what to say either. This boy in the video had the same effect on me as the image of Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the sand on a Turkish beach had on our nation. It painfully woke me up to the cruel reality of the refugee crisis and compelled me to take action. Before long I was in Calais.
I came across this Facebook page (worth liking if you are interested in helping out in Calais, or just want to get a sense of what’s going on) and through it I got in touch with L’Auberge des Migrants, a charity, that had been working with the migrants in and around Calais for years. They replied saying that they would appreciate my help so I packed my bags and left for Calais a few days later.
The area to the east of Calais where the refugees are camped is referred to, colloquially, as the Jungle, so I’ll call it that too. It is just next door to the Jules Ferry Centre (JFC) which is a French government-run compound for the refugees to receive food and showers in, and is also bordered by the main road to the ferry port. Recently, the road has been partially fenced off from the Jungle.
Arriving at the Jungle on Monday afternoon was an overwhelming experience. Firstly, we were late crossing the channel so I didn’t get to meet the people from L’Auberge des Migrants on time and was sort of left to my own devices. Not quite sure what to do, I walked along the side of the minor road to the east of the Jungle with the person that gave me a lift to Calais (she was bringing donations over from the UK), until we found the school.
The school is small, it’s actually not a school — it’s a classroom. It has a blackboard surrounded by print outs of the letters of the alphabet, some verb tables on another wall and shelves littered with donated writing pads. The floor is dusty, the flies are annoying and the tables are all different sizes. The poles holding up the wooden and tarpaulin structure can get in the way of the board but there are French lessons every day and the timetable is updated each week on a little whiteboard outside the door.
When I arrived at the school two people, both from Britain, were doing a painting session with about half a dozen children from the Jungle. It was messy, but it was also pretty beautiful to witness. Before long I was outside with the children drawing fun shapes on the road with chalk.
I met other volunteers later on and we went into the Jungle for the first time. It’s difficult to describe, but I’ll have a go. Imagine a camp site in the UK. Now imagine that you take away most of the toilet facilities and replace them with a few full — make you wretch — portaloos. Now take away the nicely mown grass and replace with sand dunes. Take away the electricity and clearly defined pitches and move all the tents really close to each other. Now take away the campsite shop, replace it with one free meal a day, served after waiting in line outside for at least an hour. Take away your many changes of clothes, replace with a well-worn set of clothes, and shoes with holes in. Take away your family. Take away lots of people that speak the same language as you. Take away the rubbish bins and replace with litter, everywhere. Take away almost all of the sinks and taps and surround any remaining water points with litter-filled swampy water. Take away the fact that you’ll be going home next week, replace with the fact that you’ve been there for 6 months and don’t know when you’ll ever leave. Add in a church, a few mosques, a bunch of foreign volunteers and two police officers watching over you from the near-by motorway and that’s pretty much the Jungle.
On my second day in Calais I was driven, by a wonderful French woman who had given up her summer to volunteer in Calais, to a barn about 30 minutes away from the town where I met about a dozen other volunteers. Here we spent the whole morning sorting donated food into little parcels for distribution in the afternoon. Some of the people I spoke to in the barn had been doing this work for a decade, the “migrant crisis” might be new to British onlookers — it’s a depressingly old story in Calais.
We packed the hundreds of bags of food into the back of a van and drove back towards Calais. In the town centre we made a detour to give some food to a family from Syria who preferred sleeping under a bit of overhanging roof at the back of a local church than staying in the Jungle. I handed a muffin to a 12-year-old boy and said “for you”. He held it for a second or two, looked up at me and then his arm shot out back towards me “share” he said with a massive smile on his face. I was dumbfounded, here was this child with almost nothing and he wanted to share his food with me. What overwhelming, inspiring, generosity.
We drove on. Once at the Jungle we distributed the bags of food for about an hour, until there was nothing left. The line was still a few hundred people long when we had to announce that the van was now empty. In the evening I met with a few other volunteers from the UK, and from across Europe, in a café in the centre of town. I was exhausted and demoralised. It was dawning on me how horrendous the situation in Calais was. I was conflicted because I knew that every minute spent volunteering was making the Jungle more permanent and, in some way, more legitimate but I knew that doing nothing and abandoning the refugees couldn’t be the answer either. I almost headed back to Britain unsure I’d be able to manage there for the rest of the week, but I was thankfully persuaded to stay by the other volunteers.
I spent most of the next day at the JFC (the government-run compound near the Jungle) volunteering doing various things, including serving the daily meal. I was told by another volunteer that the JFC only has enough funding from the French government to provide 1,500 meals a day, which is clearly inadequate given that there around 4,000 people in the Jungle. We kept the portion sizes relatively small and were able to serve 2,300 people. Without food donations from people from the UK and mainland Europe the refugees in the Jungle would be in a pretty much permanent state of hunger.
I spoke to lots of people from different countries over the 5 days I spent in Calais. Many from Syria, others from Sudan, Eritrea and Afghanistan. I spoke to a man who had lived in Sheffield for almost a decade, but was “sent away by the judge” just last year — he was compulsorily deported back to Afghanistan. He was now sitting here with me on a bank at the side of the entrance to the Jungle holding his UK asylum seeker card with “EMPLOYMENT PROHIBITED” written all over it. He asked me “Will this help be get back into England?”, and I had to tell him that it definitely wouldn’t.
I was walking to the Jungle from the town centre one morning when I met a man from Sudan wearing the same white t-shirt and black trousers combination as me. After we’d laughed this off I asked him if he was coming back from the Tunnel. He said yes and that last night one person managed to get through. He said that he would be going back again later this evening and sleeping this afternoon. It’s worth pointing out here that it’s over two hours walk from the Jungle to the Channel Tunnel, his shoes were falling apart. Before parting ways I asked him how he was feeling, he just said one word: “angry”. Me too I said.
One afternoon I was walking through the Jungle with other volunteers when two young people, I think they were around 18 years old, came up to us. They had just arrived from Syria and had nowhere to stay, they asked where they could get tents, blankets and shoes. We had nothing to give them. The next day I saw them again and they’d managed to find blankets and somewhere to sleep, I have no idea where from — probably from one of the friendly Brits who were arriving daily with cars full of stuff. Life in the Jungle is precarious.
In the 5 days I spent in Calais I witnessed a lot of kindness. Every day cars arrived from the UK, and across Europe, with provisions for the people sleeping in the Jungle. A French couple had got hold of generator and were placing it in different areas of the Jungle each evening so people could plug in radios and have a dance. A woman from the UK had started a library. Refugees helped each other with DIY improvements to their shelters. A charity was bussing refugees back-and-forward to the local hospital to make sure they received adequate medical treatment. People sat around make-shift campfires passing a can of Heinz spaghetti hoops around so everyone got a fair share. The people I met in Calais filled me with hope.
However, the Jungle filled me with despair. The people living there had basically fallen into a trap. They’d fled their war-torn, unstable, home country with the (not unreasonable) idea that they’d find a better life in Europe. A job, a new home, a future. But they’d ended up in a slum on the doorstep of Britain and Britain’s door was bolted shut. The French authorities were letting them subsist in squalor (but were providing just enough to prevent a public outcry) and the UK government was turning its back on the humanitarian problem.
Thousands of British people have donated money and resources to charities operating in Calais. This is great news, but it’s worth saying that just turning up in your own car at the edge of the Jungle isn’t the wisest move. It’s much better if you contact charities working in Calais in advance to find out what is needed and where to deliver it in order that they can distribute things in as fair a way as possible. I’ve been following the updates from volunteers currently in Calais and it is clear that some spontaneous donations are actually now causing more harm than good — so do plan carefully.
I was going to just write about the situation in Calais and steer clear of the wider crisis but I couldn’t help but write a bit more on what we can do further afield where life isn’t just precarious, its hellish.
First, lets open up our pockets and donate to the UNHCR or similar organisations. They are trying to help people living in “the worst place on earth”, which the Jungle certainly isn’t, and they are drastically underfunded — the UN’s Syria Refugee programme is only 37% funded for 2015.
Second, lets take action here in the UK. The UK government has announced it’s going to take roughly 4,000 additional Syrian refugees a year for the next 5 years from Syria and neighbouring countries. Aside from the miserly figure, this is good policy from a humanitarian perspective. Clearly, the people in this region are suffering more than we could imagine, 78% of these refugees aren’t even in formal UN refugee camps. Neighbouring countries are struggling to cope with the influx of refugees — for example there are almost 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Taking refugees from this part of the world makes sense and is probably the most compassionate thing our country could do.
But, precisely because it makes sense and is compassionate, we need to make sure that the government goes further. 20,000 over 5 years is not enough. You’ve heard the comparisons: there are 25,000 refugees on just the tiny Greek island of Lesbos, 20,000 refugees arrived at one train station in Germany last weekend alone.
Citizens UK is campaigning for the UK government to take at least 10,000 refugees a year, let’s see if we can get Cameron to that figure before too long. Let’s write to our MP’s and to the government asking them to take more than 4,000 a year and remind them that we have room — only 2% of England’s land is built on. Let’s meet our councillors, asking them to pass motions similar to this one. Let’s get a clear commitment from our government that any children welcomed into the UK will be not be forced to return to their home country when they turn 18, as has happened to 605 asylum seekers from Afghanistan in the past 6 years.
People up and down the country are also offering rooms for refugees, and campaigning for landlords and local authorities to do the same. We should all join in. Let’s make it as easy as possible for the UK government to resettle a refugee in our country, and in the process let’s make it easier for the government to go further and take more refugees. There are almost 12 million Syrians living without a home or living as refugees in neighbouring countries, there is no alternative — we have to do more.