A weekend with refugees in Calais - RSA

A weekend with refugees in Calais


  • Picture of John Comino-James
    John Comino-James
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I’ve just come back from a weekend break, an overnight stay in Calais. Eleven of us went, men and women, a party of mixed ages and backgrounds travelling under the banner of Oxford Convoy2Calais. We left Oxford at 4.30 on Saturday morning and, travelling on Le Shuttle, arrived in Calais in time for the morning briefing at the Care4Calais warehouse. And beside our willingness the three cars were filled to capacity with aid items: clothing and food for refugees in the Calais area.

Some of us had been before but for seven members of the group it was to be a first experience. It was my third such trip. Last year I visited the camp known simply as ‘The Jungle’; on one occasion I had taken part in a food distribution and on the other had simply had a wider tour of the community.

Last Autumn ‘The Jungle’ was demolished, and recently the camp at Dunkirk was destroyed by fire.  Both events made headlines, and when I talk to people about the refugee/migrant situation and refer to Calais, they often have embraced the impression that ‘the problem’ has been somehow solved.  “Where are the people now?”  they ask.  I have only been able to tell them what I have heard: that some have moved into other camps or have been relocated, but that many are living rough in the Calais area.  I tell them I have heard that there have been moves by the authorities to suppress volunteer groups from providing food.  I tell them we know that the police use tear gas and pepper spray: the last time I went to the Jungle before it was demolished we found CS gas canisters littering the area.

Yet, for all its faults and problems, ‘The Jungle’ WAS a community.  Until the authorities declared them illegal there were little shops.  Before the demolition there was a church, a mosque; an old double-decker bus provided a safe centre for women.  The Kids Jungle Café provided a safe place for children.  Now we know that many young people have simply disappeared off the radar.

So, at the briefing in the Care4Calais warehouse, tasks are allocated. Some volunteers will be sorting aid items in the warehouse, a couple will be designated to prepare lunch for the volunteers, a couple of people will arrange a visit to a detention centre.  Others will go on patrol to make contact with people arriving at the train station or living in the parks in the centre of Calais to see if they need help, or food, and will also visit the environs of the old Jungle camp.  There will be a visit to a day centre.  Another group will go to Dunkirk to deliver aid to a population living rough: later in the day a couple of volunteers will go to Dunkirk to help serve food prepared by the Refugees Community Kitchen. 

Of course I and the newcomers don’t know what most these tasks actually involve. 

A group of volunteers from Holland is also there, and they are doing most of the morning patrol work.  So I find myself wondering what I am doing — stuck in a chilly warehouse sorting men’s clothes, hoodies, tops, jeans, jogging bottoms, trousers — when I’d rather hoped to be out meeting people.  But the work has to be done.  Garments are sorted by size, and any that are unsuitable (which usually means too large) are set aside and will find their way back to Shelter.

After lunch plans are made for a distribution of garments to refugees in Dunkirk.  At first it seems they have enough hands, but it is decided to send another four people in case there is a lot of pushing and shoving in the queue.  So I’m going out after all.  We are briefed: eight of us, four on each side with arms linked, will form a corridor leading to the back of the van. Inside the van a volunteer will be offering men’s jumpers or hoodies.  Another long term volunteer will admit people one at a time.

We drive to Dunkirk and turn into a back road.

We follow the road to its end in an open space surrounded by bushes: there is a continuation governed by a height restriction which leads off between bushes.  We are in an open space at the foot of an embankment.  Tracks have been worn in the grass leading between bushes up the embankment to the crash barriers, behind which traffic is visible.  Men appear, there is a lot of excitement and joshing and pushing and shoving. With an extraordinary mix of grace and firmness the experienced volunteer establishes order.  We form our corridor and the van doors are opened.  One by one men go up to the van, make their choices.  Not satisfied with the first offer, some ask to see something else.  Then a few people come back and ask to exchange their first choice for something else.  I am caught in my prejudice. Shouldn’t they just be grateful?  What is all this choosing about?  The old platitude about Beggars can’t be choosers.  And then I realise that in another life, these men had choices when they went to buy clothes, just as I do.  They are only doing what I would do, choosing how they want to look, deciding whether the garment is suitable, whether it will keep them warm or dry or whatever. There are some waterproof army backpacks.  They are brand new but nobody really wants to be seen with such a thing, no matter how practical it might appear to us.

As the process continues I see a man with a rucksack walk past, with a child of about five or six years old walking behind.

There are families living in the bushes around here.  The leaves are their shelter.

I talk to two men. They say they are from Iraq-Kurdistan.  Both speak good English, both have been to England, one has family here.  When I ask, one tells me he owned a mini-market but left his home because of the war.  Then they ask a question I cannot answer, a question I will hear over and over again: Why does the government not let us go to England?  One of them asks, “What is your religion?”  I tell him I was brought up as Christian but do not believe in God.  I tell him I believe in trying to meet people as they are, as he and I are meeting now.  The other asks if there is any way I can help him reach England.  I have to tell him there is not.  But I make them a promise.  I promise I will not forget them, and that I will do what I can to make sure their situation is not forgotten.  And I know that my promise to them is a promise to myself, and I know now that trying to write about my weekend abroad and to share my experience with others is a small part of keeping that promise too. 

I begin to feel chilly, wish I had a worn a warmer coat but then remember that I will not be trying to get some sleep under the bushes near here.

We return to the warehouse, and sign out.

We are staying a modestly priced hotel. There are CRS – the riot police -- in the lobby. When we check in I notice a room marked PRIVÉ. There are computer screens set out on tables.  It’s an operations room.  Next morning I ask about this, thinking that perhaps the police are there because of the Presidential elections.  But the receptionist tells me the police are there because of the migrants.  She tells me they have been using the hotel for a year or so.

On Sunday we arrive at the warehouse in time for the morning briefing.  I’m keen to go out ‘on patrol’.

So there are four of us, with a volunteer driving the van.  We are given a briefing sheet and instructions as to how to handle any confrontation with the police. Are we carrying Passports/ID as we should be? I find myself pretty nervous of getting involved with the CRS.  The plan is to go to the railway station and establish times of trains and if possible meet and offer help to any migrants arriving by train.  Also we will tour the parks to see if we can discover and satisfy any needs expressed by any refugees we meet.

We find two or three people who have been sleeping among the shrubs in the park opposite the town hall.  The men we meet say they are OK, and don’t need anything.

When we get back to the car park perhaps fifteen or twenty people have appeared including one man who has evidently been beaten up although we can’t establish the circumstances.  We give out snack packs.

We meet a young man from Afghanistan who, formerly in the army, had lived in Italy for a year and trained as a pizza chef.  And I talk to another young man who was the eldest of five.  His parents had urged him to go to Europe, to escape the bombs and gunfire, to a place -- as they imagined -- of greater safety and opportunity.  He was mystified to find Europe was so unwelcoming. He had good English and clearly a lot of courage to have got this far, and again England was his desired destination.  Again there is no help we can give as far as the onward journey is concerned, only the promise that he will not be forgotten.

The patrol splits up, two are left in central Calais and three of us go in the van to the area of ‘The Jungle’, giving a lift to three men who want to go there.

We drive down a road which leads to a small industrial estate.  There is a patch of waste ground.  There are men here, and some are having a kick-about.

We have plastic jerry cans of water, some buckets, soaps, towels, tooth-brushes.  There are men from Afghanistan, from Eritrea, and probably other countries too.  Some have travelled over-land, some have come up through the Sahara and survived the sea journey from Lybia.  I speak to a young woman who has made a place to sleep next to an industrial building.  She is from Afghanistan and answers me in excellent English.  She has three young children with her, off playing.  I ask if she needs anything, but she says she is fine. A bit later her eldest daughter comes to the van and asks for water, but by then we’ve run out.  We promise to come back.

We return to central Calais and swap roles.  I ask the team going back to ‘The Jungle’ to make sure they give water to the mother and her children.  I wish I could have done it myself, to fulfil my promise myself.  Two of us tour the parks again.  We meet three men from Iran, one tells us he had been in the Navy, the other says he is a home designer. They say that they are fine: we have nothing to offer.  I cannot believe they are so cheerful, so positive, and when I try to comment on this to my companion, I cannot stop my voice breaking with tears.  We are meeting people face to face, and each of us is slowly trying to undo the packaging of labels like ‘refugee’ and ‘economic migrant’ for ourselves. 

I am used, we are all used, too used, to seeing TV reports of aid-workers in places that seem far removed: Lebanon, Jordan, Africa.

But I am barely twenty miles from England, looking into the eyes of people who have travelled across a continent, clinging to hope that there will be something better for them, an opportunity to work and even prosper.  For so many it is not the pull factor but the push factor of famine or war.

When you meet people face to face as we have met them this weekend it is heartbreaking.

When you can offer so little towards what they are seeking, it is heartbreaking.

When you become aware of their persistence, their courage, their moments of cheerfulness it is heartbreaking.

When they thank you for meeting them and talking to them, for doing your best to listen, it is heartbreaking.

When you have this experience you cannot refasten those absolving package-words like ‘refugee’, those expressions like ‘economic migrant’.  You deny yourself the safe and comfortable option of retreating into words like that.

I meet volunteers working with a local organisation called Salaam, and discuss the situation with them.  They are delivering food and say they do not know how they will cope if there is a summer surge of arrivals.

I also meet volunteers working with the Refugee Community Kitchen who provide hundreds of hot meals a day.

Their quiet commitment is an inspiration.

Later on patrol after lunch we return to the area of ‘The Jungle’.

The people who had thronged around our van in the morning are nowhere to be seen.  Instead about half a dozen CRS police are standing facing the scrubby woodland.  We learn that the people we had seen earlier have been driven into the woods with what they could carry.  The area is being cleaned up.  That means that anything left behind is being picked up and taken away to be destroyed.  A small truck is moving round the waste-land.  I see garments, sleeping bags, even a few of the buckets we’d brought down that morning flung onto it.  By the time we arrive it is piled high. 

From those who have nothing, even that which they have shall be taken away.

The young mother I spoke to earlier has not been disturbed, she is still on her sleeping bags against the wall of the industrial building, her children with her.

We see a few faces near the entrance to the woodland.

A police van approaches as the ‘clean up’ comes to an end.  The truck of possessions is driven away, and as the CRS squad make their way to their van a few people in the wood must have started forward as if to come out. A CRS officer goes in with pepper spray.

When the CRS withdraw (but only to the end of the road) the people come out of the bushes.  Some carry sleeping bags rolled up or small bundles of possessions, many come with eyes smarting from the pepper spray.  We have water in jerry cans, we have plastic cups, we have baby-wipes:  it seems that toothpaste relieves the stinging of pepper spray on the cheeks and soon there are fifteen or twenty men with white patches under their eyes. We offer what we can.

At least the football has been saved. 

Some of the men begin a rather half-hearted kick-about.

The two little girls are chatting in amazing English to one of the volunteers. I ask if they are cold at night. No, the eldest says, we are warm.  She is bright and radiant and when she looks up at me and tells me her age she is so like my young granddaughter it is almost unbearable.

I can see the pair of them playing together. 

I know they would become friends immediately.

As we leave, we pass the squad of CRS standing aggressively at the end of the road.  We know they have not let anyone in.  They look at us with barely disguised hostility.  Before we get to the main road back into Calais we pass three more deployments of CRS.

This is just some of what I saw during my weekend break.

If people ask me what happened to the people when ‘The Jungle’ was cleared, or what happened to people after the fire at Dunkirk, I will tell them what I saw, sharing at least these words.

And if people do not ask me what happened to the people when ‘The Jungle’ was cleared, or what happened to people after the fire at Dunkirk, I will tell them what I saw, sharing at least these words.

It is a way of keeping the promises I made to those men I met, the promise that I would not forget them, and would not let their situation be forgotten.

It is hard not to be impressed – or blinded -- by large numbers. Or simply reassured by headline announcements that all is now somehow being taken care of.

After all, the UK Government pledged over £2.3 billion in aid in response to the events in Syria and the region– the UK’s largest ever humanitarian response – and has also committed over £100 million of humanitarian support to help alleviate the Mediterranean migration crisis in Europe and North Africa.

‘The Jungle’ has been ‘cleared’ and the UK Government has spent £2.3 million on increased security by building the Great Wall of Calais and has committed to spending around £85 million to reinforce security in the Calais region.

The Balkan route into Europe has effectively been shut down as countries have sealed their borders.  And since the controversial EU-Turkey deal aimed to close the sea route over the Aegean Sea to Greece, the deadliest crossing in the world, from Lybia to Italy, is now the principal route for migrants.  More than 180,000 people came ashore in Italy last year — and more than 4,500 perished en route.  So far this year arrivals are up a third on the same period in 2016.  And about 850 people are estimated to have died.

UK Government policy is that no action should be taken that can be seen as encouraging migrants by creating a ‘pull factor’.  However when the endemic differences between rich, stable, generally prosperous societies and impoverished, famine-stricken or war-torn ones are continually on display the terms ‘push’ and ‘pull’ smack of academic pedantry.

Even while I was in Calais the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, was saying -

There is an urgent need to address the root causes which lead people to move, as well as to offer credible alternatives to these dangerous crossings for people in need of international protection, including accessible and safe ways to reach Europe such as family reunification, relocation and resettlement. 

Action is needed before people are caught and exposed to horrendous abuses at the hands of smugglers in Libya and other transit countries, and before they board unsafe boats to cross the Mediterranean. This also means redoubling efforts to solve conflicts, especially in Africa; and using development resources much more strategically - to reduce poverty, to mitigate the effects of climate change, and to support countries hosting large numbers of refugees, as well as transit countries.

Meanwhile the number of refugees arriving in Calais continues to rise.

Perhaps on another page of the history book, their qualities of tenacity, courage, sacrifice, initiative and endurance would be celebrated, they would be encouraged to contribute their energies in a place of greater safety than that which they left.  But in the bushes at Calais I saw those same qualities met with pepper spray.  I saw that from those who had nothing, even that which they had was being taken away.

Sharing at least these words is a way of keeping the promises I made to those men I met, the promise that I would not forget them, and would not let their situation be forgotten.

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