Back to France we went yesterday, this my 10th trip to the Calais Jungle, the refugee camp that’s home to people from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and dictatorships like Eritrea. Home to people I have come to consider my friends; people who have inspired me with their ingenuity, their determination, their generosity and their warmth, all maintained in the harshest of conditions. Of course this time we weren’t going to see my dear friend Ridwan, who has recently claimed asylum in Germany, or Abel, who has done the same in Holland, or Ibrahim, who has been safe in Scotland for several months. But there were other people I wanted to see, and aid to take over, and stories to hear.
We started our day at the warehouse of L’Auberge Des Migrants. I’d collected a boot full of stuff from another volunteer who had too much to fit in her car, and my passenger had donations too, so we unloaded camping equipment, tents, clothing and toiletries at the warehouse while the rest of the team applied for passes to gain us admittance to the camp should the CRS riot police make trouble. While we were there we had a quick look inside and spoke to someone about the new rota they have for ensuring every part of the camp gets food on a weekly basis; it’s a complicated system but it certainly seems to be working, for the desperation we’ve seen for food parcels on previous trips was no longer evident inside the camp.
Between us as a team, we’d fulfilled a personal shopping list for three beautiful young Eritrean women – leggings, underwear, make up, earrings, moisturiser and hair oil – so my first stop was to their small house, recently relocated to the rear of the Eritrean church. However, the house was empty and we soon discovered that the girls were at Hazebrouck, a lorry stop where many refugees travel daily to try and get passage to the UK. On all our trips we’ve always been under the impression that the Hazebrouck attempts were a weekday activity, when the lorry stop was at its most active, so I was surprised they were there on a Sunday. In fact, this was a story we heard all over the camp – it seems, with the recent news that the local prefecture judge has ruled for the destruction of the south side of the camp, people are more desperate than ever to find a way to England and are trying their luck every possible moment.
Having been thwarted in our plans to see the girls we left our gifts in their tent and began distributing food parcels around the Eritrean section, though unlike on previous trips where people were clamouring to get something, there was less of a rush and we even had some people turn down the food! After a while we were invited into a neighbouring tent for warming Eritrean tea – sugary and spiced with cinnamon and cloves. It was most welcome, and we did our best to talk to our hosts, though language was a bit of a barrier.
We then moved on to a section of the camp reserved for women and children and again gave out food as well as lip balm, hairbrushes and pain relief. We talked to a family from Afghanistan who have been in the camp several months; with small children around, I have no idea how they plan to get to the UK and I’m not sure they know either. I spotted three small girls playing on a makeshift swing and gave them toys donated by a friend – sparkly tiaras, magic wands, hair bobbles. It was so delightful to see the smiles on their faces as they dove into the bag to choose their goodies, though we did later hear them arguing about who had taken the most! It was a big reminder that these are kids, just kids – just like any other group of kids, anywhere in the world. Yet they are living here, amongst the mud and shit and destitution.
We’d not been able to find two more friends, John and Filimon, so we were over the moon when Filimon found US! Hugs all round; it was so lovely to see this guy, who was in hospital the last time we visited. Good to see him looking so well. He was on his way somewhere but we were to see more of him later on.
Having distributed all our food and most of the other bits and bobs we had, we wandered around for a while taking photos of the graffiti-decorated shacks, chatting to people here and there. Our overwhelming impression was that the camp seemed much quieter than usual – almost eerily quiet. It was rather like the calm before the storm – which, following events today, it does seem to have been. But more on that later.
Eventually we headed to the north side and visited our friends Afredo and Aziz in their restaurant. Except Aziz told me that his business partner was actually called Afridi …. all these months I’ve called the guy Afredo and he was too nice to put me right! I won’t make that mistake again, Afridi it is! They made us milky Afghan chai, which is always delicious, and we spent some time chatting. They’d built the restaurant after giving up hope of reaching England, but with the proposed demolition of part of the camp – and potentially their restaurant – they are once again contemplating the prospect of trying to jump on a train or hide in a lorry. The restaurant was busy when we arrived and got even busier when a huge group of French volunteers poured in, so we drank our tea and gave up the seats, but not before we were entertained by a round of singing by the volunteers and refugees.
Opposite the restaurant were the burned out remains of a house, and we met one of the guys who’d lived there, yet another Eritrean who has only been in the camp a few months. He lost everything in the fire and literally had the clothes he was wearing – yet he was still smiley and jokey and happy to tell us about himself. Already volunteers had built a new home for him and his housemates. The dedication of the long-term volunteers to respond to an ever-changing situation never fails to amaze me. I would love to be there for more than a day here and a day there, if only my circumstances enabled me to … That way I’d maybe feel like I’m really making a difference.
We were heading to the end of our day and went back to the Eritrean part to find Filimon – and John was there too! So lovely to see “our” two remaining boys on this trip. We were again treated to hot drinks in a neighbour’s tent – sweet thick coffee this time – and we all piled onto the mattress and chatted. There was another lad there who I assumed was a new Eritrean, but it turned out he was actually from Guinea, and has been living legally in France for 5 years, studying. He had helped out in camp and befriended a few of the refugees as his home is near Calais and he now visits regularly. We also met the famous Gypsy Builder, a lovely Afghan guy who is so well spoken, so intelligent and so knowledgeable about the political situation. He talked passionately about the millions of pounds the UK government has spent on keeping out the few thousand refugees in Calais, and we all expressed our disgust at the situation that taxpayers’ money – OUR money – has created. Having recently moved into David Cameron’s Witney constituency I am especially horrified at how “my” MP has responded to the refugee crisis.
While I was drinking tea Dan disappeared outside with Filimon and I soon discovered what they were up to – across the road from the church was a kind of hang out spot, a darkened room where mostly Eritrean guys (and a few girls) gather to drink beer and smoke. Eritrea is 50% Muslim, 50% Christian so presumably it’s the Christians who partake in this particular activity! Anyway, the guys invited me in too so we spent the last half hour of our day sitting round an open fire, drinking beer (Coke in my case, as the designated driver) and putting the world to rights.
And I had a bit of a “moment” there too… Recently I’ve started questioning the validity of our trips to the Calais Jungle. The warehouse seems to have got itself better organised and delivery of food, toiletries and clothing to the camp happens more efficiently, so there doesn’t seem to be the huge demand for supplies as there was last year. It costs us around £100 per car to get from Swindon/Witney to Calais and back – and I was really beginning to think we were spending more than we were effectively achieving, and that perhaps the money would be better off being donated directly to Care4Calais or one of the other organisations there. And while I had bonded strongly with Ridwan and Abel and Ibrahim, I wasn’t sure my presence was so needed any more by the other guys and girls we’ve befriended.
But when we were in that drinking place, around the fire, Filimon looked me in the eyes, put his hand on his heart and said, “I’m happy.” Why are you happy, I asked. “Because I haven’t seen you in two months, and today you’re here. And for four months you’ve been my Mami, bringing me food and clothes. And I can share it with my Eritrean family here. And that makes me happy,” he replied. And then his beautiful face broke into a beaming smile.
This is what it’s about. This is why I have to keep going back to the camp, until there isn’t a camp to go back to.
But that, of course is the big question – what DOES the future hold for the Calais Jungle? The ruling last week stated that the north side of the camp was to be demolished, but that it wouldn’t happen for three weeks, and that it would be done in conjunction with the organisations on the ground, to ensure everyone was safe and rehomed. But the very next day officials were walking round the camp, marking homes as occupied or unoccupied, asking refugees to go on buses to new locations. We’ve already heard about people being bussed to Spain with the promise of accommodation and support, only to be dumped in the middle of nowhere, with no support in sight. And guess what those people did? Came straight back to the Jungle – the only home they have. Wherever we went in the camp people asked us if we knew what was going on, what was going to happen, where were they going to go? And we had no answers…
And then early this morning volunteers reported on Facebook that there was a huge show of intimidation by the police and the local officials, as over 50 police vans surrounded part of the camp and around 20 homes were taken apart by men in high viz jackets. I don’t know what the plan behind this was. Some have said it was to clear an access path for fire vehicles, though others have disagreed. Perhaps it was a show of power, a demonstration that the authorities can come in and do what they want whenever they want. Maybe it was just to shake the people up a little, heighten the tension, scare people… If so, it’s certainly succeeded. The aggression is still going on there, several hours later, with police firing tear gas at refugees and threatening them with rubber bullets.
It’s all so cruel, and so unnecessary. The one thing that has hit me most in my trips to the camp is that these are PEOPLE – no more and no less. Men who want the best for their families, women desperately doing their best for their kids, young men and women who want more from life than their country’s government permits them, kids who want to play football and laugh and smile and go to school. Ordinary people who just want the simple things in life that WE take for granted, like security, safety and freedom. There are also people there who have British passports but wives and children who have been refused entry; people who’ve lived in the UK before; people who want to be reunited with mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.
Our government has spent billions on keeping people out yet the cost of building an assessment centre, letting people apply and giving safe passage to those who have a good claim for asylum or reunification would be a fraction of the cost. In fact, we could open the doors and let all 4000 Jungle residents into the UK, house and support them for a year and the cost would be less – and the effect it would have on our culture, our safety, our daily life would not even be noticed. Instead those in power let them rot…It’s wrong, it’s sickening, it’s heartless and yet there’s nothing we ordinary citizens can do except sign petitions, write to our MPs and take over our tins of fish, our toothpaste, our love and support. It just doesn’t feel like that’s enough.