Speeding down the M20 on our way to the Port of Dover, our newly acquired caravan swaying alarmingly behind us, my friend Steve confessed that he was nervous about what we would see at the Calais Refugee Camp. I’d been trying not to think too deeply about what we might find when we ventured into the mud-filled, tarpaulin covered surrogate town 75 miles from my warm, cosy bed in Kent.
Leaving the ferry we passed a sprawling mass of tents and sheets, “homes” for thousands of people. The place was huge. I’d seen the pictures, of course, I knew what was there, but thinking I knew, and seeing first hand are two very different things.
Before leaving I knew little about the Calais Jungle except that 6,000+ people are camped out there in winter conditions. They have fled thousands of miles from war zones , drought and any number of horrors in order to allow themselves a chance at a safe future. The camp was a humanitarian disaster and as such, needs as many volunteers as possible. I have no political agenda; for me it is simply a question of humanitarian help.
We passed the Jungle and went straight for the warehouse where donations sent from all over England and Europe were piled high. The whole place was filled with bursting boxes and busy people relentlessly sorting and shelving. Once we’d found a place for the Caravan and had been introduced to some of the more permanent staff, we got stuck in sorting out the donations into categories for distribution amongst the refugees. The heart-warming generosity of people and the eager, determined faces of my fellow volunteers went a long way towards restoring my somewhat temperamental faith in humanity.
Even without going to the camp it was obvious that there was a fundamental need for willing hands to work in the warehouse, to help in the workshop building wooden house frames, cook meals or arrange food parcels. As enthusiastic as we were to go to the Jungle on daily food and clothing distribution runs we were happy to dig in and do whatever was required.
Our knowledge beforehand of what was actually going on with the camp was limited at best, so I’d just like to clarify a few things that may not be obvious to people who haven’t read into it or been there themselves.
The ‘Calais Jungle’ is not an official refugee camp and so the big NGOs such as Red Cross or Save the Children aren’t there. If France were to declare it as an official refugee camp then they would have to help deal with it, assuming they have the capacity to do so – which they do. As it is, the world – for the most part – is turning a blind eye and pretending that these people don’t need help. Don’t deserve help. Don’t exist.
Smaller non-profits like L’auberge des migrants international and CalAid are doing as much as they can, but as you would expect with limited funds and staff, even with the willingness, drive and compassion demonstrated every remorseless hour of the day, they need more help. The Sudanese, Afghans, Syrians, Libyans, Eritreans and people from many other nationalities need more help.
Their options are stark; their need is great.
They live in the cold. Not unlike their military predecessors a hundred years ago in Northern France, they live and subsist in the mud and the wet. They live with nothing but their huge spirit to survive and succeed. The volunteers who expend so much time, money and physical and emotional energy on working in the Jungle and warehouses are doing a fantastic job but they need you to help as well. More people need to understand how serious and desperate these people’s situation is and let our governments know that this is unacceptable. Too many people are misinformed or have their priorities hugely misaligned. We have all heard fearful, knee-jerk reactions, the dehumanising xenophobic commentaries.
Stories of unrestrained police brutality surfaced even in the six days we were there. Tear gas canisters falling through plastic sheeted ceilings into homes, into crowds of refugees; rubber bullets being fired into unarmed, peaceful protesters. The police are doing their job, but until the people living in the Jungle are given the time of day by people who have the ability to spark genuine change then the refugees will continue to be seen as only an inconvenient problem. Not as thousands of fellow human people more than worthy of our compassion and aid.
It wasn’t until I sat down and started to write this post that I fully acknowledged my own sadness at the sufferings of these refugees. They have been through enough just to get where they are.
Teams are in place attempting to give medical aid and advice, to show solidarity to those stuck in this wintry hell-hole, but so much more could be done if our governments paid them the attention they deserve. Asylum seekers may not seem as attractive a target for British aid as families emigrating directly from Syria, but they are as deserving. Why not both? We can do so much more.
It starts with you.
If you can give warm clothes, email your local MP, make an online donation or give a day of your time, then please get involved. Every winter coat or thermal undergarment is useful to people who don’t have the facilities to wash and dry their own clothes. Every hour you can give volunteering is an hour well spent.
Things they need most:
1 Pre made identical food parcels. For further info please see this list
2 VOLUNTEERS especially if you can stay longer than a day or two.
This is the form for new volunteers;
4 Sleeping bags
5 Tents (preferably 4 man or larger)
On our last day in Calais, Steve and I visited the small theatre dome that has been set up in the middle of the Jungle. The structure allows the community to come together and gives a chance for the different cultures within the camp to meet and enjoy a brief respite from their muddy, cold existence. Volunteers from London and musicians from all over the camp sang and played instruments for a couple of hours. It was an incredibly moving experience. In the dome, there was an astounding energy and vitality, everyone generating a positive, generous, hopeful atmosphere. But despite all this, I saw faces in the crowd which remained solemn. The juxtaposition of grave and joyous faces exhibited by those in the theatre contrasted heavily and constantly: A reminder of the cause lying underneath the musical celebration.
Although this performance was appreciated whole-heartedly by the majority of refugees and volunteers attending, it was evident to me that no amount of laughter and music can make up for the fact that these people need and deserve so much more. The evening was a warm, vibrant and loving occasion, and I don’t underestimate the importance of such events. But the haunted faces amongst all that fleeting joy simply rammed home to me the importance of doing more.