Calais: A Crisis Calling for Compassion

By Anisa Easterbrook and Tommy Hibbitts

The disheartening announcement has been made that a French judge has given the go ahead to bulldoze a large part of the migrant camp in Calais known as the Jungle –  which is currently home to thousands of refugees. Charities such as L’Auberge Des Migrants tried without success to delay the plans of demolition to give them enough time to at least try and find alternative housing for the residents, arguing that many of the people there are children without parents or guardians.

This news came just as we returned from volunteering in the jungle. We had decided to go after attending the protests against British air strikes in Syria in December. We set up a Go Fund Me page and managed to raise a little over £2,000 to donate before booking our coach tickets. The hostel where the other volunteers were staying was fully booked  so we had the luxury of staying in an AirBnB in the centre of town.

Volunteers working at L'Auberge Warehouse

Volunteers working at L’Auberge Warehouse

On our first day, we went to L’Auberge warehouse and met the other volunteers. Everyone there is working on a voluntary basis and so you’d think it would be total anarchy with little or no structure. However, the long term volunteers have really managed to create a little community and keep everything in order. To keep it upbeat and maintain a friendly atmosphere, old school hip hop and RnB music blares in the background whilst you work and there are also compulsory, well-deserved tea breaks.

Despite new volunteers (like us) coming and going everyday with no idea what to expect, everyone manages to pull together and work. You’re split into groups and if you don’t have chicken arms you’ll most likely be asked to carry and sort the heavier items, like insulation for tents and sleeping bags. However, if you are a total weakling, you’ll probably be doing what we did which is folding clothing, packing them into boxes and preparing for clothing distribution into the jungle.

After working in the Warehouse for a couple of days, we were assigned to go and work in the jungle. The first thing everyone wants to know when you return from the jungle is – what is it like? People swarm you and ask what you saw, what you felt and if you have any pictures – almost as though you have just returned from some sort of strange tourist attraction. Well I’m afraid I can only give you first impressions as we were only there for a couple of days and in that time you cannot get close to someone or even begin to understand the true horrors these people have gone through.

The jungle on first impression, reminded me of post-apocalyptic drama film ‘The Road’. It’s muddy and  it’s flooded but people have still managed to make the best out of an extremely desolate situation and create a small community with little restaurants and even shisha tents. We slowly walked through the entrance past a handful of sinister looking police officers and into the jungle.

A little girl who must’ve been around 6 years old rode past us on a donated bicycle and playfully circled us. Seemingly blissfully unaware of her surroundings, she stuck her tongue out at us, giggled and said hello before cycling off back up to a tent.

We had gone to the camp armed with litter pickers and large black bin bags to help clean up. After walking for no more than a couple of metres we were faced with mounds and mounds of litter and it soon became evident that no matter how many bags we filled up, the mountains of trash still looked untouched. Despite the moronic facebook posts you may have seen circulating online, the camp isn’t a mess because the refugees are dirty or do not put rubbish away, it is because there are not nearly enough bins available for the amount of people there are. Even if there were enough bins available there are not enough people to help empty them each day. 

After doing this for  a couple of hours we wandered round and saw a line of refugees queueing up to receive warm clothing and in front of them stood a young English boy with his acoustic guitar singing Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry’. It put a smile on everyone’s faces and both volunteers and refugees gathered together to enjoy the show and sing along with the universally known lyrics. 

As you can see in the recently emerged video below uploaded by George Podaras, volunteers sing Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’ even as police destroy the jungle and all their efforts with it…

On one of our nights in the jungle, we missed our ride home and found ourselves stuck in the rain in the dark. In that time, not once did we feel threatened or intimidated, only welcomed. Multiple people living in the jungle offered us dinner and shelter and wanted to help us get back. Had we been stuck in an unfamiliar part of London in the pitch black on a Saturday night, I’d have felt a lot differently. Luckily we eventually met some volunteers who kindly gave us a lift back to the centre but we were constantly feeling taken aback by the warmth of the people we met.

On one long day cleaning in the jungle, a taxi driver picked up Tommy and I plus a few other volunteers from the jungle. Whilst he appeared reasonably friendly toward us, he spent the journey ranting loudly about how inconvenient the situation is. He repeatedly and very loudly (might I add) said ‘Il n’ y a pas de tourisme’ translating as ‘there is no tourism’. I can’t really imagine why anyone would be coming to Calais on their holibobs when the weather is so horrific anyway, but nonetheless we listened to him go on. One volunteer reasoned with him and said she understood why it may be difficult for the people of Calais but that this situation had been caused by war and politicians, not by refugees who had come here with little or no choice and that there was no easy solution. However, this all seemed to go over his head as he insisted the refugees should be sent back.

Whilst we tried our best to understand a lot of these frustrations, after seeing the amount of unaccompanied children and teenagers in the camp, it is very hard to relate to anyone who believes in ‘sending them back’ to an almost certain death sentence. Many of the refugees travelled from (for the most part without their families) in makeshift, dangerous boats across to countries where many were made to believe had homes waiting for them on the other side. They were instead greeted by hostility, brutal weather conditions and monstrous border fences.

In the jungle, we spoke to Shiraz, a middle-aged man from both Uganda and India, who has lived in the UK since his early twenties. He and his wife had travelled from Peterborough to give donations to the refugees and spoke to us about the terror happening for the people trying to escape the horrendous acts of human destruction. 

A photograph of a kitchen used by one a family of refugees.

A photograph of a kitchen used by one a family of refugees.

one love

Some artwork which was a common theme throughout the jungle

Some art from Bansky. London calling

Some art from Bansky. London calling.

“I’ve seen extreme poverty first hand. I know what its like to not know when your next meal is coming. That’s why my wife and I have come up to bring clothes and food to the people and the kitchens. Have you been to the Macedonia/Greece border? That is truly terrifying. People pay all their money to people who promise them a boat into Europe, which will be comfy, luxurious, and a promise of a better future. When they turn up, however, there are dingy boats at the dock with an excessive amount of people on them. Around 30 pregnant women and children among them. They’re then given a life jacket to wear and sent out to sea.”

A photograph of a kitchen used by one a family of refugees.

A photograph of a kitchen used by one a family of refugees.

With a feeling of disgust and shock, Shiraz carried on giving us more facts on what is happening with the migrant crisis.

He went on to say: “The life jackets they’re given, they do nothing. Around 2 of the life-jackets actually work and the rest of the people will probably drown. Drowning babies in freezing water. This is where a lot of mothers lose their children, because they’re told to get on these dinghies. And if they refuse? They’re shot.”

He told us that if we thought what we were seeing at the jungle was bad; we should travel over to Macedonia to witness true horror. Such a heart-breaking truth into what is happening within the migrant crisis. When these people are fleeing their country over fear of death from a war that our Great Britain has now entered, how these people at the borders will exploit the vulnerable for all their possessions, it’s beyond satanic. It’s fascism at its finest.

Although built on a sense of community, within both ‘the jungle’ and the L’Auberge warehouse, a sort of hostility has been present throughout social media, casting an unfortunate negative light towards the volunteers of the L’Auberge warehouse. One person spoke of her in-depth feelings towards to candidates at the warehouse. It caused uproar within the volunteering community, and social media users alone.

This debate amongst the volunteers is a chaotic removal of the real situation at hand. The volunteers work long hours, and often don’t get a day off. The warehouse is built on volunteers, who earn no money but are lucky enough to get three meals a day, and also rent cheap caravans to live in. There is a sense of the magnificent leaderless teamwork, and how they’ve managed to build a hierarchy within a volunteer system, which consists of short-term and long-term. People have given their free time and energy, receiving no payment, to try and help sort out a situation that can be so easily sorted by our own government. It’s only fair for them to receive accommodation in a long-term situation.

Through a time of great human crisis comes a sense of incredibly inspiring human resilience which transcends throughout the temporary homes of the migrants, currently living in prehistoric conditions made worse by the French authorities. A shocking contrast of modernistic times. Tents and huts are supported by the thinnest of poles, and with some godly stroke of luck enabled them to last through the powerfully arctic winds Calais has endured this winter. The home, controversially named ‘The Jungle’ is the centre of an on-going political debate.

The real detrimental problem has surfaced over the last week with the French Government announcing that they will go ahead with bulldozing the entire southern part of the camp, with up to two thirds set to become rubble. The southern part of the camp is the part that homed the Jungle Books area, a fantastic school set up which helped people learn English, taught people music and held conversation classes which we took part in whilst we were there. It is here that we spoke to a 17-year-old boy, who was missing his mother. He showed us his book of poems, which included translations that melted our hearts. One of the poems he had written said,

‘My mother is my world,
She is the angel on my shoulder watching over me.’

Jungle Books was an inspiring place, a beautiful project set up which helps so many refugees with learning their rights, learning different languages, and allowing them to meet other refugees and make friends.

The southern part of the camp is also the place where the mosques and churches are. The hospitality of these people, who are forced into such a horrible condition, was beyond anything you could imagine.

This affected area is a centrefold for the camp, with around 3000 people living here. We were told how many lived in each part, and we could see that this was a densely populated region.

Now the volunteers are desperately trying to find the best solution to help the already vulnerable population, as their temporary homes are displaced again. There are around 400 children in this area, with around 300 of those being unaccompanied.

They are already living in such pivotal conditions it seems inhumane to destroy what little they already have, but then it’s obvious that Calais don’t want to be responsible for the refugees. This is now the most urgent problem. These unaccompanied children who have already lost everything are now about to lose even more if something isn’t done to stop the fascist authorities.

Discussing the news with a fellow volunteer Anica Green, who was there at the time I was, she had the exact same response as I,
‘I can’t imagine anyone whose been to the jungle having the guts to tear it down.’

A heartbreaking result for thousands. I asked Anica what she thought was going to happen to the refugees now.

‘There are children without families there and women, but that’s not the point, men are humans too. These men have fled violence and persecution only to re encounter it on another shore. A medic showed me photos of wounds from clashes with police that you would think were from the violence he fled. Underscoring these decisions is the legacy of colonialism perpetrated by the West that set up conditions that necessitated mass exodus so the hypocrisy is two fold. Bulldozing the camp will not remove the refugees. They will still be unable to return home. Bulldozing the camp just affirms the racist cruelty of the world we live in today.’

French authorities previously were not being fully cooperative in helping people understand what was going to happen but the evacuation will definitely be taking place now. Despite claims that they will send people to different places in France where they’ll be able to claim asylum comes the worry that other jungles may be set up from the ones that aren’t able to move to the centres. These people will become easier victims for the extreme right wing groups, leading to more unfortunate attempts at passing the border, one way or another.

As it stands today, the people who are living in the Calais Jungle’s worst nightmare unfolded. On the 29/2/2016 riot police descended on the camps carrying guns and detonating tear gas canisters. These then amounted to start fires all across the camp. People have now lost their belongings and homes due to these shocking and unforgivable acts from the authoritative figureheads of our society.

Volunteers were unable to enter the camp, and were blocked off by the large amount of police surrounding the camp. People were told to get onto coaches, where some were supposedly lied to about where they were taking them (they were told England) and leave immediately.

The French court has confirmed that – despite the Help Refugees census finding 3,455 people in the demolition area of the camp – there are 1156 alternative accommodation places currently available in Calais and France, leaving an astounding 2,299 refugees deficit.

UPDATE

Unthinkable deception has occurred for the people of the camp. Last week a press conference was held assuring journalists the dismantling would be gradual, humane and respectful, yet the scenes which have been witnessed over the past 24 hours can only be described as hateful and barbaric. There is a video circling Facebook of a refugee couple, with the women supposedly pregnant, being manhandled and attacked. You can see the terrifying video here. This is what the right-wing media outlets won’t show you. Disgusting human behaviour. No morals. No compassion.

It is now time, more than ever, for the British and French governments to act on the Dublin III process, which will allow the unaccompanied refugee children in Calais that are fortunate enough to have immediate family in the UK to come over to Britain and reunite. We need to open our borders and have compassion for human beings. If we’re big enough to drop bombs and blow a country back to the stone age, we’re big enough to house the victims of our selfish acts. Witnessing the jungle first-hand has really left a bitter taste in our mouths.