A visit to the ‘unrecognised’ refugee camp near Calais
“There is snow on the ground and it’s sleeting. I have arrived again in Calais to visit the unofficial refugee camp called The Jungle. I visited it first in late October last year. It was a chaotic collection of tents, perched in a no-man’s land both real – beyond the edge of Calais – and figurative, between the UK and France. Almost six thousand people lived there. Almost all were ignored by the UK and French governments, except when one or the other chose to talk about the ‘threat’ posed by its inhabitants, or to send ‘security’ teams to monitor and prevent people leaving it. Not having the legal status of a refugee camp means that the UN can’t work there, nor large aid agencies or campaigns. And the camp was ‘run’ – in as far as it was run at all – by volunteers. Hard-working, dedicated people, making a difference to the lives of the men, women and children trapped in awful conditions, even though inexperienced, largely unsupported, and so often suffering themselves as a result of what they saw and lived through each day. Four months later, some things have changed, others not. The UK is still the world’s fifth richest state. France is still the sixth. The volunteers are still largely unsupported, but are now a little more experienced. They work tirelessly to attempt to keep people alive and clothed, and prevent cases of exposure and outbreaks of disease. There are newly bulldozed areas, but there is also more infill of what can be called housing. The huts look more professional, perhaps built to a pattern with thin timber, plastic and rope. There are also containers. Of course, there aren’t enough. And people say that unaccompanied children are not placed there for fear of assault or abuse. There are still six thousand or more people trapped in a filthy, poorly supplied outpost, less than five kilometres from a major port linking two of the world’s richest countries. And those six thousand people are not being denied the right to enter the UK, but instead are being denied the chance even to apply to enter. On the plus side, the worst of winter has hopefully passed, though it is still cold, and now large parts of the camp are regularly flooded. Less positively, a number of tents and other structures, including a canvas shelter which was being used as a youth care and meeting place, and another which is being used as a church, have been demolished. The Afghan tea tent which we visited last time had benches, low tables, unusual warmth and very sweet milky tea, but is now cold and semi derelict, although the same tea is served. Mustapha, the owner, a refugee from the warring factions in his homeland, aged 36 or 37, he’s not sure, explained that they had been warned to move by tomorrow when the centre of the camp will be bulldozed. The main infrastructure of water points and washing places, scruffy restaurants and tea bars, and tiny shops all selling the same necessities, will be pushed into the mud, along with any contents still inside. And along with these demolitions, people are being moved – against their will – to alternative places. In one sense, the latter policy could be understandable. After all, few of us really want to see men, women and children living in sodden tents amidst litter and other detritus. But the alternative to that should not simply to be forcing them to move hundreds of miles south, regardless of their own wishes, but instead to give them a decent place to stay and to give them the chance to apply to enter the UK. So far, even that tiny thing has so far been denied them. There are at least hundreds of people in the camp who have a legal right to be allowed into the UK on the grounds of having close family members, including young children, already here. There are potentially thousands who could be allowed to enter on the grounds of needing a safe place to stay to escape war, terror, starvation or some other form of avoidable, early death in their homelands. And we can certainly afford to let every single person currently trapped at the camp in to the UK. The 6,000 inhabitants make up just 0.00009 per cent of the current UK population. But at the moment, I and those living and working there are not even asking for that. We are simply asking that the UK government lives up to its simplest, most basic humanitarian responsibility, and enables them to apply. Instead, our government, of a country that over centuries has had a proud record of tolerance and assimilation of refugees, has put out scare stories about these people. Shame on Cameron, shame on those who think these people had any choice but to leave their homes, communities, and jobs, in order to save their lives.
I hope that’s my last visit to the Calais camp. I hope that our two rich governments will see sense and stop spending millions on fences and security troops, and spend the money on helping these people to a safe life.”
To help the people in the Calais camp in any way, eg donate time or energy or possessions, please contact: http://www.helprefugees.org.uk/