A Visit to the Calais "Jungle"
I deliberately put the word "jungle" in inverted commas as, despite it being the 'home address' used by inhabitants there, it completely inappropriately describes the most remarkable community of hopeful people living under the most appalling conditions.
Here is an international community of people from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Iraq who are either fleeing political oppression and conflict or are genuinely seeking a better life in a stable, prosperous Europe and in particular in the UK.
Those we talked to clearly see the UK as the most welcoming country with the international language of English being a particular attraction. Many also have compatriots already living here who will assist newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers.
But what was I doing spending a day in the camp at Calais? One could justifiably be accused of 'voyeurism' or worse of self-interest - unless such a visit is going to provoke further positive action. It is too early to say what that action might be although ideas are floating around in the head.
But to return to the camp. It is literally 75 minutes away from St Pancras Station, a journey by Eurotunnel, plus 15 minutes in a hire car and there you are in the camp of mainly plastic shelters supported by wooden stakes driven into the ground - and juxtaposed with the well-appointed houses lining the outskirts of Calais.
Three gendarmes and five traffic cones on the track leading into the camp were the only minor obstruction on our way in. The presentation of a single passport was sufficient for the cones to be removed and for my companion and I to drive a further 100 yards, park by the side of the track and then go on foot to meet residents and volunteers.
We crossed the vast bare area where three quarters of the camp was obliterated by bulldozers back in March. They chose a filthy day with the camp deep in mud, so, perhaps cynically, attempting to persuade those being evicted that anything would be better than that camp.
Into the camp library "Jungle Books" (all in English) in a small tent run by an Afghan pharmacist who had been there for three months, leaving his mother behind as he took the perilous journey through Turkey and Greece. His journey was recorded on the wall of the library in ‘post it’ notes pinned across a map of Asia and Europe.
Then to a small group of Afghan men being taught English by a young British woman from London.
Into the empty and peaceful "Church" - a large marquee with four seats but with pictures of Christ, Madonna and Child and St George slaying the dragon. I am moved to tears.
We walk back across the waste land to the camp proper. We have conversations with individuals, all too willing to tell their stories, but unwilling to be photographed for fear of identification. The majority of them carry smart phones: "I speak to my family once a month". At no point do we feel threatened and are met only with politeness, a firm handshake and that willingness to talk.
A Sudanese man with a bicycle approaches me. "If you give me £100, my brother in Cardiff will pay the money into your account. Here, you can speak to him!" I'm handed the phone and give the brother, Kalifa, my e-mail address for him to drop me a line so that I can give him my account number, assuring him that I would arrange for the money to be given to his brother in the jungle.......I'm still waiting!
It was a glorious, cloudless and warm spring day which perhaps gave a false impression of the awful conditions under which the migrants have been and still are living.
They live cooped up in these small 12 foot x 12 foot plastic covered shelters with portaloos nearby and the odd shower. Generators were providing electricity to small businesses that have sprung up - among them a hairdresser, food and second hand clothes shops.
Alongside the camp and through the impenetrable wire one can see rows of enormous and faceless white metal containers which provide “better” accommodation for those prepared to give up their identity by having their finger prints taken so they can be tracked. I know I would prefer the plastic, the humanity and sense of community to the inhuman metal.
During the day we meet only three women (from Sudan), walking along the road beside the camp on their way to the heavily guarded area set aside for women and children from which we are, understandably, turned away by the gendarmes on the gate.
The women have been in the camp for four months. Their only ambition is to get to England. They have yet to attempt the journey: “Under what circumstances would you consider returning to Eritrea?” – “That is not an option.”
A young Sudanese man tells me: “I was an IT graduate from the University of Khartoum and politically active within the opposition to Al-Bashir’s regime, but feared for my life and was forced to leave the country. My only ambition is to get to England – I cannot return home. I have attempted on four occasions to climb onto lorries in Calais bound for England – look at my bandaged hand which I damaged when I fell off one of the trucks.”
We are struck by the remarkable, predominantly young women volunteers from Colchester, London, and the Findhorn community in Scotland, teaching English to groups of men, cooking 1,000 meals a day to be transported either to the jungle or to those migrants that have been sent down the road to Dunkirk, and sorting the donated clothes and tins of food in a large warehouse 3 miles from the Jungle. Many of them come over for three or four days.
Here we got the impression that there could be better coordination of effort - that a permanent presence is required. Someone needs to be looking more strategically to see how to enable our fellow humans to return, not their countries of origin, but to a position where they can make a contribution to society.
So many clearly have the education and skills to make that contribution - rather than staying trapped in this awful state of limbo not having any idea of what the future holds.
We hear of 300 unaccompanied children living in the women’s enclave, but claiming to have family members in the UK and therefore having the legal right to travel. But there are delays while the families are checked by social workers, 'CRB' checked and the bureaucracy grinds on very slowly.
Meanwhile these children continue to suffer isolation, fear of abuse (in some cases apparently a realised fear) and who knows what legacy of mental health problems they will be left with.
A young doctor tells me that she has been given three days leave from her practice to work in the camp. She is in a truck with a red stethoscope around her neck, a table on which are some antiseptic creams and cough mixture, but no antibiotics: “I have no facilities here and so I really run a triage system assessing the men who come to the truck and sending them to the clinic run by Medécins sans Frontières or giving them reassurance that they will get better. We have a terrible epidemic of scabies at present.”
I am left with many mixed emotions, but finally sharing the hope of the migrants that this cannot continue forever. Something must and will be done. But what contribution can an individual make? What contribution can I make?
(Scabies is caused by mites that get under the skin and cause intense itching and bleeding. Infection can follow from the scratching. It is particularly prevalent where people are living huddled together so the mites can pass directly from one body to another.)
All photos by Nick Maurice - click on photos to enlarge them.