Last night I returned from spending a week in the refugee camp in Calais or The Jungle as it is more commonly known. The people there call it the Jungle as they are treated like animals. I was stopped several times from calling it a camp. A camp conjures up an image of organised tents, toilets, clean water, a holiday – The Jungle is none of that.
I had always considered myself to be open minded and free of judgement but the minute I stepped foot in there I realised that I had come with my own pre conceived judgments and they were soon blown out of the water. There I met some of the kindest, most generous and magnanimous people that I have ever met in my whole life. I had gone as part of an organised clean up operation and together with about 120 people we set about with bin bags, shovels, rakes and a fortified sense of humour to try and clear up some of the piles of rotting rubbish that has accumulated. Why don’t the people clear it up themselves you might ask? For a start there is not a single bin in the whole place and with around 5000 people sharing the space it doesn’t take long for rubbish to accumulate. The local authorities refuse to clear any of the rubbish away although by the end of the week we had forged relations with the local authorities and they actually came and cleared some of the 1500 bin bags of rubbish that we filled in just 2 days. There are 2 industrial sized skips but they are a long walk for most people and they had no bin bags to put rubbish in anyway. As soon as we started we were immediately surrounded by people wanting to help. We handed out thousands of bin bags to people who were so grateful that we were coming to try and improve the squalor in which these people live. We cleared away areas where children were playing in raw sewage. We cleared the water pipe areas where sewage, rats, rotting food and rubbish all mix. Attempts had been made to burn piles of rubbish but piles of wet clothes and tins do not burn easily.
Piles of clothes, left by well meaning but totally misplaced generosity, rotting unable to be used by anyone. People arrive and leave shoes, stilettos, sandals, party shoes which are no use to man nor beast. We found piles of posh office clothes, scanty tops, lacy dresses and managed to laugh it off but inside we were all weeping. Every now and again one of the volunteers would just sit and sob at the inhumanity of the situation and how overwhelmingly useless we felt in the face of it all. All the while, refugees were smiling and greeting us, offering cups of tea and sharing their food even when they have precious little. These men, for it is a high percentage of men, arrive after goodness only knows what sort of journey and then have little food, some get one meal a day but most barely get that. They walk most nights for three hours each way to try and get on the train or find a way across the border, and spend all night awake in the cold and trying to dodge beatings from the police – hoping. They are cold, traumatised, stressed and hungry and yet they retain a resilience, humanity and generosity that was jaw droppingly humbling.
The Jungle in Calais is unique in that it has a huge mix of cultures, nationalities, religions and ethnicities all in one space. Most refugee camps are largely one nationality, say a Syrian refugee camp, but Calais has people from Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Kurdistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Kosovo, Albania and different sub cultures within those cultures. It feels like a mirror that it is being held up to the world. It feels like the very belly of hell. It is the result of all the worse things that man is capable of doing to its own kind.
Within the camp is a church. It is a human need to create a sanctuary and within the church several religions share the space. There is a library, a school, a couple of shops, a restaurant – all made from found bits of wood and covered in plastic. These people are enterprising, hard working and never endingly smily. Volunteers come in to give the refugees English and French lessons and many people can be seen pouring over books, desperate to learn.
Many people that I spoke to wanted to come to England because they speak the language and also as they have family in England. Some had lived in England for years but had been deported once their country was deemed safe to return to. It didn’t sound like any of these countries were safe to return to. Many people had been involved in political movements against a tyrannical regime and would be killed if they returned. All of the volunteers had a particular story that ‘broke’ us. A gentle man from Eritrea, in Calais with his wife and children who had been abducted a few days ago by 3 french men, beaten and tortured and left for dead. Prematurely discharged from hospital we rallied about to try and do what we could. Eritrea, a country where lifelong obligatory conscription into the military is standard, where it is illegal for more than two people to talk together on the streets – he survived all that and a journey from hell to get to what he thought was safety… For me it was a beautiful quiet man from Kuwait who helped me clean up rubbish. He said that his wife and two children, aged 3 and 5, were in England. They were safe but he is unable to get to them. He is not allowed into England and he doesn’t know why and I was unable to give an answer. ‘I give up, I can’t do it’ he said with the deadest, saddest eyes I have ever seen.
I spent an afternoon talking with a man from Egypt who was witness to the Rabaa Massacre in Cairo on 14th August 2013. He had to leave his wife and children for their safety as he is wanted by the authorities for protesting against the regime and trying to publish photos of that day. He told me things that I won’t repeat, they are horrific. He tried going to England in the back of a lorry and mistakenly got into a freezer lorry but was luckily quickly found. ‘I’ve spent my whole fucking life nearly dying!’ he laughed. He has applied for asylum in France but it can take up to a year for papers to be processed and with no money or means to work, the camp is his only option. He is a scientist.
A group of Iranian men spoke of how they had opposed the regime and had to get out. They each paid £15,000 to a people smuggler who assured them their safety. They had no intention of coming to England, they just wanted to get to a place of safety. They have no idea what countries they passed through but they were pushed out of the lorry at The Jungle in Calais. They are all wealthy men but have no access to their money. One, a mechanical engineer, asked if I could get him some underpants but not second hand ones. He had been shouted at before for wanting new rather than second hand underpants. They don’t want to stay in France as they have been beaten and imprisoned by the French police. They can’t go back, they can’t go forward. They are at the end of the line. Grown men, clever men having to ask for underpants. I couldn’t help thinking about my dear Dad who was an engineer himself, and how humiliated he would be at having to ask for underpants.
Another man from Sudan who spoke passionately about the state of the world. The only answer, he said, is when people realise that the colour of someone’s skin, their religion and where they come from, we’re all the same. So simple. He arrived in the Jungle and realised that young men arriving from war torn countries, traumatised, their families murdered, needed a place of safety. He has decided to be that place of safety. He talked of how his place is there and that he settles people, to try and change their mentality before they go on to their next place. He has set up a school and arranged volunteers to come in and give lessons. He rallies them round to cries of ‘Come on, no sitting round drinking tea, you have to go to your lessons!’ He wants the world to know that the refugees want to learn, that they are not animals, that they are no different to the next person.
I could go on and on. Yes, there are also dodgy people in there, that is the very nature of mankind, but it is not about judgment and who should be allowed to go where. Nobody, absolutely nobody, should be allowed to live like that. It is utterly inhuman. While England and France wage their war of indifference people are dying every night trying to scale the 15 mile long, 5 metre high fence topped with razor wire – all brand spanking new. Our country’s 12 million pound investment to the situation. Taxpayer’s money at a time when people here are being put out on the street due to cuts in benefits. It is all, at very best, completely insane. I did have the thought that I would like to advocate a ‘National Swap a Person of Your Choice’ day but I actually don’t hate anyone enough to put them in there.
I drove off of the ferry last night at Dover and I was struck by the fact that I was driving into a country of abject poverty, the worst poverty that there is which is poverty of spirit. I have no idea what the answer is, but it is not that.