When I went to the Jungle refugee camp in Calais

It’s easy to comment on something like the refugee crisis, particularly when it feels like the news is dominated with stories about refugees. About how their tragic journeys ended at the bottom of the sea, or those being forced to live in squalor whilst they seek asylum or how refugees are the cause of terrorist attacks, raped and disorder. It’s less easy to get off my fat ass and do something about it.

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Actually, that’s a lie. You just need a little time to spare and be prepared to slum it a little. There are so many different organisations calling for volunteers that all you need to do is drop them a line on Facebook and you’ll have a meeting point and a contact. I got in touch with Tunbridge Wells based Wonderwoman, Val Osborne, the brains behind the charity RefugEase, and volunteered in the Jungle camp in Calais.

Aside from my own personal adventure (sorting through the warehouse, piling into a van with eight strangers, being locked out of a crappy hotel room, sleeping eight in two beds, getting a flat tyre on a Sunday in France etc.) I really think it’s something everyone should experience. You can’t truly understand something until you’ve experienced it yourself. Of course, I’m not comparing my weekend volunteering in a refugee camp to the plight of families fleeing war-torn countries but going to hear their stories first hand is the closest I can get right now.

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Most of those living in the camp are men and teenage boys from all over the world, particularly Eritrea and Afghanistan. The reality is that boys and men are more likely to be fleeing because they are a) prime targets for conscription and because b) men earn more money. As a white, blonde girl from Kent, I’ll admit that at first I felt a bit intimidated. Another reason that I needed to go and see the camp for myself – to get over those occasional irrational presumptions.

The camp reminded me of a music festival, with it’s quirky, makeshift tuck shops and restaurants lining the main street. A bit like Glastonbury but at the end of the weekend when the stench from the overflowing toilets clings to the inside of your nostrils and bits of people’s beddings are strewn across the pathway and the see of damaged tents are a sorry sight. But the people were friendly enough.

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You’d be naive to think that every person living in the camp are refugees and this is another reason I wanted to go. I met people with stories of war torn hometowns, tales of young boys fleeing conscription, older brothers who feared for their gun wielding siblings. People recalled their fond memories of affluent homes in the up and coming areas of town, about the cars they have at home and about the families they left behind.

But I also heard stories of people who were offered asylum in Italy and Germany but had run away for a life in the UK. One man even told me about how he was already granted asylum in the UK and was given a British passport, until it was held by police when he was granted parole after being arrested for drunkenly assaulting a police officer. He then smuggled himself out of the UK to visit his mother in Afghanistan. It’s hard to sympathise when someone’s story starts like that.

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But then you remember where you are: in a stinking squalor. People don’t chose that for themselves. Refugees and economic migrants alike tell stories about sinking lifeboats, drowning friends, being smuggled across borders, walking across countries on foot, being rejected by the inhabitants of every city you travel through, leaving behind family and friends.

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And then it doesn’t really matter what their backstory is because at the end of the day these people are here and they need help. And if that help means a warm blanket to sleep under, sufficient food to keep them alive and a game of cricket to keep their spirits up them so be it.

<The problem is here, right now and it’s on our doorstep, so stop closing your door.

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The bittersweet destruction of the Calais ‘Jungle’

Today marks the first day of the destruction of the Calais Jungle. Around 60 buses will leave the camp, taking with them around 3000 troubled souls to accommodation centres where they will be registered and their fates decided. Tomorrow there will be 45 more buses and 40 the day after that.

Since 1999, the camp has grown from a few hundred tents to a home for around 6,000 to 10,000 refugees and migrants who are trying to enter the UK via the Eurotunnel and ferry crossing. Yes, there are showers, there are small businesses and some cafes and restaurants have electricity and wifi.

The majority of people living there are men because adolescent boys are the prime targets for Taliban recruitment and army conscription in civil wars. Families living in poverty tend to send their sons away in search of better wages because the sad reality is that men are paid more. There are estimated 400 unaccompanied children living in the camp.

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These guys run the Kids Café. Just inside the door is a hand-scribbled list of names pinned on a post. It’s titled: ‘Have you seen these children?’

The Jungle is a dangerous place. There is insufficient sanitation, poor washing facilities and sleeping arrangements are cramped, temporary and leaves people vulnerable. Drug culture and violence are rife. There are often intercultural clashes. Men, women, children and volunteers are victims of rape.There’s no one to protect a common law, apart from French riot police armed with rubber bullets and teargas. The camp needs to be destroyed.

People flee homelands from all over the world: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria; Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma and Vietnam. They have all made the most horrific journeys with traffickers, crossing war-torn lands and seas in sinking boats. Some have lost friends, some family, some both. But when all seems lost, they find the strength to continue to reach their goal: the UK.

But seeing the destruction of the camp won’t make these people go away. We’re just moving the problem to somewhere else. Out of sight, out of mind right? Wrong. Because these people have gone through too much to give up at the last hurdle. And what about the people who are already on route? They’re going to keep on coming, keep moving towards to UK via Calais. Remember, they’re chasing a dream – a dream which the United Kingdom has sold them.

London Calling: Outside the camp, graffiti artist Banksy has sprayed a picture of Steve Jobs who was the son of a Syrian refugee.

London Calling: Outside the camp, graffiti artist Banksy has sprayed a picture of Steve Jobs who was the son of a Syrian refugee.

The news that the move has meant that so far around 70 children have been reunited with family in the UK, at least 43 of them young, unaccompanied girls who have been brought here to safety under the Dubs Amendment. Some have been taken into foster care, whilst others have been forced to stay in a ‘pre-departure’ immigration detention unit called Cedars near Gatwick airport.

However, as I write this, the latest census by humanitarian organisation Help Refugees has found that there are still 49 unaccompanied children in the Calais camp who are 13-years old or younger. All are eligible for resettlement in the UK under the same act.

I’d like to think that all of the residents of the Jungle are being taken somewhere safer and that their futures are bright. However, whilst the threat of deportation and trafficking still hangs over their heads, I can’t help but feel a little apprehensive. If I’m feeling like this then God only knows what it feels like to be a refugee in Calais.