For a long time the ‘migrant crisis’ has been something that the British public have known about. We’ve seen images of children washed up on beaches who have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean, we’ve watched as celebrities have endorsed the work of charities striving to find refuge for thousands of people fleeing war torn countries and more recently, we have seen what started off as a humanitarian crisis, become something ominous, something bad, something people are crediting for Britain reaching ‘breaking point’, and for our shock departure from the EU.
Somewhere along the line, these people have stopped being desperate human beings, and have instead become a threat, a menace, a symbol of all that is wrong with Europe and as a result, our attitude towards what is happening is at best apathy. The most notable example of this being in the infamous ‘Jungle’ in Calais, filled with desperate people risking everything to reach the UK. Yet despite the desperation of this situation, and the fact that it is geographically SO close, it is something that most of us here in the UK know startlingly little about. I’m ashamed to admit that despite it being nothing more than a swim away, I myself know next to nothing about it. I drove past it once, I read Katie Hopkins’ account of her trip there and I am aware that it is set to be demolished any day now, but that’s it.
And I realised that this was not good enough. So I have spoken to my incredibly inspiring friend Amelia Cooper, who, alongside her degree, has spent much of the last few months volunteering in Calais. I wanted to find out more about the Jungle, and about what we can do to help the thousands of people who are being ignored by a shocking number of the great British public.
I am aware that this content differs massively to what I normally publish, but this is something I feel very passionate about and I wanted to spread Meely’s story with as many people as possible.
Meely in Calais, posing for one of the kids
What was it that first inspired you to go to Calais? How did you hear that it was even a option, that help was needed?
It wasn’t so much a question of inspiration, but more of a reaction: the media has been filled with reports about the refugee crisis for months, and I would regularly talk about how inadequate the European response had been, how I couldn’t believe how little was being done at the political level. While I was talking, though, it increasingly dawned on me that I wasn’t so different from the politicians that I complained about: all talk and no action. I knew that the Jungle existed, but not huge amounts more than that, and so I decided to do a little more research (perhaps I picked there because of its proximity to the UK; perhaps because it seemed to receive such a small amount of attention? I couldn’t really tell you why).
Photo by Michelle Wright
I was soon to discover the shocking fact that no major aid organisations (with the exception of MSF and Acted) were present on the ground: almost all of the aid was being managed and organised by people like you and me. Finding out how to volunteer was incredibly easy – I just searched ‘how to help in Calais’ on Google and found the wonderful partnership of Help Refugees and L’Auberge des Migrants. They have a warehouse in Calais and conduct some of the largest aid operations in the camp: the kitchen provides 4000 hot (and delicious) meals every day; clothes, sorted at the warehouse, are distributed in camp on a weekly basis; shelters are built and tents provided; wood chopped and given to people for cooking and warmth… the list goes on. Help is always needed, and (almost) any extra hand is useful – whether that is for an afternoon or a year.
Can you just tell us a little bit about what the ‘Jungle’ is actually like? Obviously we have only seen the doom and gloom that the media are telling us….
The Jungle is one of the most complex places I have ever been in my life, and thinking about it triggers more conflicting feelings in me than I would have thought possible. On some levels, it is easiest to differentiate between my thoughts on the structure and the essence of the place: both of these categories are of course more nuanced than this split suggests and merit further and deeper conversation to reflect that – but I’ll go with it for now.
Structurally, the Jungle breaks my heart. It is located just off a motorway, which has a long and tall white fence, with barbed wire along the top, running alongside it. The fence is currently being replaced by a wall, at the cost of £1.9 million (which, with cruel irony, would pay for the legal fees to get 1000 children – almost all the kids in camp – safely to the UK). Between the fence/wall and the camp is a buffer zone, a sandy and barren space that further separates the camp from the road; at least one, usually more, French riot police vans are stationed there. It has become the scene of regular and indiscriminate tear gas and rubber bullet attacks, the former of which spreads rapidly through the camp, punishing everyone in its path.
Photo by Michelle Wright
The Jungle is essentially a slum: more than 10,000 people (including 1022 unaccompanied children) are crammed in wooden shelters, a few caravans and increasing numbers of tents, and are dependent on aid organisations for all of their basic necessities. It is particularly subject to the elements, due to its proximity to the sea – and being in northern France, that means harsh winds (ripped tents) and huge downpours (flooding, which means that sleeping bags, clothes and documents are regularly ruined).
Photo by Michelle Wright
I spent the summer taking testimonies from refugees who have suffered harassment and physical abuse at the hands of the French police. The Jungle is an embodiment of injustice and inequality, and I could talk about innumerable layers of shit that created it – but it is important to note that the essence of the Jungle is totally different from its outward appearance.
Describing the humanity, kindness and generosity that I’ve witnessed in the Jungle is incredibly difficult without a) sounding like a huge cliché or b) using every superlative I can think of, and I am very conscious of essentializing the people who live there. However, what I will say is that days spent working there have been so full of connection and friendship, even when there is no shared language. I’ve never been offered so much chai or food in my life; never had so many smiles or hellos with strangers. Among residents, family-style units have cropped up; communities cook together every evening; people who have set up small restaurants give free food to those who are hungry, or offer a place to stay for new arrivals.
Photo by Michelle Wright
Of course there are bad things, and bad people, in the Jungle: such things exist everywhere, and the Jungle is everywhere. It is everywhere, with a heap of desperation and deprivation on top: and that is without even beginning to think about the intense trauma and pain that so many (if not all) of the residents have experienced, whether that is in their country of origin, on the journey, or now in the Jungle. However, the media narrative of violent migrants is such an unbelievable distortion of my wonderful friends and the Jungle community at large. Remarkably, given all that the residents have experienced, it remains the most welcoming place I have ever been in my life.
We know now that the Jungle is set to be demolished, can you tell us what this will mean for the refugees who are calling that home?
Image from the March eviction – photo Ben Teuten
Honestly, it’s difficult to say, as warnings about the demolition have not been accompanied by written explanations of the options that are available to the residents, most notably the unaccompanied children living in the camp.
The French state has said that it will provide beds for all of the residents in accommodation centres across France; however, people are often reluctant to go in to them as it is thought that this almost inevitably means being fingerprinted, thus losing the chance to claim asylum in the UK (due to Dublin III) and risking deportation if you have prints elsewhere in Europe. In July, there were only 159 free beds in accommodation centres – I’d be surprised if 10,000 have already been found. It has also been rumoured that those who do not claim asylum within an allotted time period will face deportation.
Of those who don’t go in to accommodation centres, many are likely to scatter around Northern France, and either sleep on the streets or form smaller camps in order to continue trying to the to the UK. These camps will not have any of the infrastructural support (e.g. running water) that Acted has put in to the Jungle, and so the conditions will be even worse.
The children in camp are my primary concern at this point, as no child-specific protection measures have been put forward by the French or British governments. Following the eviction of the southern half of the Jungle in March, 129 children when missing or were unaccounted for. The population of children in the camp is now more than double what it was then, and so the risks of kids going missing, being trafficked or falling victim to exploitation is far higher.
How are you finding the time to juggle your degree and the work that you are doing with these charities and your trips to Calais?
Long university holidays/lack of sleep!
Meely with Sam and Katie, two other volunteers.
Do you find it hard coming home and getting on with your life as normal after you have been?
Being in Calais has totally shifted by concept of what ‘normal’ is. I heard another long-termer describe the difficulty of coming home as feeling like you’ve been set on fire, and then dropped in to a fishbowl: you can cry and shout, but nobody can really hear you. I am so angry and so sad, so much of the time, and the first challenge when getting back to the UK is not exploding at the absolute apathy or so many people around me. I would say it gets easier, but I’m not sure it really does – you just get better at compartmentalising your life. Thankfully, I have a great support network of friends from Calais who completely understand how it feels, and wonderful non-Calais people in my life who are happy to be there with an ear and a hug. Without them, there’s no way I could hold it together.
I’m so shocked by the ambivalence that so many people here in the UK are showing towards this crisis. If you could say one thing, share one story, with one of these ‘not our problem’ types, what would it be?
The Jungle IS our problem, on legal, moral and simply human levels. The people who live there have fled war and the most unimaginable trauma, only to be left languishing at the border as a result of an illogical and demeaning European policy.
Two weeks ago, there was a pause in the community leaders’ meeting in the Jungle as the men put forward the money they had collected from their fellow residents. It was to raise funds to repatriate the body of a young Afghan boy – just fourteen years old – who had died on the motorway. He had the legal right to go to the UK (as do approximately 400 unaccompanied children in camp), and his case to be reunified with this brother was supposedly active. He’d been waiting for months though, and so had started to try to get across by other means. Before anyone says he should have waited for longer, please think about what the ramifications of that would be: longer living in a tent, longer being subject to violence, (including indiscriminate tear gassing) and intimidation at the hands of the French police, longer being deprived of his most basic rights – when his brother was almost in touching distance. He attempted to jump on to jump on to a moving lorry in the early hours of the 16th September. He fell, was hit by a car, and lost his life. Neither driver stopped.
He was not the first child to die while attempting to cross the border, and unless we see dramatic changes in UK policy, he will not be the last.
This is the big one, WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP FROM HERE?
You can do so much to help. You can write to your MP about the Jungle, asking them to expedite the Dubs amendment and Dublin III family reunification clause to provide safety for the children in camp ahead of the demolition (if you want me to send you a letter template, just leave your email address in the comments). You can donate to the wonderful operations on the ground, either with material donations (list of drop off points here) or financial donations. You can buy tents, backpacks and sleeping bags at discounted rates that will be delivered straight to our warehouse. You can volunteer your time either in Calais or at home (organising a fundraiser, for example, or getting involved with refugee charities working in your area).
I am begging you to do something. I don’t care what your political affiliations are, I don’t care what your motivations are, but people who are living in tents and shelters just across our border need us and you can help. You can top up a kid’s phone, and it might end up saving the lives of fifteen people who are suffocating in a lorry. You can donate to the kitchens, and you’ll be contributing towards emergency packs that people can take with them post-eviction. You can donate to the youth service, and you’ll facilitate their work tracking the unaccompanied minors in camp. Everyone needs your help, and with the eviction looming, they need it more than ever.