We arrive in Calais around 5pm and head straight for the industrial estate where a local charity has a collection point in a large warehouse. There are about a dozen people, mainly English, sorting through stuff and preparing bags with selections of foodstuffs. There are mattresses and sleeping bags piled high, shoe shelves, clothes,
fire-wood and a lot of food. Everyone looks very tired. Vans keep coming and going, people loading up food or clothing and going off towards the ‘Jungle’ (which the many makeshift shelters for thousands of refugees stranded in Calais has become known as) to distribute. We drop off our stuff and follow a group of people who are heading there.
It’s a sunny day and a group of young men are playing football on the road at the beginning of a ‘city’ of tents and makeshift structures covered with tarpaulins and plastic sheeting.
We strike up a conversation with a group of Sudanese men who sit in the sunshine. One man is reading a book. He tells us he was a nurse in his home country.
They tell us a little about where they are from and how long they have lived in the Jungle. We meet one young man, impeccably dressed, who has been there for over a year. Despite the desperation emanating from his story, he has a smile. One man offers us some water. Even though I don’t want to deprive those who have so little of anything, I suddenly feel it’s important for this man to be able to give something to us, so I say yes please, and he goes off to fetch two bottles of water.
We walk into the jungle. We see almost exclusively men, so when we come across three women, I walk up to them and ask them why there aren’t more women here. It turns out there are many women, and children too, but they consider it very dangerous to go out, so they just stay in the tents. One of them is coughing badly and we introduce them to the fruit of the sea-buckthorn which grows in abundance all over the site and is very rich in vitaminC.
There are basic water supplies, some chemical toilets and a large skip, but the facilities are VERY basic. It looks like Glastonbury gone horribly wrong. There is a lot of rubbish strewn about, including many items of clothing. We wonder why – maybe deliveries came in and people just discarded what didn’t fit, or since they can’t wash clothes, they just throw them away when they are dirty?
It is incredible that people can live here for any length of time. But despite the difficulties, we see smiley faces and receive many friendly ‘hello’s. Some enterprising people have opened a shop or a restaurant, and there are barbers cutting people’s hair by the side of the road. The mind boggles what anyone would do here if they’re ill or injured and without access to medical help, how single women can survive the jungle, or how anyone can turn themselves out so smartly dressed as the young Sudanese man we met.
Frank and I drive away from Calais in silence. For now, our thoughts are beyond words.
Unfortunately there is a post-script to this blog post: The day after our visit, the camp was disrupted by the French police who without warning forcefully evacuated a nearby warehouse which had been used as a shelter by Syrian refugees, who then joined the other refugees in the jungle. But the police followed them and moved a number of tents that had spread out under and past the bridge, using random and aggressive force – beating people, firing teargas into the camp indiscriminately and bulldozing their tents and meagre belongings, destroying valuable documents which people had taken months to gather to use in their applications for asylum. The local charities were at their wits end, sending out desperate pleas to the local government to involve them rather than sending in the police, but to no avail.
Here are three videos. One is showing an aerial view of the whole camp and the police moving tents without giving people a chance to collect their belongings, the next one is rather more violent and involves the camp being teargassed and the third one is a charity worker sending a plea to the mayor of Calais. This is uncomfortable stuff to watch, but please open your heart and don’t look away.
For more photos of our visit, go to flikr
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