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Calais: the camp of forgotten conflicts

I flicked through the Arabic dictionary, trying to look up some words I thought might be useful before I headed off to Calais. I quickly made a list of some medical and legal terms I hadn’t come across before.

I was leaving for Calais in the morning with a group of students from Oxford. I thought that as a student studying Arabic I might be able to help with some of the communication between volunteers and refugees in the camp. I’d heard that the vast majority of the volunteers don’t speak any Arabic and, while many of the refugees have excellent English and are well educated, language could sometimes be a barrier. I was surprised, however, when I first walked around the camp at how much Kurdish and various types of Persian were being spoken. While my Arabic was useful, and I did use some of the vocab I’d looked up, the tutor who spoke Farsi was often much more in demand than I was. When Arabic was spoken it was often in the soft tones of Sudanese or Eritrean Arabic, and not the more familiar Syrian dialect.

I can almost hear the smug voices of the anti-immigration lobby: ‘See! They’re not fleeing from ISIS in Syria, they’re economic migrants.’ But this is far from the truth. Instead, these people are fleeing conflicts that we no longer care about, that don’t fit into the ISIS narrative, and that have been too long and complex to slot nicely into a news sound bite.

A great deal of the people we met were originally from Afghanistan. Since British forces were withdrawn we hear little news from the country. In many areas the Taliban have regained control, and many people have fled this regime. We spoke to Abas* who told us he and some friends had worked with the British forces and, had they stayed in Afghanistan, could have faced serious danger as a result of this.

Whilst I stood outside a first aid centre I ended up chatting to Saleem and Hassan, two former students from Sudan. Having established that I was from Wales we chatted about Ryan Giggs and Gareth Bale, but my lack of football knowledge meant that the conversation quickly turned to Sudan. Sudan was splashed across the front pages when civil strife split the country in two in 2011. Even though the media has since moved on, the violence continues. Saleem tells me how they hadn’t wanted to leave their homes near to the beautiful, winding Nile, but sectarian violence in the area had made them fear for their lives and prompted them to begin a dangerous journey North, often in the hands of smugglers. When I asked them why they want to head to Britain they explained that while their English is poor, their French is worse, even though they’ve been taking lessons in the camp. Saleem switched briefly into French to show off his new basic conversation skills.

Countries such as Eritrea and Somalia rarely make the news here in the UK, but are plagued by internal strife. The Eritrean government has been accused of crimes against humanity by the UN. And while Somalia now has an internationally backed government, following years of conflict and instability, there is still a significant Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabab presence in the country. The existence of communities from these countries in the camp attests to the dangers that many face there, and the ongoing international consequences to troubles that the world often chooses to ignore.

There are further internal frictions throughout the Middle East that are overshadowed by the Daesh (ISIS) threat. Tensions between Sunnis and Shi’is remain, both between communities and on a regional scale. We asked some people in the camp whether this conflict manifested itself in the ‘Jungle’. One man we spoke to told us that everyone was able to mix together, and that there was harmony among the different peoples. Others were more hesitant, alluding to some aggression. We spoke to a group of Iranians who had converted to Christianity. Nadir, who acted as their spokesperson, told us that they faced considerable pressure from some other residents to return to Islam. He explained that he was scared to leave the centre he was staying in, for fear of the backlash he might face due to his decision to convert.

The tales of panicked escapes from desperate situations rung in our ears as we boarded a ferry that so many of the people we had met would give so much to get on. I couldn’t stop thinking about the conflicts that I’d heard so much of and learnt so much about; conflicts of which I had only a distant recollection of seeing on the 10 o’clock news, conflicts that continue today, and whose repercussions the British government are trying so hard to ignore.

*The names of all refugees have been changed in order to protect their identities and not affect their asylum applications.

Click here for a link to the trip blog.

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