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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Greater than Destitution

After working in the Calais Jungle, Chris Smart reflects on an experience of hope in the midst of a failure of human compassion

For those of you finding the monotony of the long vac too much, and those driven mad by the return to drab hometown life, there is a solution. Leave.

Just a short hop over the Channel will take you to an experience where you can almost forget the oppression of the rolling news in Brexit-crazed Britain. In Calais and throughout the entirety of the last 2 years displaced families, men, women and the unaccompanied have been living on a former asbestos dump, in a makeshift camp of donated tents and lean-to shelters. The Jungle is perhaps not the obvious silver lining to the clouded world of 2016. Yet my experience as a volunteer there was positive and inspiring. In the face of what had seemed an indifferent world, here were people who both cared and were doing something about it.

I had begun drafts of this article in early July just after I returned home from the camp and at that time the numbers I was quoting were between six and seven thousand. It is now mid-August and between eight and nine thousand people are estimated to be living in the camp. The scale of the problem is vast, and the squalor, the isolation and the humiliating dehumanisation of these people could never fully be understood through an article alone.

Neither the Red Cross, UNHCR, nor any major NGO has any interest or influence in Calais. Instead, several charities run by volunteers administer the camp with food aid, fuel and clothing as well as providing hygiene and other significant services to vulnerable groups. The volunteers at the charity I worked with were a huge mix of students, teachers, drop outs, pensioners, career breakers and weekenders taking time from their ordinary lives in Scunthorpe or Plymouth or Aberystwyth to do what they could. From across Europe every volunteer I met shared a basic commitment to helping ease the suffering of people who had already suffered enough.

The police presence and general public attitude toward our volunteer groups were far from welcoming. The Calais police force, which was in huge presence all around the town, was probably best described by its incredible inconsistencies. The shelters people set up were periodically bulldozed by the police, often with only 30 minutes notice. For aid workers, strict limitations on what could enter the camp might be imposed one day and then forgotten the next. In the same way a requirement for full ID checks in and out of the Jungle might be imposed very forcibly or not at all within the space of hours. The lack of coherent police strategy only served to heighten the sense of disorganisation and make-do which was already strongly in evidence. What’s more, the police seemed to have little interest in actually protecting the refugee camp from the far right groups which roamed the outskirts of Calais, often violently targeting refugees.

Some buildings were able to survive through these ordeals and provide some sense of community, such as the Eritrean Church. Once standing in the centre, its cluster now stands alone in an empty field of weeds and garbage with a rudimentary football pitch in the far corner. A few months prior, the French police all but demolished this southern section. Among these buildings were schoolrooms, a library and other means by which those in the camp could learn French or English with the help of volunteer tuition. Many refugees came to practice their English by chatting with the volunteers.

It is easy to reduce the thousands of humans in Calais to figures, policy, or ideology.  When speaking with people staying in Calais however, the scope of the problem became more apparent. From Syria to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea, many were political refugees, and yet still more followed the pattern of war displacement. Photos on their smartphones charted their epic course across the world: family photos in a peaceful Iraq, a selfie at the border to Turkey, a panoramic shot of scores of people walking north through the Macedonian plains toward Serbia and Hungary, a group round a campfire in northern Italy, and finally the arrival in France. At this point their journeys were halted.

I was initially reluctant to write about Calais, not wishing to provoke discussion over the definition of a refugee and delve into the debate of deserving aid. It would not be true to say that every single person living in this camp is in absolute poverty. As many righteous Facebook warriors will probably point out, many refugees own camera phones, and in order to get to the UK could pay thousands of pounds to cross the Channel. This is, of course, on top of what was already paid to travel across the Mediterranean in overladen and too often fatal boats, leaving everything behind from their previous lives.

This by no means is a call for open borders; it is a call to help. Nine thousand people camping out on a patch of stinking sand just across our border is our problem too. Right now there is no obvious solution, and these humans aren’t going away.

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