Roger Pask, leader of Sanctuary in Chichester, writes for the Observer about his experience delivering goods to the Calais ‘Jungle’, where thousands of refugees continue to try to survive and even thrive in the face of daily dangers and confrontation with the French authorities.
“We’ve got aid! Let us through! Refugees are human too!”
So chanted a frustrated crowd from the convoy to Calais on Saturday, June 18, at a wall of Kent police guarding the French Frontier kiosks at Dover.
To no avail! The French authorities had decided that a convoy of 200 vehicles carrying warm clothing, bedding, tents and food would be either a political or security threat to a refugee camp already dubbed ‘The Jungle’.
After 90 minutes and in face of a growing contingent of English police officers, the convoy agreed to turn round – some going to the French Embassy in Kensington to protest and others driving quietly home. “I’ll be back!” I muttered. My car was stuffed to the roof with aid.
And so it was three weeks later that I turned up at Dover again with my original car load, plus a few extras and a guide who had already spent five days volunteering in the camp, and accompanied by another car full of aid which had also been turned back in June.
Guided by Erika Rudash – another member of Sanctuary in Chichester – the mini-convoy crossed the Channel by ferry and went first to the warehouse on the edge of Calais, where donations of goods and non-perishable food are stored for the daily distribution in the camp four miles away.
Once we had unloaded the very generous gifts from people in the Chichester area, we headed for the camp.
I had already forwarded to the warehouse organisers over £550, donated by Chichester residents to pay for cooking gas, etc.
When first we got to the camp we could see nothing but a few policemen.
Last November, the French authorities simply bulldozed the southern half of the camp – destroying all the self-made shacks, shops and refuges erected by the refugees.
This forced the refugees to move to another site a few miles away, though many just moved to the other side of the camp so that it spread north towards the sea.
Here they rebuilt flimsy homes out of plastic sheeting, blockboard rescued from demolition sites and other recycled materials.
There are currently 5,700 refugees in The Jungle, but I was struck by how well they appeared to organise themselves.
It is a potentially dangerous place full of desperate people with none of the resources and support that we normally take for granted, yet I detected clear evidence of community – two schools, make-shift shops, several ‘restaurants’, a church, a mosque and a youth support centre.
Some charities – like Hummingbird (known to a number of groups in Sussex) – have small secure buildings actually in the camp.
By 6pm we were very hungry and were pleased to be welcomed by Faz, the leader (director would be too formal a title) of the Youth Support Centre to the ‘Welcome Restaurant’, run by two very accomplished Afghan chefs.
They managed to produce a really tasty supper for just 4.75 Euros each.
The story told by these two very courteous, cheerful and dignified young men – of their attempts to find a safe place to live – was in some ways heartbreaking but there was no way one could feel sorry for them.
They displayed such dignity, courage and determination that one could only admire them.
The same was true of Faz – another young Afghan man – who showed us around the camp.
He is the go-to man for several hundred young male refugees and organises things like the daily distribution and helps new arrivals to find somewhere safe to sleep and to gradually find temporary safety in the camp.
With only scraps of paper to jot things down, he had highly developed systems for remembering what each person might need and could check them off as each need was met.
Faz is a confident speaker of English, French and Italian – as well as his own language – he is the kind of person with the enterprise skills, determination and principles that would hugely enrich any community of which he becomes a member.
He has abandoned his attempts to get to England. ‘The English don’t want me,’ he told me.
I couldn’t help feeling that it is England’s loss.
He hopes for his application for a resident’s permit in France to be adjudicated in the next few weeks.
Because the weather has been dry the evidence of squalor was less obvious at first – though the ‘toilets’ were something to avoid at almost any cost!
The veneer of civilization was, however, very thin in places.
There are 400 children in the camp (mostly with one or more parents) but they occupy a particular section of the camp and live in disused containers, reckoned to be safer both for the women and children.
Many of the children and young people have a right to enter the UK – according to a recent ruling by the English High Court and a vote in the House of Commons in the spring – but it emerged that not a single one of those with such an entitlement has yet been allowed in by our Home Office.
Medical services are largely supplied – as emergency help – by the French charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, which has a shack in the compound near the youth centre.
“Every week,” Faz told me, “and sometimes twice a week, the camp is raided by the French police in large numbers and this almost always incites a violent dispute. The result is that large parts of the camp are bombarded with tear gas grenades.”
The French authorities are threatening to bulldoze the rest of the camp in the near future. When I think about it my heart shudders.
After the first half of the camp was destroyed, 200 children disappeared and no-one can give any account of them.
It feels like a vile stain on the rest of us – that this can happen to children whose parents simply wanted them to be safe.
Sanctuary in Chichester is committed to supporting individuals and groups from all backgrounds who want to welcome refugees and to show compassion in practical ways to those fleeing war, persecution and terror.
Roger can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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