Judith Arkwright reports from Calais
On October 8th I made my second visit to the Calais migrant camp to take clothes and tents and to offer my services as a volunteer.
When you first arrive off the ferry you are immediately caught in a maze of motorways bordered on all sides by the fences which the British government have erected at a cost of £4 million to prevent migrants getting near to the ferry or tunnel ports.
As you hit the A216, if you look quickly, you catch a glimpse of the camp , otherwise known as the “jungle” which is now home to an estimated 6,000 people – up from 4,000 when I went in September. The reason the numbers are approximate is because no official organisations are there, no one is counting and no one actually knows how many are there.The only people on the ground are local French charities who have been working there for the last decade and are now overwhelmed with the sudden increase.
There are also other camps in Pas de Calais at Dunkirk, St Omer and several other villages and towns- housing thousands more. Most people are living in tents like the ones below, though the charities are trying to get more timber framed structures. The French interior minister appeared at the camp recently and is to set up shipping containers to accommodate 1,500 migrants – but this is not enough and is a cynical gesture.
While I was there I helped with sorting in the warehouse, serving hot meals to about 2,000 refugees and giving out towels for the fifty shower cubicles that are available at one end of the camp as well as distributing from the warehouse.
People come from all over – Afghanistan, Sudan, Nigeria, Eritrea, Libya, Egypt, Iraq and a few hundred from Syria. They are there primarily because they want to get into Britain and yet the British government and aid agencies are doing nothing – no help, no aid, no processing. The camp has naturally divided itself into areas for the different nationalities and some have set up schools, restaurants , shops and even an art gallery. Volunteers have helped set up a library, a theatre and a school.
As time goes on, some give up and decide to go to Germany, some begin the application process in France, but most try as many nights a week as they can to make the dangerous and difficult attempt to get across the channel.
When I was giving out food at the centre there I saw so many with hand and leg injuries.Sixteen people have died since June . I met one lawyer from Sudan who told me he had been in the camp two months and had made the attempt every night. Some are getting through but no one knows how many or really what happens to them when they get here.
The government keep saying they are helping refugees elsewhere. This is doubtful but the point is that these migrants are on our border right now and winter is coming. The government stance of refusing to process applications, refusing to help these migrants in any way, is forcing them to try and come illegally. There is no other choice – not even at this juncture a choice to go home. The government – our government – is provoking a humanitarian disaster.
The vast majority of these migrants are young men. This has been used in the gutter press as a way to damn them as ‘economic ‘ migrant as if that were a term of abuse. Tell that to the young Egyptian I spoke to whose brother is in jail because he supported the previous Morsi government and who speaks four languages but can’t get a job because the tourist industry is destroyed; tell that to the young Eritreans fleeing enforced conscription in Eritrea, many of whom have family already in the UK. These migrants should not be living in tents on our border- they should be properly accommodated, their applications processed and their settlement began immediately.
The outpouring of support in this country and across the world is heartening but it has to be harnessed to put pressure on governments to change their policies before more people die. There is now a Home Affairs Select committee which is taking evidence and has taken some from the Calais organisations. Three hundred representatives of the legal profession in this country have signed a petition calling on the government to change its policy. They have made some sensible suggestions for safe passage such as humanitarian visas to allow people into a country to claim asylum. Even the Church has now woken up to the disaster that is unfolding in offering support to migrants.
There have been huge demonstrations around the country saying migrants are welcome here. The newly elected Labour leaders should arrange a delegation to Calais to publicise and highlight the situation and demand that all the migrants there be properly supported and processed. There should be letters to MPs, petitions and pickets going alongside the volunteer help.
As we go to press a court in Lille has decreed that there is a human rights violation and ordered that sanitation and accommodation be improved across Pas de Calais – this is a big breakthrough and will be implemented immediately!
If you want to offer your support there are several charities on the ground- Auberge des migrants, Secours Catholique, Secours Islamique,La Vie Active which receives money from the French government to run the Centre where hot meals and showers are provided and where some of the women and children are housed.
Here is a great letter being sent to governments on behalf of all the volunteers:
If you want to get in touch or find out more about what is going on here are some links:
There is a facebook page called ‘people to people solidarity – action from the UK’
To see if there are already any local drop-offs or collection points, central drop-off hubs, demonstrations or events planned in your area please check this map and click on the relevant pin to take you through to the local Facebook group for more details: http://www.refugeemaps.org