The Faith Forum organised three aid convoys to the Calais and Dunkirk refugee camps in Northern France in the Autumn of 2015 and Spring of 2016, successfully supplying and helping to distribute almost two dozen van-loads of much needed supplies via non-governmental organisations operating in the area. We also, importantly, listened to the experiences of those who were living in unbelievably squalid conditions in the camps.
Waiting in CalaiS
The following is an account of the Faith Forum's second trip to Calais in November 2015.
Last month I joined with a group of 25 Muslims, Jews and Christians to deliver aid to the Jungle in Calais and to listen to the stories of those who are currently living there, waiting and hoping for a better life. This was a joint effort by the Light Foundation and Preston Faith Forum. Prior to the trip a lot of time and effort had been put in to collecting suitable donations: clothing, toiletries, food and drink.
Since 2011, over nine million Syrians have fled their homes. There are also significant populations of asylum seekers from Ukraine, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan In the last year, over 800,000 people moved into Europe, seeking better conditions than they find in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere.
Those who get as far as Calais have already apparently endured a gruelling journey. People have clung to the undersides of lorries: since they believe they are less likely to die that way than by staying put. People have walked. People have swum.
We heard from a man, whom I’ll call Tariq, who had previously chosen to stay in Syria with his family. His decision to leave was made when he returned home one day with his wife and daughter to find that his parents, brothers and sisters had been torn apart by a missile. He journeyed through Turkey with his wife and daughter and what money they had. There, a trafficker accepted $3,000 to let them make the journey on a semi-inflatable dinghy from the mainland to Lesbos— a distance of around six miles.
A woman was selected to pilot the boat. When she refused, the trafficker held a gun to her head and told her that if she refused again, he would shoot her and pick another pilot. In spite of the boat being overloaded with seventy or so people, she piloted the boat towards the lights of Lesbos. Tariq’s wife and daughter drowned during the crossing.
There are two camps on Lesbos: one is apparently well-resourced and aided by charities working with the UN. This camp is open only to Syrian passport holders. Any migrant who has lost their passport will be denied entry to this camp. The other camp is in a desperate state. It receives no food aid, nor water.
Tariq made the journey north through the Balkans. Poor countries such as Serbia already have vast numbers of refugees within its borders. We heard of exhausted migrants dying by Balkan roadsides. After the Balkans, migrants tend to spread out towards Sweden, Hungary, Germany and Italy.
Those staying in the Jungle in Calais believe the conditions are better than those they have escaped. Our access to the camp came thanks to a local charity, l’Auberge des Migrants, who arranged the necessary passes for us: this system having been introduced due to the problem of “voluntourism” where people arrive with a car load of regrettably useless donations or with no idea of how to distribute whatever they had brought. This had been leading to the already poor conditions worsening. The conditions remain dreadful, however.
Our visit was on a mild November day. The stale smell of elderly sewage hung over the camp. Tents were pitched, peg against peg. There was no safe place to start a fire for warmth. There was some running water but precious little opportunity to deal with waste.
We opened the van doors and, with the help of a volunteer from l’Auberge des Migrants, an orderly line formed rapidly. We had separated our gifts into bags, each one containing a mix of easily-prepared food, drink, toiletries and a scarf, hat and gloves. The line was perhaps as orderly as it could be considering the obvious needs of those waiting in it.
Back at the charity’s warehouse, we sorted clothes which were waiting for distribution. Perhaps half of the clothes were rejected as unsuitable— short skirts, dirty clothes, wedding dresses, clothes for a plump gentleman: they would be sold on the open market to raise further funds for the local migrant population. Another trip into the Jungle saw us distributing the useful clothes. This took a lot longer than the previous trip since, although they had already been sorted by size, they still needed to be tried on. We allowed people to try three or four items before making a decision.
We were all astonished by the hospitality and self-respect coming from those in the Jungle. Although we had been cautioned by Counter-Terrorism Police at Dover to take care, we saw no evidence of any threat within the Jungle. Several of the warehouse volunteers live in the Jungle. They, too, felt unthreatened.
As the sun set, we left the camp and began to make arrangements to return home. This was where we experienced waiting for ourselves: we arrived at the port just a few minutes too late for the 8 o’clock ferry. Saturday is the only day of the week on which there is no ferry at ten. Our ferry departed at midnight. Mark Slaney and I shared the driving on the other side of the Channel. A few minutes after five in the morning I found my bed. I didn’t have to wait long before I was asleep.
We know we must return.