Calais Update

Returning to Calais after six months away – little has changed.  The Warehouse is still empty looking and during the week there are few volunteers now the media has lost interest and people think that the Jungle demolition removed the problem.

On Sunday we do have a reasonable number of volunteers which enables us to head for the industrial estate near the port – less than half a mile from the old Jungle – now overgrown scrubland with high fences surrounding it.  This area has been one of the most volatile as it is a mix of ethnicities, many from Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, and also Africa. I find myself talking to a young man from Nigeria.  He has excellent English and hopes to be able to build a life in the UK.  Sadly he was fingerprinted in Italy, so I have to tell him that if he is found in the UK he will be deported back to Italy.  He says the only foreign language he speaks is English, no French, no Italian, and he has friends in the UK.  He has been in Calais for four months.  I tell him if he gets to the UK he will have to stay hidden, working in the black economy, unable to get asylum. After our conversation he walks away, disappointed.  One young man gets frustrated that we only give one pack to each person.  He picks up a rock and threatens to throw it at our vehicle.  Calmly one of long term volunteers talks to him, persuades him to accept that this is the way things are done.  Almost everyone has a story of their friend who is sleeping in, or has a bad leg, so they can’t come to the distribution.  From experience, the procedure is always to tell them that it is one pack per person, if someone needs special treatment then we need to see them.  A family with three small children appears.  The eldest child, a daughter of around eight enjoys playing with the volunteers.  The mother approaches one of the female volunteers for help – she needs sanitary products.  Supplies are in the van, so the volunteer says she needs to get the key from one of the male volunteers.  The woman says no as she feels shame asking for such items.  The female volunteer tactfully manages the situation and gets the required items whilst keeping the mother’s dignity intact.

Whilst all this is going on a game of football is taking place, and the Care4Calais team have set up tea and coffee and a barber’s area.  Three people at a time are having hair cuts, other refugees using the clippers and scissors with reasonable dexterity considering it is cold and in the open.  This make-do barbers is one of the most popular things that Care4Calais do – every distribution, Calais, Dunkirk, Brussels – it is always in demand and the last thing to be packed away each time.

Thursday is Brussels, a two and a half hour drive away.  A smaller team, as mid-week volunteers are desperately low, but enough, just, to be able to carry out this vital role.  Packs are given out containing food and a few other items to help people stay warm – socks and hats.  There are between 400 and 500 people seeking refuge in Brussels, spending most of their time in a park near the centre.  Again the haircutting is popular, and the mood generally ok, considering the colder autumn temperatures.  Whilst there we were approached by a group of smartly dressed men who wanted to talk to us.  After some discussion, it became apparent that these were immigrants, who were horrified with what they saw in the treatment of people in these circumstances.  They had been strangers themselves in the city but by now had made some money and wanted to help.  They asked what was needed and they wanted to spend 5000 Euros.  This local support is not unusual – a different man appears with several hundred waffles and pains aux chocolat and asked us to distribute them.  On a previous visit a local had stopped his car and handed over bags and bags of donated clothing for us.

A few days later we are distributing at the ‘Eritrean’ roundabout.  I had been here in the summer and whilst the distribution point is by the roundabout itself, the refugees were living in a small area of parkland by a quiet residential street.  Since my last visit the authorities had put up high fences and removed access to the area.  Now the Eritreans were sleeping under a motorway bridge.  Nevertheless this is always a highlight of any visit – the group is friendly, around 80 strong, and almost all teenage and early twenties.  Again hair was being cut, tea and coffee drunk and games of football and ‘death’ volleyball taking place.  Sadly I had to leave early to catch my ferry back to the first world, just 25 miles away.

Philip Horner