Written by David M Bailey
Nurse and People’s Assembly activist
Last Saturday was my third trip to the refugee camps in Calais. But this would be different. It was now 3 weeks after the destruction of the ‘Jungle’ camp, which had been situated on a landfill site, near the Eurotunnel.
Before the demolition, it was estimated that there were around 10,000 refugees and migrants in the camp, some 1500 of whom were children between the ages of 8 and 16; many unaccompanied by adults.
In Parliament there had been some efforts made by Lord Dubbs and others to have all unaccompanied children, rescued and brought to safety. Elsewhere, Stand Up to Racism and other campaigns held demonstrations and rallies, to demand Home Secretary Amber Rudd MP intervene. But despite the imminent danger to these children the British Government has only managed to rescue 70 so far. And it is clearly unwilling to do more. Once the demolition of the camp began on October 24th somewhere between 120 - 400 children have since disappeared without a trace.
Over three days the French Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), who have a reputation for brutality and racism, removed refugees and migrants from the camp on buses, demolishing, then burning the shelters. The CRS were responsible for the daily, casual lobbing of teargas grenades into the camp, and had often abducted men or boys, taking them to an isolated area where Fascists in black would beat them.
Desperate to support the aid effort and to discover for ourselves the situation on the ground, four of us from Oxford collected items of aid to take to Calais. We were able to fill 2 cars with tinned fish, bottled water, toiletries and 140 individual care packages, donated by NHS staff and a group of Jewish school pupils. On the morning of 19th November we arrived in France at the warehouse of aid group, Care4 Calais, unloaded the aid and were briefed on the current situation.
Clare Mosely from Care4Calais told us,
“The camp has closed, but we do not believe that this will change anything long term. The ‘reception centers’ where they are taking refugees are not meant as a long-term solution. They will only be able to stay for a four-week period, during which time they can decide if they want to claim asylum in France. That four-week period ends this week. What we have seen over the first 3 weeks is a very harsh period. The French Government are committed to keep the refugees off streets of Calais, and in order to do that the police have been picking them up and chucking them in detention centers as fast as they can. After the 4 week period ends they will deport anyone they can. They are criminalising refugees; driving them underground. We don’t 100% know what’s going to happen, but long term it’s not going to change much, because the reason refugees come to Calais are still there. Many have family in the UK, or have worked or been educated in the UK. If anything what we may see is smaller camps springing up further along the coast in Dieppe, or Belgium. Refugees are arriving in Calais every day, either by train or on foot; our job is to intercept them before the police get them. The problem is there are thousands of them, whilst there are only twenty to thirty of us. As the four-week deadline approaches this week we expect things to become desperate as refugees make the decision to run away rather than be deported, but we are focused on helping refugees in any way we can.”
Jobs were then assigned, 2 women who spoke Kurmanji and Arabic were sent to a detention centre, to give moral support to a group of Syrians on hunger strike; some were sent over to Dunkirk, to take supplies and review the situation there. I volunteered to be driver for 2 volunteers checking and collecting from the local train station.
On the way we detoured to check the site of the ‘Jungle’ for anyone camping out there. I was eager to see what was left of the camp I’d visited in August. Back then the place was bustling; people had been playing cricket and chatting and there was lots of noise. This time there was a brooding silence and a white CRS van full of Police. The camp was completely different. Detritus squashed into the sand everywhere I went; shoes, toothpaste tubes, bits of plastic, and clothing. The atmosphere felt heavy and full of ghosts. However awful the camp had been, at least it felt like a community, it had a school and restaurants. It had life and hope. But no more.
We left and drove to the small Calais train station in the centre of town, to be met be a volunteer who had found some young men getting off a train. They were mostly teenagers though some in their twenties, and when he brought them out they looked scared. They were Eritrean. We stood outside talking while about 20 CRS sat in vans and watched us.
One of them, who we called ‘Simon’ (15), wanted to go to a ‘reception centre’, the others wanted to take their chances on a train to Paris. I collected my car and set off, past the Police, and dropped off the younger boys at their different destinations, and wished them luck.
Only ‘Simon’ remained, and as I took him to the reception centre I learnt he had walked From Eritrea through Sudan and Egypt, to Libya. There, he had joined 300 others in a fragile wooden boat and sailed to Italy. He had an Auntie in the UK but he didn’t know where.
We set off driving through torrential rain just arriving whilst it was still light. We were introduced to the manager of the reception centre who appeared kind; she explained to Simon that she would sit down with him later and go through his options fully, so that he could decide what he wanted to do. He would have a bed and food and other young men in the same situation to talk to. She told us he would have 5 days to decide to apply for asylum. If he chose not to, he would be deported. Eventually we made our goodbyes and I re-joined my comrades to discuss our different experiences.
One thing is evident, especially with the rise of the right across Europe and America. We have to continue to fight racism anywhere and everywhere; we have to educate and demonstrate, whatever the obstacles and frustrations. We have to stay motivated and focused on helping refugees and migrants in any way we can.