Last Sunday I travelled from Manchester to Calais with a delegation of concerned British citizens who wished to see for themselves the daily living conditions in The Jungle refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais. The Jungle has grown from an initial encampment of a few makeshift tents to become a vast waiting area for more than 6000 refugees who have made long and dangerous journeys from war-torn, conflict-ridden countries in Africa, the Middle-East and the Indian sub-continent. I travelled with a mid-wife, a teacher, trade unionists, college lecturers, a Syrian refugee, a human rights organisation representative and a senior member of Manchester's largest mosque. We are all human rights activist campaigners and were gathering under the banner of 'Stand Up To Racism', meeting up with other anti-racist groups from London and Birmingham.
Also coming to meet us in Calais were organisers from refugee networks in France and Germany. It was intended to have an initial meeting about how best to support and promote the voice of Europe's growing refugee population who are increasingly on the receiving end of racism and violent extremism as Member States fail to tackle the current crisis with collective and compassionate vision, instead putting up more fences and walls, and passing reactionary laws which limit rights and freedoms, stirring up division and hatred, which all serves to further exacerbate the situation. It did not go unnoticed that we had also arrived on the final Sunday of the regional elections where Marine Le Pen's far right Front National party was in the running to win overall control of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, an important step in her ambitious drive to win become President of the Republic.
We first visited a large warehouse complex run by British aid organisation Care4 Calais, set up by ex-business woman Clare and her husband, to provide basic necessities such as food, clothes, blankets and tents. Clare first came to The Jungle for a weekend in September and was so horrified by what she saw that she came back a few days later and has remained ever since. She is a master of logistics but even her management skills are being tested by the sheer numbers arriving. The onset of winter weather has turned the camp into a morass of mud, people are going hungry and deaths are occurring. Clare was close to tears as she explained the humanitarian crisis she was addressing, desperate for more help, for more volunteers. The day we arrived, Clare received the sad news that a fire in the Dunkirk camp the night before had destroyed thirty tents. Behind us members of a London evangelical church prepared hot food to deliver to camp inhabitants - it is never enough.
We drove to the camp, parking up as close as we could, mindful of the heavy police presence in the area. We walked through the rain and mud to the Kabul Cafe where our meeting was scheduled to take place but already the space was heaving and dangerously overcrowded with scores of people keen to get in and be part of a process that might help alleviate their situation. We decided to relocate to 'The Dome', another larger makeshift communal space, under control of a different group. This change of venue was in itself evidence of growing co-operation amongst the different ethnic groups in The Jungle.
The Dome was also full to bursting but we had brought a portable sound system with us to help relay our deliberations to those gathering outside. There were 250 camp inhabitants inside and we conducted our business in the following languages: English, French, German, Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Kurdish and Urdu. Many of the refugees are highly educated. They were teachers, university professors, doctors, dentists, lawyers, business leaders in their pre-war communities. Whilst it is true that the majority of Jungle inhabitants are men, increasing numbers of women and children are arriving. I talked to several children aged 13 and 11 who were unaccompanied and saw very young girls and boys with sad dark eyes looking at us expectantly. The camp volunteers, including many British women, try and help the most vulnerable so that naturally means working with the children. They have set up a library and we were due to have a meeting there to address specific issues facing women and children, but the increasing tension over the course of the afternoon denied us that possibility.
In The Dome we stood squashed onto an improvised stage to address the crowd. We told them that we had come to the camp to show solidarity with them and wanted to help find ways to give them a political platform so they could be more empowered to speak up for themselves. We read out a pledge to 'redouble our efforts' in respect of pushing the UK government to allow the camp refugees to enter Britain where they would find a welcome from the millions of generous people who wanted their country to make a compassionate response to the growing crisis at Calais.
Throughout this whole process a young Afghani man stood next to me with an exercise book where he had written his story in very good English. He was deaf and was very agitated. I know some basic BSL and although he used American Sign Language we managed some initial communication. He wanted me to tell his story to the whole meeting but I told him I could not do that there and then as there were more than 6000 stories to tell. He told me that he couldn't understand what was going on in the meeting and I was very frustrated for him - one of the many frustrations that go on all the time in the cramped, chaotic and difficult conditions where collective action is difficult, but precisely what is needed.
We left The Dome hurriedly as we had been informed that the Front National were gathering at the camp entrance. Throughout our entire visit people walked alongside us, desperate to share their stories and concerns. An Iraqi man with 3 children told me he had been a professor. He showed me his scarred wrists where he made multiple attempts to commit suicide. It was heartbreaking to leave, knowing I would be going back to a warm bath and a comfy bed whilst these dispossessed people would be sleeping in squalid, cramped, damp and cold conditions.
One of the British women volunteers had whispered the bare bones of another refugee story. I could tell she was profoundly affected by witnessing such suffering and hopelessness. "I am worried for our mental health," she said and I knew from her eyes and the tone of her voice that she was already traumatised by her camp experiences.
We reached the camp entrance only to be met by the French police who formed up in columns 3 deep, with their riot shields at the ready. It was time to pull rank, to say who I was so that we could get safely back to our vehicles but when I approached the police saying, "Je suis députée européenne" I was pushed back. Two other French-speaking members of the delegation came to assist me to ensure the police had heard me correctly. I got out my diplomatic passport (Laissez- Passer) which is signed by the President of the European Parliament. It requests "all authorities of Member States of the European Union to allow the bearer to pass freely and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary".
I showed my Laissez-Passer to 2 police offers but they refused to look. I managed to squeeze between them, repeating that I was an MEP. The police officer at the front of the column seemed terrified. He was young, tall and very strong and should have nothing to fear but what I saw in his eyes made me very sad; suspicion, fear, distrust, apprehension, lack of confidence. He grabbed hold of my arm very roughly and manhandled me away back towards the camp. My arm hurt and I was upset, sad for everything I had seen and heard in those few hours. It was ironic that the police should have turned in on the camp and the vulnerable people living there rather than protecting them. They inflamed the situation and their behaviour towards our peaceful delegation and to me, a 58 year old elected representative was appalling.
Camp intelligence told us that to be safe we would need to exit at a different point, a long way from our vehicles. Eventually we managed to leave and regrouped at a cafe nearby where we held an initial organising meeting with camp representatives and members of refugee networks from France and Germany. Time was in short supply but before I left I agreed to help facilitate a meeting in Brussels and to attend meetings of the emerging European networks for mobilising refugees to have their own voice.
I am also committed to returning to the camp as soon as possible to meet with women and children whose situation is of grave concern, especially with the onset of winter.
NB: The second round of regional French elections on Sunday December 13 did not, in the end, result in success for the Front National, either in Nord-Pas-de-Calais nor in any of the other 11 newly drawn regions. This was partly due to tactical voting and also because socialist candidates withdrew where the result looked dangerously too close to call. However, support for Marin Le Pen's fascist party did receive significant support, polling about 7 million votes nationally, and she continues to set her sights on the French presidency in 2017.
Julie Ward MEP
You can sign the declaration pictured above yourself here: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/show-solidarity-with-refugees-uk-calais-and-europe
I would also like to share the testimonies of the day from some of the people people from our delegation and those who are currently living at the camp:
Refugee Voice Camp leader Muhammad, aged 32, from Afghanistan who has been in the camp just over two months and is the key preliminary signatory from the camp on the petition:
“It was a great gathering of different migrant organisations from Germany, France & UK for refugees... and great support from Julie Ward and teachers and unions, to find a political way to get the refugees to get safely to UK.... for the last two months people come and give hope to refugees but we don't see any result, but I wish the dream come true this time.
Idris, aged 22, from Iraq, in the camp for four months:
“According to me that meeting is good for us. It will be a good reason for European countries to be thinking about us, and our lives in the camp, and our bad situation."
Maya Konforti, aged 60. Board of Directors for Auberge de Migrant charity:
“There was tremendous enthusiasm from refugees about this British delegation telling them that they are welcome in Britain. Very heartwarming that the British delegation gave people hope. Of course we love it that people donate, give money, but this political action that has come from the UK, we crave it, and we welcome it and we love it.”
Clare Moseley, Care4Calais, UK:
“We will stay here to gather and distribute essential goods donated from the UK but the lasting solution is political, not charitable. What they really need is the hope that Sunday began to create.”
From RAPAR member Sarah, volunteering on the camp since late September:
“Sunday was a very good step in the right direction and more pressure needs to go on the Government. That there were 250 camp people at the event showed clearly that the people here want to to get their franchise and they know it can only come about through enduring political change.”
Amaf - Rethink Rebuild - Refugee Support Coordinator:
I met many people who came to the UK through Calais, and they told me a lot of scary and devastating stories, but it was totally different experience when I went there and saw with my own eyes what these people are struggling through.
The level of fear and uncertainty that you see through these people's eyes, and their thirst for any ray of hope for their future, is just heartbreaking.
These humans are facing significant physical, psychological and emotional hardships, and they are right in the heart of Europe! They should be helped and taken care of, not ignored and left to their destiny.
Nick Wigmore - NUT NEC:
The inhabitants of the refugee camp endure conditions which are desperately tough. The fact that thousands of people, including women and young children, continue to survive in such a place is miraculous. In contrast, that the severe overcrowding, the lack of food, water, and adequate shelter is accepted by countries including France and the U.K. is an absolute scandal.
Despite everything the refugees continue to forge a community which is positive and capable of organising both politically and socially.
It is time to start listening to and engage with those collective voices and ensure that they are heard in schools and communities across the UK and across borders.
Sarah Davies - UCU and RCM:
I am a senior lecturer in midwifery at the University of Salford. I went with the delegation on behalf of UCU at Salford and the Royal College of Midwives, to take messages of solidarity, to see conditions for myself and report back to members.
We visited the distribution centre first - I was impressed by how well organised it was and also at the dedication and efficiency of the volunteers. On arriving at the ‘jungle’, although I had read about it before we sent donations, I was utterly shocked to see for myself the squalid, degrading and unsanitary conditions people are being forced to endure (it cannot be called ‘living’). I saw a vast number of people, penned in behind huge fences topped with razor wire, overseen by stony-faced police wielding batons, poised to charge at the slightest suggestion of trouble.
We walked around the camp through a sea of mud, some of it contaminated with sewage, greeted only by friendly enquiries from people who still retain hope that normal human decency will prevail and that they will be helped to build a new life in a friendly country. I talked to Afghans and Iraqis, Sudanese and Eritreans. They were skilled people - a doctor, a university professor, teachers, students, an engineer. Many spoke of having relatives here in the UK. Every single one was fleeing conflict and war and had already endured unimaginable trauma. Their dignity and humanity were humbling.
I spoke to several young boys of 10 or so, one who said his dad was in Manchester, and I saw pregnant women, as well as mothers with pale, listless babies in arms. Looking at people’s feet was heart-breaking – most were wearing donated trainers, which were utterly inadequate, and many were in flip flops in the mud. I was told there are many untreated illnesses – scabies, diarrhoea, chest infections, TB. The local hospital can be accessed for emergencies and so women in labour, if they make it to the hospital, will get care for the birth of the baby, but what after that? What about the prenatal care every woman should be entitled to? I heard how the police are teargassing the camp at night, so the safety of those mothers and babies is in jeopardy.
I will be reporting back at a UCU union meeting for further discussion about how we can help, and writing a report for the Royal College of Midwives about the pregnant women and the mothers and babies who are being denied basic care. We must go on collecting and raising awareness in the University. I hope we will visit again and continue to liaise with the activists and volunteers in the camp. It is utterly inexcusable that these people, who have already suffered so much, are being treated worse than animals, herded into a patch of toxic industrial wasteland and now, with winter settling in, essentially being left to die by the UK and French governments. Beginning with writing to my MP, I will raise this horrific situation at every opportunity and work towards ensuring that political pressure is piled on to the UK government to liaise with France, to make an emergency plan which ensures every migrant at Calais is afforded shelter and health care.
Shut Hussain, Treasurer, UKIM Madina Masjid and Community Centre:
“The visit to the refugee Camp at Calais with a delegation of “Stand up for Racism” on Sunday 12 December 2015 was an eye opener. The people in the camp are living in miserable state, without shelter, food and basic necessities of life. Although efforts on humanitarian grounds are being made to lessen their sufferings, men, women and children in the camp are at risk due to extreme weather and unhygienic conditions. The only way forward is to demand the UK government allow these refugees an entry in the country.”
There are no short cuts to the solution here - only a single step: Everyone in the camp comes to Britain and we, together, take it from there. The obscene conditions in which people in the camp are forced to live means that every hour of every day that this does not happen, is a direct, brutal and complete violation of the babies, children, teenagers, mothers and fathers who are trapped there by the British and French Governments.
Michelline Ngongo, Islington Councillor:
British Humanitarian delegates blockaded in Calais Refugee camp by French Riot Police. Delegates included MEP's and many Councillors from British cities. On Sunday 13th December a delegation of British Humanitarian support groups including MEP Julie Ward and Islington Councillor and ex-refugee Michelline Ngongo. The delegation also carried with them a message of support and solidarity from Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the British Labour Party in which he declared his of support and solidarity with the refugees trapped in the camp and said that our borders should be opened for these to end the suffering of these victims of war. The French Police in full riot gear blockaded the entrances to the camp as local French protestors, buoyed up by the success of the right wing Front National Party, led by Marine Le Pen, in the first round of the French local elections, marched towards the camp to register their discontent about the camps existence.
The delegates, from many local councils in Britain including London, Birmingham and Manchester as well as groups like Stand up to Racism, had intended to hold a meeting to about the British Government's refusal to deal with the problem. The meeting was held in extremely cramped conditions as the numbers were greater than the ramshackle tent could accommodate.
Islington Councillor, Michelline Ngongo, herself a former refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo said, 'It was great spending time with my brothers and sisters in the camp, sharing our experiences and delivering the message from thousands of people from the UK, people who are standing alongside them and putting pressure on the UK Government to open the borders for them and end this needless suffering. I am a refugee... but according to my passport I am now a British citizen. It has become my task to be a messenger for these people and as so very often in these situations it is the women and the children who suffer the most. I realise I am still a refugee when I visit their camps in Calais – the ‘Jungle’ as those who have the misfortune to live there call it.
I have been there a few times now taking food, toiletries and essential supplies to the refugees trapped there. Their situation reminds me of how trapped I felt when I first arrived – they have no way to go back to the homes they once had, war, destruction and death have made sure of that and there is no way forward for them either. They are trapped in a maze of Government policy, regulations and borders - left to rot in a filthy, unhygienic, wasteland of shanty built shelters, tents and overflowing chemical toilets. In the last few days it has also been discovered that the camp is strewn with fragments of white asbestos – the most lethal kind with its long term health implication for anyone breathing in the dust.
The delegates were led to safety out of the camps by the refugees who made use of their local knowledge of rat-runs that they use to avoid the Police blockades allowing the British visitors a safe return to their vehicles parked outside the camp.