It was a surreal scene: a soccer tournament on a sand-covered space which looked more like a rubbish dump than a football pitch; the players (all wearing tops reading ‘We are Human’) drawn from half-a-dozen countries ranging from Sudan to Afghanistan; in the background a small squad of heavily armed French CRS riot police and the pipes and tanks and gantries of a multinational chemical plant. Welcome to ‘sports day’ in the ‘Jungle’, the infamous refugee camp outside Calais in northern France.
Because it hasn’t gone away. Despite the authorities enforced clearing of half the camp two months ago, the refugees keep coming: from Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan – the whole benighted crescent of countries smitten by Western invasions, abortive popular uprisings, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Isis. According to a recent census carried out by charitable groups, there are nearly 5,000 people in the camp (also counting the 1,400 who live in containers next door as the first step into the French asylum system), including over 500 children and 300 unaccompanied children (the youngest eight years old). It is particularly disturbing that after the evictions in early March 129 children disappeared from the statistics.
A trickle make it across illegally to England, either by paying traffickers to bribe lorry drivers (the going price last month was €10,000 per person) or using ingenious and highly risky stratagems to smuggle themselves onto lorries, trains and ferries. The young men in this desolate place dream – most of them hopelessly – of a new life in an English haven of peace and prosperity and of eventually bringing their families to join them.
I worked briefly last month as a volunteer for the remarkable British charity Care4Calais, founded six months ago by a Cheshire accountant with a very large social conscience, Clare Moseley. Every day we opened a container in the middle of the Jungle and gave out clothes, shoes, sleeping bags and blankets, toiletries and food bags. 95% of the people in the long queues that formed were young men under 40. Many of these men have been ‘trafficked’ by criminal people smugglers, which is an expensive and dangerous business, involving multiple illegal border crossings and terrifying trips across deserts and seas. Determination, toughness and and a ‘never say die’ spirit are what it takes.
If the residents are a resolute lot, the young long-term volunteers – most of them in Care4Calais and its larger French equivalent, L’Auberge des Migrants – are simply inspirational. I count it a real privilege to have been able to work alongside them for eight days. If you want to be reassured about the idealism and competence of the younger generation, come to Calais. These are young humanitarians of the highest calibre: hugely selfless and committed; superbly skilled and organised; wonderfully sociable and humorous; and impossibly hard working. They toil into the night to deal with daily crises such as the sudden arrival of new groups of refugees ill-prepared for the bitter easterly winds and rain that sweep the camp; the discovery of small, needy groups who fled the Jungle in March and are now camped out in villages hours away in other parts of Normandy; and the need to find drainage equipment and building materials to deal with flooded tents and flimsy huts made of planks and tarpaulins .
Most of the volunteers are in their twenties and early thirties and are English, although I also met French, Irish, Welsh, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Spaniards, Italians and Czechs. They come here because they are disgusted with the uncaring, begrudging efforts of their governments when faced with Europe’s greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Anger and shame were the sentiments expressed during the week I was there after the House of Commons defeated an immigration bill amendment (proposed in the Lords by Labour peer Alf Dubs, who was saved from Nazism by a Kindertransport and spent a part of his early childhood in County Tyrone) which would have allowed 3,000 Syrian and other refugee children into Britain. Would Dail Eireann have been any more compassionate? I have my doubts.
The long-term Care4Calais volunteers – or team leaders – are a particularly striking group. Joe Bergson from Birmingham is a professional development worker, who will return to his ‘day job’ in Myanmar after his stint in Calais. Before that he will spend the summer organising a new information system for refugees arriving in southern Europe so that they know what faces them as they move painfully northwards, and then go to Nepal to make a film about child soldiers.
Some volunteers intend to move on to Idomeni and other camps in Greece, following John Sloan, who co-founded Care4Calais six months ago with Clare Moseley, and has set up a similar warehousing and distribution operation on the Greek-Macedonian border. Ellie Tideswell is one of these. In the meantime this charming young woman from Surrey leads an all-woman roofing team to mend the makeshift huts, to the astonishment of the Afghan camp residents who live in them.
22 year old Irene Santing from Tuam is in charge of one of Care4Calais’s two warehouses and runs it with all the efficiency of a highly experienced logistics manager. She is using her experience for a third year project as part of her course in politics, sociology, Spanish and human rights at NUI Galway.
Chris Bedford is an electrical engineer who told his employer that if he was not given three months leave of absence to come to Calais, he would quit his job. He walks around the Jungle with a furry toy stuck in his neckband in case he meets a refugee child, and doubles up as a Care4Calais administrator every evening, clocking up a 16 hour day on most days.
Kai Kamei has a Japanese father and an Irish mother and in the autumn will go to Edinburgh University to do a master’s in advanced Arabic. Charlie Whitbread, a tree surgeon from Hertfordshire, is known as the ‘human Swiss army knife’ because there is almost nothing he can’t turn his hand to. Alex Green works in sustainable development and is planning a four month overland walk to Athens when he leaves Calais. Rosanna O’Keefe, whose father comes from Fermoy, is a Cambridge graduate who will go to Oxford University in the autumn to do a postgraduate course in migration studies. Gareth Roberts from Brighton used to work with autistic children but now lives in the heart of the Jungle as a much in-demand builder and repairer of collapsing shanties (at the moment he badly needs plywood sheets). Nina White from New Zealand is on her way home from an internship with the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Sami and Richard are more mysterious. The former is North African, an Arabic-speaking tough guy (if he needs to be) who is a vital support in a camp full of desperate young Arab and African men (and very few women). In contrast, the latter is a gentle Anglo-Caribbean who lives in a hippy van and has chosen to give up speaking, with the result that his endearing home-made sign language is a valuable calming element when things get a little tense.
Several of the camp residents asked me about finding refuge in Ireland. I did not know what to tell them. That our leaders and, in particular, our Department of Justice, are as resistant to calls for a compassionate stance on refugees as any other group of hard-nosed politicians and senior civil servants in Europe? I agree with the Wexford TD Mick Wallace, who visited Calais recently, and in an emotional plea in the Dail and on radio last week asked that at the very least a group of Irish officials should go to Calais and the neighbouring camp at Dunkirk to see if they can rescue a few of the extremely vulnerable unaccompanied children there. I am sure there are plenty of Irish families who would be willing to take them in. However I fear we will be waiting a long time for such a gesture of human solidarity with the poor and oppressed from the powers-that-be in our formerly poor and oppressed little country.
PS If anybody wants to volunteer with or donate to Care4Calais, I cannot recommend the organisation highly enough. Its website is http://www.care4calais.org