By Blythe Pepino
The refugee situation in Calais and Northern France continues to grow despite the ‘Jungle’ being cleared last summer and relative media silence since.
According to long term volunteers from the Help Refugees warehouse in Calais, the number of refugees arriving has started growing again, sometimes 30 to 60 people over a single night. Previously ready to move their efforts elsewhere, the charities are now realising their much needed work of keeping people safe, fed, warm and informed is far from over. But fears mount once again over dwindling donations and lack of awareness as the world’s interest shifts to Syria, Turkey, Greece, Brexit and Trump.
When I came back home from volunteering in Calais over Christmas, the most asked questions from friends came from a desire to hear an overview of the whole situation since the Calais camp clearance and demolition. So I’m going to try and put what I learned from volunteers and my experiences here.
Numbers constantly vary but there have been about 1,500 refugees living in the official Dunkirk refugee camp for the last few months. There are now more in a smaller camp in Norrent-Fontes and an indiscernible number sleeping on the streets of Calais and in the countryside.
Due to the lack of a properly instigated International plan, the continued denial of responsibility, and the refusal of European nations to collaborate, the charities on the ground must deal with a constantly shifting environment whilst navigating the various agendas of French authorities and the confusion and anger of local residents. To their credit, this has often been handled with incredible success. Just a few months ago the Dunkirk camp ran into severe difficulties; but with the efforts of a number of grassroots organisations and volunteers, it has been transformed to the point where most people live in a solid structure and have their immediate needs met. That’s not to say it isn’t a continuously evolving, difficult task (the women and children’s centre burnt down just last month for example), but it can be easy to focus on what is lacking and forget what great feats have been achieved along the way.
From what I could gather, further afield in the surrounding countryside and on the Paris streets, there are more displaced people who were in the original camp and are now sleeping rough. Most of the ‘Jungle’s estimated 10,000 refugees were put into accommodation centres all over France. Many of them are now planning to stay in the country, others are awaiting claims and news from the British authorities as to whether they can be joined with family here or not.
In light of the recent closure of the Dubs scheme by the UK Government, which reduced the number of unaccompanied refugee children it would help from 3,000 to 350, it is likely many will risk travelling to Calais to cross the border illegally again. The desire to reunite with family, find better prospects because they speak English or have connections in the UK, drove some of the 10,000 people in the original camp to hide from authorities and the accommodation centre scheme, which demands fingerprint identification and processing within France. Chillingly, an unknown number of people have simply disappeared, and that can be entirely linked to the inadequate collaborative action between British and French authorities. Quoting the Independent, “It was reported in November that almost one in three Calais child refugees had gone missing since the demolition of the Jungle.”
Right now, volunteers are seeing underage, unaccompanied children sleeping on the streets every night. If charities and NGOs can locate these children, so too can the officials whose job it is, or was, to action the legal responsibility of the UK government which promised to provide them with refuge and safe passage to the UK under the Dubs Amendment. Instead, government is simply ignoring its legal duty – a situation many consider to be a shameful stain on the British conscience.
A feeling of responsibility, made more piquant as a UK citizen in full awareness of this lack of governmental action, is certainly a big reason why I volunteered this Christmas and it seems to be the motivator for a lot of others too. I saw a huge variety of humans from all over the world rocking up to the warehouse to give their much needed time and strength; couples, families, travellers, kids and grandparents, in groups and solo. It struck me that all these people had looked beyond the fear-mongering rhetoric of the popular media as well as the huge psychological conditioning of Christmas advertising in order to come to a cold warehouse to do menial tasks all day for strangers in need.
Considering the misery of the situation at large, I found the day-to-day volunteering in the warehouse to be surprisingly fun. I think I laughed more over those two weeks than I had over many months in 2016. I made a note-to-self that this felt seriously good for my health and that more people really ought to know how mutually beneficial volunteering with a great organisation like Help Refugees can be. Considering the need, I hope that it is on the rise as a go-to option, but I wonder how enough people could be motivated to actually do something when the government and much of the media are propagating a completely different set of values.
Then again, as 2016/2017 is showing in spectacular form, we have entered this strange ‘post-truth’ epoch in first world politics. The internet spreads information and misinformation in equal measure, social media increasingly documenting our dysfunction and segregation. At the same time, the entertainment, sporting and religious worlds in which we had taken for granted a level of decorum and respect, have been littered with cases of systematic child abuse, sexism and racism.
Overtly racist politicians are gaining power, demagogues who no longer feel the need to hide their obscene ideologies or even make one iota of rational sense.
It feels as though our received world is dissolving and I don’t think it’s a jump to say that more and more people are looking around to find ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ replaced by a more accurate confusion of colours. Although I worry this mass change of perspective may result in further apathy, I hope instead that there is a general rise in engagement politically and actively as we are forced to look more closely at the world and ourselves to find our moral compass.
The Katharine Harnett inspired tee-shirt slogan “Choose love” adopted by Help Refugees contains the key counterpoint to all this madness: choice. As a slogan it highlights the power that we have always had and will continue to have regardless of how controlled we appear to be and how confusing the world seems around us. Individuals exercising independent choice is what has catalysed the volunteers I met to go out of their way to help desperate people the state would prefer us forget.
For those who are truly interested in working together towards a more peaceful future, we must recognise the choices that we have and better understand the intentions behind those choices in order to make more effective change now.
Help Refugees have an immediate need for blankets click here to find out how you can help.