Isabel Fay has been back to The Jungle. Things were desperate before. Now they’re dire.
I’m back from the Calais refugee camp again and I want to say – actually no, I want to bawl – a massive astonished thank you, because so many Standard Issue readers donated when I wrote my last piece. You giant-hearted beauties.
In the last eight weeks, I’ve had the privilege of taking more than €10,000 and 50,000 teabags to the refugee camp, along with 16 heart-as-big-as-a-bucket volunteers, including my MP, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, A MILLION TIMES OVER. Your generosity has blown us all away!
I mean, quite right too; this is a desperate humanitarian crisis right on our doorstep, but I am still staggered by your outpouring of kindness. The shrieking gratitude these things were met with in the warehouse just shows how precarious the situation is. They are always just a few days away from running out. And trust me, we definitely made Katarina cry again – she wept, screamed the place down and immediately ordered 10 tonnes of onions. Immense.
I was going to write about how we spent our time joyfully shovelling lentils into bags to be handed out to 1,100 people, affording them the dignity to cook for themselves. I was going to tell you about the progress of my lovely refugee friends in camp. But instead I have to tell you that the situation has suddenly changed, and this is now more of an emergency than ever.
You may have heard that the French government are planning to demolish the whole of the refugee camp in one fell swoop. Rumour has it that it’s happening imminently, though they have set the deadline at October 31.
This may give the impression that something is being done, the crisis is coming to an end. Far from it. The refugees are going to need our help more than they ever have before. This is an emergency.
The last ‘eviction’ was back in March when they razed half of the makeshift camp to the ground with little warning.
It was brutal and sudden: riot police formed a human chain and deployed teargas and water cannons to keep refugees back as the police systematically destroyed the camp with chainsaws and bulldozers crushed everyone’s meagre possessions, crushed the lives they had eked out of scant nothingness. They teargassed and beat anyone who tried to rescue their few scarce possessions. And now they plan to raze the rest of the camp to the ground.
The French government is saying they will offer shelter to 9,000 adults and that they can claim asylum in France, but if their claim is rejected they will be deported back to the atrocities they had escaped.
France has a whopping 74.1 per cent rejection rate of asylum claims, and the hostility and brutal treatment refugees often receive in France is widely documented. Which means most refugees will not accept this offer: would you chance these odds of being deported, having risked your life to get this far, only to be forced back to the danger you fled?
Just as an example, Afghanistan has been declared ‘safe’. No, really. So anyone from Afghanistan will be immediately deported. Many of the Afghanis in camp were our allies during the war; interpreters, informants, working to help us. They are therefore traitors in Afghanistan. We have failed them terribly.
“M and K faced the choices: flee, be executed or be recruited. Barely a choice. The camp is full of men with these stories; men who fled rather than be forcibly recruited to ISIS, to the Taliban, to fight for dictators and oppressors.”
Nine thousand people will not vanish into thin air; they will scatter and sleep rough. This will just make helping them harder; it will make their lives harder. They need our help more than ever.
And more than 1,000 unaccompanied children, many of whom have families in the UK, are NOT BEING CATERED FOR AT ALL. Currently the French are saying that they have made no provisions for them; it is likely that this is because they’re hoping it will spur the UK into action to take them. Obviously we absolutely should! Not least because we have already agreed to with the Dubs Amendment, but we just haven’t followed through.
Already 387 children have been referred to the Home Office with confirmed right to safe passage to the UK, and yet so far we have taken NOT A SINGLE CHILD. This means that at the time of writing, France is actually playing chicken with 1,000 children who are all alone. It beggars belief. So if you’d like to skip the rest of this article and just donate, my god please do. Details at the end.
But a little about my last trip. You may remember my South Sudanese friends in camp who, when our car broke down, said, “Step aside, with your mimsy arts degrees, we’re literally all mechanics, there are TOO MANY mechanics here.”
To recap their terrible stories (which sounds so flippant, but I can only claim your attention for so long), M and K fled South Sudan together. Militia were trying to recruit them to fight in a brutal and oppressive conflict, to become ‘soldiers’ in a war where rape is used as a weapon, where men are executed for refusing to fight for evil.
They fled when K was tortured because he refused to fight. They fled when M’s wife and child were executed in front of him because he refused to fight. M’s remaining child, who hid during the attack, and K’s wife and child, had no choice but to stay; the journey was too perilous for them to survive.
M and K faced the choices: flee, be executed or be recruited. Barely a choice. The camp is full of men with these stories; men who fled rather than be forcibly recruited to ISIS, to the Taliban, to fight for dictators and oppressors.
To offer an alternate view, we should be carrying these men on our shoulders, because they would rather risk death in fleeing, risk the heartbreak of never seeing their families’ beloved faces again, than fight for evil. We should be helping them get their families out of the terrible danger they remain in. They are the heroes of our time.
But they are not carried aloft; instead they fester in a squalid swamp, facing police and fascist brutality every day.
When I first heard that the police and some fascist locals regularly beat those seeking refuge, fired rubber bullets at them, teargassed the camp all the time, I just didn’t believe it could be true. This is France! The land of wine and cheese and chic women daintily pecking at croissants, determinedly Not Getting Fat.
But it’s absolutely true. The ground of the camp is littered with used teargas canisters; they’re strewn everywhere, like autumn leaves. The scars my friends bear are fresh and all too real.
We tramped across these strewn gas canisters for an emotional reunion with our wonderful friends. But K has gone. His daughter is seriously ill, so he has taken the impossible decision to find a way to get back to South Sudan, because he would rather face whatever horrors will meet him, than not be with his child. I have no idea what will become of him. Please pray to all of your gods for him.
M remains and he took us to have tea. We sat in his six-person tent, chatting with his tent mates via Google Translate on our phones, with lots of long awkward silences punctuated by giggling as we took turns to laboriously type out our chat. Nudging each other as the loading wheel tried to find enough signal to translate something inane.
And what a tea party. They, who have so little, had saved all their rations of sugar in order to share it with us, or nearly kill us with it. I mean, I’m not saying I regret taking them tea, but MY GOD they murder a cuppa.
As we buzzed off our tits on sugar, more and more people came to join us, and by the end the tent was crammed with men, showing us precious photos of their kids, and urging us to drink yet more pure sugar. We promised to return the next day for another near-blinding-with-sugar.
But we didn’t return. Because the lorry drivers and locals were protesting, and camp was deemed too dangerous for us to return. I have true sympathy with the drivers whose lorries are constantly attacked by ruthless people smugglers, trying to stop them in their tracks so they can smuggle refugees aboard, for a hefty price. This is not their fight, this is not their fault, this is the British and the French government’s fault. But their protest was embraced by fascists who were reportedly flying in for a ‘migrant bashing party’.
It wasn’t safe for us to return. But what of the safety of those in camp? Those 10,000 people are just sitting ducks, with nothing and no one to defend them. Luckily my friends stayed in their tents, hiding silently in the dark, and they were safe. Others were less lucky.
And in the face of all of this, what are we, the UK stepping up and actually DOING to help? We are building an actual Donald Trump WALL in Calais, to keep them out. We’re spending £1.9million on a barbed wire and concrete, 4-metre high wall. But don’t worry! There will be flowers planted on one side of the wall! Guess which side.
This can’t go on. This isn’t the solution. We need to HELP. But while our governments bicker and dither, while we fund our wall of hatred, while riot police threaten to raze people’s makeshift homes to the ground, let’s not look the other way.
I know I have already asked you for so much, and you’ve already donated; thank you SO MUCH. When I return in a few weeks, we have no idea if the camp will still be there. But we do know that the need will still be there. If you possibly can, I implore you, let’s be the opposite of a wall – let’s keep giving.
You can donate through my JustGiving page here.
This time, I will not be collecting tea. Because that is now a luxury, if you can even imagine that. What’s needed are sleeping bags for the thousands of people who will suddenly be sleeping rough(er). So if you’d like to send me a sleeping bag rather than donating, that would be incredible. These winter ones are good; I’ve set up an Amazon wishlist here so it should automatically come to my house.3515 Views