About a year ago, I went with a small convoy to the “Jungle” camp in Calais. It was a very moving experience; people wanted to talk and the stories they told of what had brought them to the Jungle were hard to hear.
Seeing human beings living in such squalid conditions amidst the wealth of Europe made me very angry. I could see why the volunteers working at the camp were giving their time. It would be easy to become immersed in such work. You would ameliorate conditions for some, but the world of capitalism and border will keep producing refugees and economic migrants. Visiting the camp spurred me on to become more politically active at home, to try to change the world, and not just apply sticking plaster.
That said, helping in the here and now is critical. After the partial demolition of the Calais camp earlier this year I heard that donations had dried up. There was concern that the refugees would not have enough to eat and were poorly prepared for winter. Myself and a small group of others from west London organised collections and donations of food, clothes and money to take over to Calais.
However, about a month before we were due to go, we heard that the camp was to be completely demolished and all the refugees evicted. This time they didn’t mess about. Thousands of refugees were shipped across France, unaccompanied children were herded up and kept in modified containers, with no adult supervision, clean running water or provisions. The French authorities treated these human beings as though they were animals. The camp was left to burn. Our trip changed.
From bringing things directly to those who needed, we ended up working in one of the warehouses run by Care4Calais, sorting items for distribution across France. The refugees still don’t have the things they need, but the job of supporting them is now harder as they are scattered; many are in centres with no decent food, or sleeping in aircraft hangars with one blanket per person.
They have been told they must claim asylum in France or face deportation, but it is unlikely many thousands of them will accept that choice, because they want to come to the UK. Many will return to Calais over the coming months. Many have family in the UK, while others simply choose this country as their new home. Thousands have repeatedly risked their lives or found themselves in brutal conflict with the border police, attempting to get to the UK and they will keep trying.
We must keep up political pressure here for the UK government to accept refugees and migrants. We can also do what we can to help keep people warm and fed and safe, while they struggle on our borders to make a better life for themselves and their families.