We had to leave a lot of stuff behind in Sheffield on our November trip to Calais, including 70 food parcels that were lovingly made up by the good people of Pitsmoor. Post-Christmas there have been appeals for more food donations for the camp and we know we have to get back over there. Finally, after a ridiculous battle with the courier company who say they have delivered Stuart’s passport but haven’t, we are no longer sans papiers and ready to go.
This will be a quick weekend trip to deliver aid and drop off a few specific items in the Jungle, such as books in relevant languages donated by Burngreave Library, and ESOL materials collated by a neighbour who teaches English to refugees. Stuart’s friend Emilie, who is French but living in Sheffield, is keen to join us. Bearing in mind the lessons of our last visit, we sort through the many donations we have received, ensuring everything is labelled with contents and sizes and ruthlessly stripping out anything that isn’t priority. I pick up the hire van on Friday afternoon and shift the heavy trays of food parcels for what feels like the umpteenth time, promising myself that someone else can unload them at the other end.
I’m looking forward to going back to the Jungle as our last visit was so inspirational, but there’s a bit of trepidation as well. Since Bumble the camper van was torched at the end of our last trip, volunteers staying at the youth hostel have had their tyres slashed, and some have been assaulted. Racists have attacked refugees near the camp while the police stand by, a couple of Syrians have been stabbed. It seems increasingly likely that the van was burnt out by fascists, so we book ourselves a cheap hotel rather than go back to the hostel.
We set off at 7am on Saturday morning and make good time. Amazing how much difference it makes to be in a spanking new vehicle, and not to have to stop every half hour or so to reapply gaffer tape to the driver’s side window. We make a leisurely stop at the services, and discuss the news we have just learned – Jeremy Corbyn is supposed to be visiting Calais today, at the same time as permission has been given for a refugee demonstration from the camp to the centre of Calais. Our original plan was to drive straight to the warehouse to drop off the aid on Saturday, then spend the day in the Jungle on Sunday before driving back, but when we make it onto Eurotunnel earlier than planned and realise that our hotel is only five minutes walk away from the site of the refugee rally, the decision is made for us.
We park up at the hotel and head off in the general direction of the camp. Tipped off by the sight of police vans, we soon see the demonstration heading towards us.
It’s fantastic, bigger than I expected (the press report 2000, which is perhaps a little conservative). About half and half refugees and supporters from all over Europe. The atmosphere of course has defiance and anger within it, but also all the elements of resilience, pride and positivity that so struck me on our first visit. It’s exhilarating to watch and join in, surprisingly pleasant to have only a hazy idea of what the chants or songs are about, and refreshing to be on a demo where I don’t recognise anyone. There’s music and dancing and sit-downs, culminating in Place D’Armes.
In the square there is a small platform where people are making speeches that can’t be heard very well even if you understand the language. We chat to various refugees – whenever we say we are from the UK we get smiles and handshakes and questions for David Cameron. There is a fond illusion amongst many refugees that Cameron is a reasonable man who must surely see that the border is ridiculous, they are good people, why does he not understand? We don’t want to destroy their hope, and make promises to keep fighting for their right to join their families in the UK.
We’re mulling over whether to leave and get to the warehouse before evening when there is a flurry of activity and everyone seems to be heading for the opposite side of the square. Here there is another small platform and more incomprehensible speeches, then the crowd head off again, towards the port. We’re not really sure what’s going on but start to follow. I get briefly distracted by a conversation with an Iraqi guy, and then cannot see Stuart and Emilie, so hang around a bit before catching up with the tail end of this new development. We make our way closer to the port where a ferry is in dock, through two portions of fencing that have clearly been cut down. Ahead I can see people running in a bizarre crisscross towards the ferry, as we get nearer I see they are crossing a tiny bridge.
I ask someone what’s happening? She shrugs French-style, “They are trying to get on the ship.” From the rear this is clearly a doomed enterprise – there’s no way that ship is going to sail even if the refugees manage to board it – but I follow just to see where it will lead. By the time we reach the bridge a couple of CRS (French riot police) vans have turned up, but are still waiting for reinforcements. They actively encourage people to jump the next barrier and head into the port. At that point I’m thinking, if they want us to go forward it can’t be a good thing, and immediately afterwards CRS vans start to arrive in force.
I posted this video on Facebook later that night. On closer inspection it doesn’t show what I thought it did, the CRS telling people to jump the barrier; once the reinforcements arrived they discouraged them; but shortly before they were “come right in” and even helping people over.
Reconvening at the hotel with Stuart and Emilie (who were ahead of me it turned out), they explain that once the protesters had got into a relatively enclosed area in the port, the CRS attempted to tear gas everyone. Stuart – who’s been around – had never seen so much tear gas, but it was not very effective in the wind. A group of refugees and No Borders campaigners did make it on to the lower deck of the ferry, but by then the doors to other parts of the ship had been locked so no chance to stow away.
We head to the pub to meet up with other volunteers, old friends and new. The rumour mill is in full force, 300 stormed the ship, the CRS are bent on revenge, all hell could break loose. And more stories about fascist activity – volunteer vehicles have been attacked not only at the youth hostel, but at the warehouse and the hotel where we are staying. It seems the safest place to park a volunteer van is in the Jungle itself.
Sunday morning we’re checking out the news, and of course the Daily Mail have got the full story. According to the Mail, protesters “broke through police lines” to storm the port and the ferry. Except there were no police lines till after the event; although the CRS were out in force on sections of the march, in the square they were few and far between, mainly hanging out by the Charles de Gaulle statue (it got defaced anyway). The sprint to the ferry caught them totally on the hop. The Mayor of Calais is sulking, “We let them protest and see what happens”. Hmm, 50 protesters making it on to the lower deck of the ferry and waving a bit was symbolically significant, but they were hardly posing a threat. However Emilie’s mum tells her the national French news portrayed the CRS in a poor light and Jeremy Corbyn’s sympathetic visit to the camp is also getting good coverage in the British press.
The van is untouched and we set off to the warehouse. It’s changed a lot since our last visit. “The mountain” of clothes donations is no more, the place is looking far more organised and has separate dropping off points for clothes, equipment and food. There are portaloos! The food area has a station for making up food parcels and a kitchen where massive meals of the day are being cooked to go out to the kitchens in the camp. The guy overseeing this area asks tentatively about the content of our food parcels, we assure him they are made up according to the latest specifications and he breathes a sigh of relief that he won’t have to undo them all to take out inappropriate items. As well as the food parcels we’ve brought bulk buys of tinned and fresh food, . I fulfil my promise to myself and have a brew while overseeing the unloading.
Now we have an empty van and almost immediately we are commandeered to fulfil a mercy mission. A group of volunteers have promised a decent mattress to an Iraqi family with four kids, they have a shelter but nothing to sleep on. We squish several mattresses and volunteers into the van. It’s a tough call between Stuart’s navigation skills and the volunteer’s satnav, but Stuart ends up in the back.
The usual route into the Jungle is blocked off by CRS, there are more police than usual in evidence, so we take a circuitous path in but pull up next to the Ashram kitchen, near to the Iraqi family’s hut. The father turns up with his kids, delighted to get the mattress. We also have a few random items with us to give out, so the kids get a baseball glove and ball and a yoyo.
The Jungle itself has changed. There is now an abundance of the wooden-framed shelters covered with tarpaulin, more of these than tents. While they don’t keep the cold out they are much sturdier and resistant to the elements than tents are (the weather is mild today though, a relief after the horrendous conditions in November). There are more water stations and toilets, new structures such as a kids play area, and clearly defined waste areas. We know a clean-up and sanitation crew have been out this weekend including a minibus from Sheffield, they have been doing a brilliant job.
Stuart is in conversation with some Afghan guys while Emilie and I give another mattress to a refugee, who brings us cups of mint tea as a thank you. We go to to deliver the ESOL materials; there are now two schools, one for adults and one for children. There are regular English classes held in both and a range of other classes for the kids. Solar panels have been installed outside so there is now a power supply, and plans to get computers in.
In the rucksack underneath the ESOL materials is the Soviet hat, complete with hammer and sickle, that was amongst the donations that came from the Barnsley Miners Hall. We offer it to the Afghan guys, who see the funny side! They take turns wearing it for a bit before ripping the badge off (which they donate back to Stuart), and strike up a conversation about communist vs liberal democracy. As one of them astutely sums it up, in communist democracy the government makes the decisions, in liberal democracy the corporations make the decisions.
Emilie and I then go to give books, pens and notepads to Jungle Books, the library. This has also expanded with a new children’s section, and there are plans afoot to get a wifi connection. We are near the scene of my first Jungle experience, having to sort an ambulance for a young Eritrean woman who was struggling to walk. We happen upon her straight away and she greets us with a massive hug. Her leg is completely healed, she is cooking on an open wood fire and invites us to join her. She has moved into a slightly larger hut next door to her old one, and is proud to show it off.
We walk around the camp and come upon the new container section. Until a couple of weeks ago this was the Eritrean section of the camp, but the French government decided to bulldoze the area and put some containers in to house people instead. This prompted a huge refugee and volunteer action, to move the shelters that had been built to a different area of the camp before the bulldozers came in. The “homes” are bleak looking crates stacked on top of one another, and refugees have to check in and out through a biometric systems that requires five fingerprints. The area looks grim, completely unsuitable for families, and not surprisingly, is mostly shunned by the population of the Jungle. The graffiti artists have paid a visit though!
As well as graffiti (including the Banksy by the entrance to the camp) there are other bits of art and installations, many of them very amusing!
This is what continually impresses me about the people in the Jungle – the refusal to be victims or charity cases despite their many hardships, the determination to be recognised for the hard work, humanity and wit of the individuals and collective groups who are forced to live here.
By the container camp we talk with a Kuwaiti guy. He has been in the Jungle for five months, and like every single refugee we have this conversation with, he wants to come to the UK because his family are there. Once again we get broad smiles when we say where we are from, as he associates the UK with compassion and democracy; but his face drops a little when Emilie says she is French. Although there are lots of French volunteers on site who are helping out, his view of the country is inevitably coloured by the actions of the CRS who have regularly invaded the camp with tear gas and rubber bullets, and of the right-wingers who have attacked his friends when they have been into Calais. It feels cruel to explain that things would probably be just as bad if the camp was in the UK and that David Cameron is unlikely to be their salvation. We tell him we campaign in the UK for a new government, which he seems a bit unnerved by. In the home countries of refugees a change of government is usually the result of civil war or a coup. We leave him with the only message of hope we can give – good luck in making it over the border in whatever way he can manage, keep fighting, and we will keep doing our best to support them.
We grab a delicious and enormous meal at an Afghan restaurant then go to see if we can take anything back from the warehouse to the UK in the now empty van. Maybe we could take some of the unsuitable clothes and cash them in for 40p a kilo? But there’s a lorry coming in a few days to take these to Belgium, where they’ll get a better rate. They are more concerned to shift some of the inappropriate food that is constantly donated – stuff in glass jars, when it’s not safe to have glass on site; mountains of pasta, which is unfamiliar to most people in the camp and requires lots of water to cook; the pork products and baked beans. No-one wants to see food wasted, so I suggest taking it back for the food bank in Sheffield.
Three pallets of food are crammed into the van. It’s worth it just to see the expression on the face of the border guard when we tell her we are carrying food to poor people in Sheffield that has been donated by refugees in Calais. Obviously struggling to process this, she uses a torch to take a good look in the back, but finds no Persians lurking in the pasta. It’s a smooth journey home and the following morning all the food is delivered to the Burngreave food bank. There’s so much that the manager will share it around the other food banks in Sheffield. (Editor’s note: The Sheffield Star published a 2-page spread with the title “Supplies for French refugee camps handed back to food banks in city” on Friday 29th January, baffling bigoted contributors to its website)
The trip has again been a huge learning experience and it feels as if we have been away for much longer than a weekend. It’s heartening to read that Jeremy Corbyn has been arguing for long-term solutions to address the roots of the refugee crisis; for the unaccompanied children in Calais and Dunkirk to be allowed entry; and for more to be done to help those with relatives in the UK to reunite their families. Though as ever, the Ukip-type comments underneath these news articles are depressing – Corbyn is dismissed as “naive”, or it’s a French problem and nothing to do with us.
I cannot fathom the logic of creating a European fortress to keep people out when we are not under attack. Masses of resources are poured into increasing security and obsolete weapons systems, that could be diverted into settling people, making empty homes habitable, using the skills of refugees to develop our infrastructure. It’s not an easy solution – nothing about this situation is easy – but better to turn our energies into tackling the massive inequality that underlies so many problems and building a sustainable future, instead of trying to prop up the existing system that is so obviously, irretrievably broken.
by Fran Belbin
Thanks to Fran for this great write-up and photos, originally published on her blog, where you can see more pictures and videos of the trip. And thanks for all of her work organising, loading and driving (including driving back this time).
Have you been inspired to go to Calais by this? We hope so. If so the information below will be useful. We plan to make regular trips from Sheffield to Calais, sometimes with one vehicle, perhaps a small convoy. If you want to find out when we plan to go next email firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a message via this website, follow @SYMAAG on Twitter or have a look at our Facebook page.
Calais Migrant Solidarity https://calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/
l’Auberge des Migrants http://www.laubergedesmigrants.fr/ (French)
l’Auberge des Migrants https://www.facebook.com/laubergedesmigrantsinternational (mainly English)
UK – Calais Solidarity https://www.facebook.com/groups/CalaisMigrantSolidarityActionFromUK
There are also lots of specialist groups linked to this group – e.g. for waste management, construction, firewood, food distribution
For Sheffield people:
Sheffield – Calais Solidarity https://www.facebook.com/groups/CalaisMigrantSolidarityActionFromSheffield
Sheffield drivers and passengers group https://www.facebook.com/groups/497004920476240