Our van is blocked as we drive down the main strip of what’s left of the refugee camp in Calais by a panel truck being filled with 100s of canisters of water. Two men sit to our right in the mud pointing to their ripped shoes asking for new ones. The water is in anticipation of fires in the camp as tear-gas raids become more and more common. The mood is penetratingly solemn as the demolition of the camp is imminent. Refugees and volunteers playing a guessing game as to the actual plans of the government and what is going to happen when people are evicted over the next two weeks. When will the bulldozers arrive? When will the UK accept the children? What is the fate of the 10,000 people in the camp?
Myself and another volunteer were in Calais to deliver much needed shoes and bags, the essentials for people on the move, to families in the camp. Coordinating with Marco at the school, ‘L’ecole’, the packages were delivered straight to the families who are now in the section of the camp administered by the French government. This is a double-edged sword as although they are out of the squalor that is the informal camp, access to them is limited and they are in effect detained behind barbed wire fencing.
Marco’s right-hand man Hugo told us that many refugees are willing to go into the French system, where 7,000 spaces across France have been identified in ‘CAO’ centres. These ‘welcome’ centres however have seen protests from French groups who do not want refugees in their towns, and we’ve heard reports that some already in the centres have limited access to food. Despite this, it seems that many are willing to go into the system, even if this has only been at a trickle because of a lack of coordination from the authorities.
We also checked on the Kernow First Aid Van and found it was in desperate need of supplies, it has been necessary for them to move out of the central camp because of the increase in tear gas attacks. Using funds donated JCRAG we were able to purchase and deliver essential items, helping to ensure those remaining in the camp are able to be treated at for First Aid and continue to cope with the harsh winter weather.
Our next stop was the Care4Calais warehouse where volunteers were busy organising the final distributions of essential items to the camp. Due to the uncertainty around the authorities plan, Care4Calais are sending out final distributions as it’s expected for evictions of refugees from their tents to start proper on 24th October. One initiative spearheaded by Care4Calais is equipping 1,000 children with mobile phones and an information pack with all the essential information needed when they are evicted from the camp. As the camp is demolished, and as processing of children who should be legally protected is going so slowly, there is a real danger that these children could find themselves alone and in danger outside of the camp where it is harder for support networks to reach them.
A main frustration of everyone we spoke to, including the Hummingbird Project and the Refugee Youth Service, is that the authorities are not communicating their plan to them, even though they have more up-to-date and relevant information than the authorities. These organisations have been inside the camp for many months and have the trust of the refugees, something the authorities lack. However, the authorities do not seem willing to work in coordination with them although the organisations are requesting it, and this is only going to lead to putting more people in harm’s way.
One child which JCRAG volunteers know personally and who was written about in last month’s Gallery has tragically gone missing and is uncontactable. He may be safe and well, he may not be, we simply do not know and the more children who fall out of the support networks in the camp the more children who are put in grave danger. It’s great to see Care4Calais, Hummingbird Project, and Refugee Youth Service working tirelessly to protect these people, but it’s frustrating to witness the effects of the authorities agenda of not collaborating with them.
The final leg of this trip took us to Paris. It has been know that there has been a refugee crisis happening in the capital for some time, and with the destruction of the Calais camp it has become even more urgent to assess the situation there. Loaded with tents, sleeping bags, roll mats and blankets we met with a group in the centre of Paris who had previously been working in Athens. They told us of masses of people in one area of central Paris who have nothing, most being recent arrivals from Italy. The tents and bags were received gratefully as they distribute every evening to people who have nothing and are sleeping on mattresses or in boxes on the pavement.
We drove to the area where the refugees reside and frankly for me, it was overwhelming. To see a shanty town in the centre of Paris, one of the richest capitals in the world, is an abomination. People were in boxes, on blankets, some in tents, some on chairs, some chatting, some passed out awkwardly on the cold floor. Our contacts in Paris told us that there are women and children in this situation too, and because of the vastness of the city and the ever changing numbers with people arriving, it is hard to locate and identify them.
We were shown a video where French police are clearing more that 50 tents to take to landfill using a bulldozer, as the refugees they belonged to, under police instruction, watched on as their possessions were destroyed. Personally, I believe that actions like this are intended to break people’s spirit, intimidate, and put fear into them in the hope that they will simply disappear. This is not the way our governments should be treating anyone and we must speak out about it. It will not solve the situation and it flies in the face of the values of fundamental human rights.
JCRAG is sending another aid trip to the camp in Calais this weekend, 23rd October, with urgent supplies to help people in whatever situation they find themselves in after being evicted from the support networks of the camp. JCRAG is also committed to working to find credible and long-term solutions to this refugee crisis and will be working with groups to coordinate a response to the fall-out of the Calais evictions.
The founder of Care4Calais summed up the situation: “It’s going to make our job one hundred times more difficult.”