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There is no Camp in Calais

There is no camp in Calais. But if you head out in the right van, at the right time, to the right place, you’d never know. Although French officials shut down the Jungle at the end of last year, around 500 refugees remain in the dilapidated and redefined coastal dump. 92% are male; almost 40% have travelled from Eritrea. The situation is overwhelming and frustrating. Based upon 213 surveys conducted by a team of researchers in the Calais area over five days this April, the Refugee Rights Data Project (in collaboration with Help Refugees and the Refugee Youth Service) offers a glimpse into the world we received brief access to last month. Of the eighty-six children interviewed in the study, more than 95% claim to have faced violence at the hands of French police, including verbal abuse and the use of tasers and batons. 84% of all respondents profess to having experienced tear gas. At first glance the statistics appeared far-fetched; after a few days I was only surprised they weren’t higher. During a fortnight spent volunteering at the Help Refugees warehouse with Utopia 56 and Refugee Community Kitchen, our Durham contingent observed French police interrupt food distributions with pepper-spray on a regular basis. Encountering the contempt with which essentially defenceless individuals were treated was, understandably, an unpleasant experience. Yet when, shortly after our return to the UK, the Conseil d’État declared a legal obligation for officials in Calais to provide drinking water and sanitary facilities for refugees in the area, upholding the decision of a local court against the interior ministry’s appeal and criticising the behaviour we had witnessed, there was no sense of relief. It is a fair ruling, and one that should reduce brutality, but it is a hollow victory. According to friends in France, the water tank is open for just five hours a day, and there are two showers between the hundreds. Furthermore, whilst police violence is inexcusable and abhorrent, despite the received wisdom amongst volunteers (and, perhaps, because of it), I am struggling to ignore a growing sense of unease that the constant, hostile presence of police is not the only behaviour encouraging impressionable minds to give the Channel a shot. Sifting through piles of generously unsuitable donations (a pair of black waterproofs is occasionally discovered amongst the Coach ponchos) and prepping meals (around 2,500 are distributed around Calais and the surrounding area every day) might provide short-term relief to rough sleepers, but it also encourages short-term thinking. On the second evening of our stay I watched from a distance as three boys clambered underneath a HGV in full view of the driver, and have returned home with numerous stories of the daily attempts that the overwhelming majority make to reach our shore. According to the French Interior Ministry, over 30,000 cracks have been made in 2017 alone. A steady trickle arrive; tales of reversing lorries account for others who won’t. By providing immediate, albeit hardly luxurious, essentials, does the final stage of their journey not appear that little more attainable? Do cheery British volunteers not paint a cruelly contrasting image against exasperated French locals? This is not a comfortable opinion to voice, but questions must be asked of the actions of aid organisations, too, and their blind eye to the blatant people smuggling. Pitting themselves against both governments only encourages the current situation whereby the most vulnerable are allowed to fall through desperate gaps. Alexander Betts and Paul Collier’s Refuge (‘Transforming a Broken Refugee System’, Allen Lane) makes a persuasive case for granting refugees immediate access to work and education, and is painfully critical of the temporary plaster approach adopted by many charities. It makes a powerful point. Three days ago tensions reached their peak as fights broke out between 200 migrants in the town’s two main distribution points; it hardly matters how many food or clothing packages are created if there is no means to an end. Whilst there are certainly no clear-cut remedies (although my own contribution would be to allow refugees to apply for British asylum on the safer side of the Channel, immediately, to prevent anymore needless death), tangible change has to come from the top. Ultimately, the decisions made by governments, however disagreeable, must be supported by aid workers on the ground if they are to avoid being consistently undermined, and completely inefficient.


uk columnists

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