Who Needs a Van Full of Shoes and Scarves?

17 Oct 2016

As you may have read in the press, the French government are about to shut down the Calais refugee camp. Last week it was suggested the demolition would commence today, 17th October, but it is now more likely to be in a week or so. Residents of the tents scheduled for bulldozing have been informed of the imminent threat, but details and plans for resettlement are scant.

On Friday it was widely reported that several van loads of aid were turned back at Dover and at Folkestone by French immigration officials on the basis that the presence of supporters of the refugees constituted a risk of civil disorder.

My friend Tree and I arrived at Folkestone on Saturday morning in a Transit van ram packed (as no-one except Jeremy Corbyn ever says) with supplies for Care4Calais in a state of considerable trepidation. Luckily the immigration officer recognised us as a pair manifestly incapable of packing light and, having gazed in a bemused fashion at the contents of the van, waved us through.

The mass of clothes, tents, winter boots and food that 1 Pump Court members and others had donated were very well received when we arrived at Care4Calais an hour or so later, and we were soon helping out with sorting donations and loading up containers for distribution runs.

Later on, we went into the camp and distributed documents containing Immigration and Asylum advice, translated into about a dozen languages, to the lovely people working at the refugeeinfobus. They were delighted and we have been asked to send more copies, so many many thanks to all the authors and interpreters in the immigration team who made this much needed gift possible.

I’m still processing my impressions of the camp. I have to acknowledge that on both Saturday and Sunday the weather was quite pleasant, and anywhere is more tolerable in the sunshine. We left before dark on both days. Again, this distorts things to some extent. Even having taken these factors into account, my impression was so much more positive than I had expected that I remain confused.

People walking around were, without exception, pleasant and kind. People said good day in various different forms; people asked if we were lost; and people helped point us in the direction we needed to go. Many of these people had no shoes – it is cold and hard and wet underfoot.

The memory of the line of about 100 men standing in the rain waiting for an aid distribution on Sunday afternoon is haunting, although leavened by the fact that one joker offered us his place in the queue because (yet again) we were looking a bit lost.

At one point on Sunday I stood waiting to keep an arrangement to meet the amazing Elaine at the Hummingbird Children’s Centre. I was quite alone in a sea of people, almost exclusively men and boys, but I felt no sense of vulnerability. As those of you who know me are aware, I am old, small and unfit, I had a smartphone in my hand – frankly I presented a mugger’s dream target, but the guys passing by just gave me a cheerful ‘ca va?’ as they went.

After a while, my friend’s son came to find me (naturally I was waiting in the wrong place). He had a coffee in his hand (some blokes he had been playing football with had insisted he take it.) If anyone tells you that the camp is full of gangs and criminals remember this image and realise that they are we just as we are they.

We did hear stories of fights and gang violence, and very sadly of children being beaten up, having become involved in turf wars. We did hear of police brutality and casual cruelty – like insisting that refugees who had been intercepted trying to get onto lorries hand their shoes over before being directed to walk the several miles back to camp through the rain in their socks. To be clear, this is not a destination anyone would chose if there were an alternative.

The best news we gleaned was that now every child has a rucksack packed, containing a mobile phone, a solar powered charger and some credit for the phone as well as some spare clothes and basic toiletries. It remains an absolute disgrace that there are lone children there – many of whom have every right to be in the UK – but there is some care for them in place. This care is provided in a patchwork sort of way, but they can obtain food and education and basic advice when they need it.

The messages about what is going on for the children remain unclear. On Friday we were told that all of the 300 odd children with entitlement to be in the UK would be brought here this week; Elaine at Hummingbird and Inca at Auberge were ecstatically pleased and relieved. Today I saw in the paper the news that just ten are coming. The situation for the ‘Dubs Children’ – those who ought to be brought here because of the brilliant amendment proposed by Lord Dubs, a kindertransport survivor – remain uncertain. What is certain is that it is getting colder and wetter and, as it does, it is possible that the patience, resilience and optimism of the Calais refugee camp residents and aid workers may crumble.

I cannot finish without mentioning the amazing people toiling away providing help at the camp; their commitment and decency is inspirational. If you have ever felt that a situation is so huge that you can do nothing about its awfulness, please think of the scores of people of many different nationalities at Calais sorting through clothes, cooking meals and offering advice and solace, and find some inspiration and comfort. Your gifts of clothes, shoes and money are appreciated as much for the kindness of the gesture as they are for themselves.

Please look out for updates, in which we will no doubt appeal to you for money, phones, shoes etc again.

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