At the start of this year, following our appeal for items to take to Calais, we headed to the ‘Jungle’, loaded with blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, torches, warm clothes and other winter essentials thanks to all of your generous donations.
Led by a group from the Newham Teachers Association, we travelled with members of the Newham Labour Party, Newham Pakistani Forum and a group from Newham Stand Up To Racism, stopping on the way at the Care4Calais, which provides aid to the camps, to help with food distribution while we were there.
Appalling conditions and increased violence
Our visit coincided with a press conference in the camp given by Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbot, who condemned the state of the camps, saying “These conditions are a disgrace anywhere. We as human beings have to reach out to fellow human beings.” This was following the demonstration we joined, alongside refugees and French supporters highlighting the appalling conditions they are forced to live in.
The demonstration was largely peaceful, although unfortunately reported otherwise in the media. Those in the camps though, did report an increase in violence against refugees, in the form of tear gas being fired regularly into the camp and incursions by the police and racists who attack them. The police presence was much higher; the motorway exit to the camp was sealed off and there were convoys of CRS riot squads moving around it.
As for the conditions – it’s one thing to hear about how bad they are but another to experience it. While we were there, there were workers collecting rubbish in the camps but this was only a recent development, as the result of a court ruling won by Doctors Without Borders, which obliges the authorities to do this. A large strip of the jungle has been bulldozed flat, destroying all the all the tents and huts that people were living in next to the motorway. The French authorities have provided shipping containers with bunks, which some refugees have moved into, however there are no cooking facilities, toilets or communal areas. These bunks will provide space for 1,500 people, which is only a quarter (if that) of those in the camp. Many more can’t move because there is no space for them, or won’t because it will mean much tighter control and the possibility of deportation.
Dost Caseworker Diana Seretis was overwhelmed by what she saw, saying, “What I saw and experienced was overwhelming, and only a window into the world of some of the most vulnerable people throughout Europe.”
Between us, the groups that made up this Newham convey donated 930 Euros to Care4Calais on this trip. Altogether, Newham conveys have taken more than 6,000 Euros, ten car loads and a transit van full of essential supplies. We have already been back once during February to help with food distribution and will definitely be going again. As Diana put it when speaking of a young boy she connected with over a donated football (you can read her full personal account here):
“I know firsthand the ways in which children like him could be helped, and it is a tragedy that children like him are trying to survive in dangerous and appalling conditions. I can’t know all of the daily dangers and struggles he and so many others are facing, but I do know that they are all human beings being treated as less than that.”