8 min read, france, opinion

Alastair Sawday on the Calais refugee camp

6th May 2016

Everyone has a view about the refugee crisis in Calais but solutions are elusive. I do know that
while we dither, people are suffering.

I spent a day in Calais in December. I wandered the refugee camp (aka ‘the jungle’),
met refugees in their dozens, talked to a few, and spent time with the young
volunteers. I chatted to frustrated locals, to a French volunteer, and immersed
myself in the context and history. It is time for a few truths.

One small story, before I begin: my Calais friend used to have beehives throughout
the tunnel approach area. Now there are no trees and flowers, and his hives are
empty. He blames the refugees.


The area/situation/region is a tragic shambles. The refugees who have struggled to reach

Calais, and are still bottle-necked there in a squalid and wretched camp, remind us of a
responsibility that neither Britain nor France accepts. We have, on our doorstep, 6000
people in whose countries it is now impossible for them to live. Our history gives us a moral
duty to these people. Inaction is morally repugnant.

We leave them in Calais to sleep rough, wet and cold, at the mercy of wind and
rain and with little support from the large NGOs or our government. What have
we become? Are we numbed by our own cruelties inflicted on distant people? Has
our government shown such callous disregard for its own poor that we are calloused
to the needs of others? Both Governments are looking the other way, perhaps reluctant
to encourage more flight to Calais. But if a homeless man asks for help, does a decent
community turn its back lest others come too? I have just listened to a politician urge us to
leave the abandoned children in the Calais camp rather than bring them here.

The tunnel once brought prosperity to Calais. Travellers are using other ports,
businesses are fearful of using lorries and trains. Tourists are even afraid of
using the tunnel. The area was never beautiful but now it is bleak, studded
with policemen watching for escaping refugees, fringed with high security
fences, flooded with ‘defensive’ water, a World War One scene in places. Most
trees have been cut down to remove cover for hiding refugees. That is why my
friend has no beehives there anymore. Calais has been abandoned by the
Government. People who feel put upon become unreasonable, in this case racist
and intolerant.

Rowan, my son, and I walked past a police van into a squalid mess of large and tiny
tents, ramshackle shelters and mud. Leaving Rowan in the white Dome, where
young British volunteers were playing games with refugees, I strolled deep into
the camp, past litter, abandoned tents and furniture, and past different
communities of refugees – Sudanese, Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqi Kurds, and
families in caravans.

Wherever I went I was met with smiles, civility, even friendliness. I was lured into a tent
filled with young Sudanese men who pumped my hands, drummed and sang. I left close
to tears. This was the place of which the locals are so afraid. It is now an amiable shanty
town, with shops, cafés, safe houses, a barber shop, loos, bubbling humanity.
It deserves dignity. Yes, it has some of the problems of other communities – racism,
mafia-type activities, trafficking – but it works in spite of every conceivable
hurdle put in its way.


Then to the warehouse for donations, mostly clothes.
Here was another scene of chaos: vast piles of black bags of unsuitable
clothes to be returned to the UK and sold for cash, mountains of boxes of difficult-to-allocate
clothes, mountains of other stuff being sorted into usable piles. Medicines are
well sorted. Vans turn up and disgorge their donations. The volunteers moved me
close to more tears as they talked of their affection for the refugees and
their shame at Britain’s response. They are working for us all and are often the only people
to do anything to help. They clothe, shelter, advise and befriend a community of 6000 people.

Everyone has a view about the refugee crisis but solutions are elusive. I do know that
while we dither, people are suffering.

Letus also put an end to our fear of these refugees; they are helpless, human
beings like us. Desperation has driven them here, and to risk their lives. They
deserve better from us than neglect. So do the volunteers. So does Calais. Perhaps one day the bees will


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