Thursday, December 01, 2016

A month on, what am I thinking..?

I'm sitting in a meeting understanding very little, seeing mainly smiling faces which laugh in the way that people do to an in-joke. I wonder if I'm feeling a little of the disorientation that a refuge feels when people are talking about them rather than to them, when they are trying to navigate their way through an alien landscape. Most are talking about the issue from their viewpoint and in the interests of the organisation they represent. And now my translator has abandoned me to make a phone call!

It's strange a month on from the demolitions - this week the twenty-eight day cooling off time is up for the residents shipped to CAOs. I'm trying to gather my thoughts. I have wanted to sit and write to get some reflections down but I wonder if everything is still quite raw. I feel as though my mind is a dam behind which a lake of emotions is rising. Once the dam is breached I have no idea what will come out.

When people ask me about the jungle - often expecting me to say that there's nothing to do now, so I'm not going to Calais anymore - I can feel a river of information like a pent-up flood that will be released as soon as I begin speaking. I find myself having to check my sentences so that I give space for others in the conversation to tell me and the rest what they've been doing. But once I start, it's hard to stop.

I want to talk about the government and how woeful its response has been; I want to talk about the people I don't see anymore because they're scattered across France (and the pain I feel about that); I want to talk about my friends who are in the UK and who I don't see enough. I want to talk about the people I've met and how I've seen Jesus in their eyes and actions. I don't want to talk people into submission or drive them away because they don't know what to do with the feelings that I'm offloading on to them.

So I say I'm still going because of the house (I'm one of the managers of the association that runs the Catholic worker house in Calais). As a follow-up, I say that there are still three refugees in the house who have various medical needs, that we are hoping they will be moving on to the next stage of their journey very soon, into a place where their needs will be more fully met. There were five but one has gone to Paris, the other made it to the UK earlier this week; both need mental health support.

But I can't leave it there. Suddenly I'm railing against the inertia of a system that is only now - only when the twenty-eight day window has closed - beginning to assess people. Suddenly I'm asking in a voice being overcome with pain why the home office hasn't seen any of the kids we were working with who have a claim to go to the UK to be reunited with family, why no Dubs children have left France for the past month, why we think this is an acceptable way to treat people. But, of course, no one in the conversation thinks this is an acceptable way to treat anyone - let alone a vulnerable child refugee. And of course, few know what a Dubs child is or how the Dublin treaty works and they are not sure they should ask me for definitions at this point!

So, I stop. I ask how they are and what they've been up to. But they are looking for someone easier to catch up with.

I find myself asking (myself) if I've become too political, too absorbed in this issue that is complex and overwhelming and leaves so many feeling powerless. I wonder if they are a bit in awe at what I've done over the past year, feeling that they don't know how to engage me on it, what questions to ask. I wonder if I've come across as too bolshy, like a demonstrator ranting at the police for want of making my case to an authority figure who could actually make a difference.

Calmer now, I tell my friends that I've been to see my MP, raised some specific cases with him, urged him to urge the Home Secretary to pull her finger out. I do this in answer to the question I get asked more and more: 'what can we do?' My answer is always 'write to your MP, try to meet them, make a noise, sign a petition.' It's safe but I wonder whether it does any good. I feel I ought to be saying that they should be ripping up paving stones launching them at lines of riot police... I feel the heat rising.

Of course, I don't think that. I believe that we need to raise the issue peacefully, move to learn the way of non-violent resistance to power, find ways of adopting the techniques of civil disobedience to bring the traffic to a standstill and inconvenience the government into pulling its finger out (without, of course, making life harder for the government's many victims over here). I find myself so far out of my comfort zone, I begin to stop talking. Where's Arthur when you need him? A reference to a wonderful volunteer who always talked about mobilising along these lines!

So now I'm asking how I can gather my thoughts and reflections on this year. What can I write? And suddenly I'm mute. I'm back in that place of feeling a dam solidly stopping the flow of thoughts and feelings from spilling onto the page. 

So I wait.

I know, however, that the thoughts won't appear until I sit in front of the keyboard with a blank screen and a free day.

So I wait.



Thursday, November 03, 2016

Why planning matters

As the last bus leaves the camp, I am reminded of a second curse of today's world (after too few people doing important jobs). It is our apparent commitment to brinksmanship. We leave everything to the last minute. Now this is ok when you're thinking about an evening out or a weekend away. It's not a good strategy for sorting out complex problems affecting the immediate safety and long-term futures of some of the world's most vulnerable people.

But it seems to be the mindset of both the French and British governments in relation to the children of the jungle. Our government has known since the start of this year of the presence of many hundreds of unaccompanied children who have a Dublin 3 claim to asylum in the UK (because they have close family already settled here). The government knows because of the work of Citizens UK identifying and registering them, taking a test case to court and opening up a channel with the Prefecture to transfer children from Calais to London. 

Yet our government did nothing. Indeed it opposed Citizens UK in the courts. It lost the first round but won on appeal - lots of money spent to keep children out of the country that could have spent bringing them to safety. 

Then when the French finally decided that they had to remove the jungle, the British sprang into action with all the all the energy of a lethargic snail. Acknowledging that something needed to be done, they then allowed any and every obstacle to slow the process down. They managed to transfer 200 unaccompanied minors in a week but there it has ended. Our government is now locked in unseemly buck-passing with the French government. The thinking seems to be 'who can be seen doing the least to resolve this situation?’

Last week's chaos in the camp that has resulted in 2,000+ people, many of them children, existing with precious little support and no idea of what the future holds for them, is down to a lack of planning on the part of both governments. Now we all know that lack of proper planning results in piss-poor performance. But it reveals something more than that. It reveals a complete indifference to the consequences of our poor planning, in this case, the abandonment of some of the most vulnerable people in France.

Proper planning is evidence that we care. It shows that we are prepared to put ourselves out, commit resources to ensure that those who need our help, get it. Lack of planning demonstrates that we actually do not care at all about these people. The lack of proper planning on the part of our government and the government of France shows that neither really cares what happens to those who have come seeking refuge, safety, help.

Yesterday, the buses took unaccompanied minors to accommodation and assessment centres across France. Some of them were accompanied by officials from the UK border force whose job will be to assess Dublin 3 claims that any of the minors have. This is a change from last week when the mood music was that children who had been registered as having a Dublin 3 claim would be bussed to the UK to have it sorted out there. The upshot of this is probably that fewer of these children will make it to the UK, more families will remain divided, more minors will remain stuck in limbo.


Today the final residents - women and children and a few male partners - left the Jules Ferry centre. The camp goes quiet for a while.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

witnessing the jungle's last gasp

It is the curse of today's world that companies and organisations, even governments think it is efficient and cost-effective to run any operation with the minimum number of staff. It isn't. 

I arrive at a virtually empty house to be invited to take a young man to register with the minors at the camp. He has mild mental health issues and gets agitated in crowds. Some in the stationary queue have been there for two hours already. It doesn't look good. We stayed about five minutes in the melee and it was clear that he wasn't coping. We left. 

We bumped into a colleague on the way out of the throng, told her what was happening. She confirmed the under-staffed chaos within and regretted that she couldn’t pull any strings to get our friend fast-tracked. We’d have to find another way 

We went off to find other friends under the fly-over and plan our next move. 

The only place where the staffing maxim doesn't apply here is with the CRS, the armoured, tooled-up French riot police. The more the merrier. They've booked some 1500 bed spaces across Calais for the foreseeable and now a great phalanx of them Is deployed as the prefect's people arrive for their photo call with the world's press.

it’s mid-afternoon, an autumn sun is warming the air and the show is about to begin. A spokesperson for the Prefecture, a petite, almost chic early middle-aged blond woman in fur topped wellies, tells the waiting media what’s about to happen. She makes it clear that it is not a ‘destruction’ but a ‘cleansing’. I turn to my French speaking colleague to confirm what I’ve heard. The prefecture would prefer the world’s press to describe the removal of mainly black and middle eastern people by a mainly white, European police force as a ‘cleansing’. She seems to have no idea of the bloody swathe this word has described through European history, including the recent story of the Balkans. But she sticks with it.

Almost comically she then warns the press not to speak of the deployment of bulldozers to effect the cleansing. Rather the contractors will be using 'bobcats'. The small machines that appear almost as she speaking are track vehicles fronted with small claw-bottomed hoppers that look to all the world like bulldozers, albeit small ones, but bulldozers all the same. We point this out later to a journalist on a mobile, phoning in copy, telling the ears at the other end that the machines are bobcats not bulldozers. He stresses this as if his story hangs on it. He doesn’t appear to be from Construction News, so we turn to him and point out that a bulldozer is a bulldozer is a bulldozer whatever label the prefect’s spokesperson attaches to it. He looks non-plussed!

And so on cue, dozens of men in pristine orange jump suits and white hard hats, equipped with a range of tools from spanners and wrenches to chain saws and hammers, appear and start ‘cleansing’ a shelter.

It is testament to the tireless team of British shelter builders who put up most of the structures around the camp last winter with the help of the residents, what great work they did. The shelter is virtually indestructible. For twenty minutes and more, the team pull and push, poke and prod, bang and twist the panels, eventually deploying the chain saw to cut some 2” by 4” timbers at the base, but seem to leave little mark on it. Eventually it succumbs and the bobcat comes in to take way some of the bits and deposit them in a skip.

All this is watched by a posse of camera crews ranged on the two vantage points left vacant by the CRS.

At this rate of progress, it will take until Christmas to cleanse the camp.

Of course, this is a stunt for the press. Offer them something compelling for the six 0’clock news and they’ll disappear to their hotels leaving the authorities to scythe through the camp with their usual brutality.

A colleague watches all this and a Sudanese boy turns up having queued to register and been turned away because there were too many minors and far too few staff. He needs to get his papers. His caravan is earmarked for destruction and cut-off by a line of CRS. A bit of negotiating ensues and he is allowed to retrieve his documents and a few belongings before having to vacate the site. Now he has nowhere to sleep. His lack of registration means he has no wrist band and does not appear on the lists for the containers. He is homeless.

It’s ironic that this should be the case because the spokesperson from the Prefect’s office had said that the authorities had chosen to start the cleansing here in order to create a cordon sanitaire around the container park so that the young people housed therein would feel safer. You couldn’t make it up.

Of course the day after this charade for the press, things get mildly uglier. Registered and unregistered residents of the jungle, faced with eviction by the French state, burn their shelters, the homes that they have made from the scraps around them, the community they have forged in the teeth of opposition and harassment. It is their final act of agency in a situation where they are being systematically stripped of any control over their lives, herded like cattle on to buses in some ghastly though far less grisly reenactment of recent European history. The Prefect’s spokesperson, lacking any sense of irony, misses this.

The rest of us turn away weeping, ashamed.

witnessing the jungle's last gasp

It is the curse of today's world that companies and organisations, even governments think it is efficient and cost-effective to run any operation with the minimum number of staff. It isn't. 

I arrive at a virtually empty house to be invited to take a young man to register with the minors at the camp. He has mild mental health issues and gets agitated in crowds. Some in the stationary queue have been there for two hours already. It doesn't look good. We stayed about five minutes in the melee and it was clear that he wasn't coping. We left. 

We bumped into a colleague on the way out of the throng, told her what was happening. She confirmed the under-staffed chaos within and regretted that she couldn’t pull any strings to get our friend fast-tracked. We’d have to find another way 

We went off to find other friends under the fly-over and plan our next move. 

The only place where the staffing maxim doesn't apply here is with the CRS, the armoured, tooled-up French riot police. The more the merrier. They've booked some 1500 bed spaces across Calais for the foreseeable and now a great phalanx of them Is deployed as the prefect's people arrive for their photo call with the world's press.

it’s mid-afternoon, an autumn sun is warming the air and the show is about to begin. A spokesperson for the Prefecture, a petite, almost chic early middle-aged blond woman in fur topped wellies, tells the waiting media what’s about to happen. She makes it clear that it is not a ‘destruction’ but a ‘cleansing’. I turn to my French speaking colleague to confirm what I’ve heard. The prefecture would prefer the world’s press to describe the removal of mainly black and middle eastern people by a mainly white, European police force as a ‘cleansing’. She seems to have no idea of the bloody swathe this word has described through European history, including the recent story of the Balkans. But she sticks with it.

Almost comically she then warns the press not to speak of the deployment of bulldozers to effect the cleansing. Rather the contractors will be using 'bobcats'. The small machines that appear almost as she speaking are track vehicles fronted with small claw-bottomed hoppers that look to all the world like bulldozers, albeit small ones, but bulldozers all the same. We point this out later to a journalist on a mobile, phoning in copy, telling the ears at the other end that the machines are bobcats not bulldozers. He stresses this as if his story hangs on it. He doesn’t appear to be from Construction News, so we turn to him and point out that a bulldozer is a bulldozer is a bulldozer whatever label the prefect’s spokesperson attaches to it. He looks non-plussed!

And so on cue, dozens of men in pristine orange jump suits and white hard hats, equipped with a range of tools from spanners and wrenches to chain saws and hammers, appear and start ‘cleansing’ a shelter.

It is testament to the tireless team of British shelter builders who put up most of the structures around the camp last winter with the help of the residents, what great work they did. The shelter is virtually indestructible. For twenty minutes and more, the team pull and push, poke and prod, bang and twist the panels, eventually deploying the chain saw to cut some 2” by 4” timbers at the base, but seem to leave little mark on it. Eventually it succumbs and the bobcat comes in to take way some of the bits and deposit them in a skip.

All this is watched by a posse of camera crews ranged on the two vantage points left vacant by the CRS.

At this rate of progress, it will take until Christmas to cleanse the camp.

Of course, this is a stunt for the press. Offer them something compelling for the six 0’clock news and they’ll disappear to their hotels leaving the authorities to scythe through the camp with their usual brutality.

A colleague watches all this and a Sudanese boy turns up having queued to register and been turned away because there were too many minors and far too few staff. He needs to get his papers. His caravan is earmarked for destruction and cut-off by a line of CRS. A bit of negotiating ensues and he is allowed to retrieve his documents and a few belongings before having to vacate the site. Now he has nowhere to sleep. His lack of registration means he has no wrist band and does not appear on the lists for the containers. He is homeless.

It’s ironic that this should be the case because the spokesperson from the Prefect’s office had said that the authorities had chosen to start the cleansing here in order to create a cordon sanitaire around the container park so that the young people housed therein would feel safer. You couldn’t make it up.

Of course the day after this charade for the press, things get mildly uglier. Registered and unregistered residents of the jungle, faced with eviction by the French state, burn their shelters, the homes that they have made from the scraps around them, the community they have forged in the teeth of opposition and harassment. It is their final act of agency in a situation where they are being systematically stripped of any control over their lives, herded like cattle on to buses in some ghastly though far less grisly reenactment of recent European history. The Prefect’s spokesperson, lacking any sense of irony, misses this.

The rest of us turn away weeping, ashamed.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Firm action brings more questions

So, my young Afghan friend finally got his ticket and was reunited with his brothers two months after the UK home office agreed to take his claim under Dublin 3. In the late autumn warmth of St Pancras station, brothers embraced and we wept tears of joy into our take-away coffee.

And the haunted young man who asked our help three weeks ago is also in the UK, swept up in the sudden rush of Dublin 3 cases the government wanted dealt with before the jungle succumbs to the bulldozer. He is impatiently awaiting reunification with his brother, giving constant updates on WhatsApp about his mood and worries.

Two shafts of light in the darkness of the camp. But we always stress that while you can snatch someone from the jungle in the blink of an eye, it takes weeks, months, possibly even years to extract the jungle from the minds of its former residents (whether refugees or volunteers).

And now the camp is in its end-game. The day of closure has arrived and sullen ranks of residents queue with their meagre possessions to get on buses taking them to the stage on their journey to peace and security. We knew the day was coming and have felt it to be right that comes. But now it's here and tomorrow they'll start pulling physical structures down, I feel a sense of impending bereavement.

And another boy assumes the centre of my attention. His sister is willing to welcome him into her family but with the demolitions getting under way tomorrow and no one being registered today, we are anxious for him. And he represents so many for whom this is just one more uncertainty, insecurity.

Tomorrow I head back through the tunnel clutching my little red book and my association registration allowing me to come and go and do the things we need to do. And I'm wondering what difference are we making? What are Europe's governments and peoples learning as this sea of people ebbs and flows through their lands? How are we allowing God to reshape our thinking about his priorities for us?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The agony of inertia



Yesterday I sat in the sunshine with friends outside a hospital block. One of then, a young man recovering from horrific leg injuries, is almost ready to be discharged though he still needs a good deal of treatment and intensive physiotherapy. He is also waiting for a ticket that will enable him to travel to be reunited with his brother. He is excited at the prospect.

He is also close to despair. What the psalmist said of his people is true of my friend: 'their spirits languished within them.' (Ps 107:5). My friend has a languishing spirit.

I first met him on dank afternoon in November outside the library. He was cold and haunted by fear. He had only recently arrived and had not yet found a permanent shelter. He was desperate to get to his brother. But he was stuck. He had no idea how he could manage it and was afraid of trapped in this in-between place forever.

Eventually he got a shelter near the library and as winter set in, he hunkered down. Then early in the new year, something happened that left him with an aggressive infection that threatened to cost him his left leg. Months of treatment followed in hospitals where he didn't speak the language or fully understand what was going on.

He was haunted by a new fear: would he ever walk again without assistance? At 19 with dreams of riding a motorcycle and being someone, he was facing a life of disability. And he was alone. We visited him as often as we could but that did not really touch his sense of isolation. Every time I see him I catch that haunted, fearful look behind his greeting and his hug and his smile and his welcome.

And now he waits for a ticket.

This young Afghan man, whose family is scattered by the war in his land across at least three countries, whose father died in service of the Nato forces, waits for a ticket. He is on the final agonizing stretch of his journey. Fit enough to be discharged from hospital, he received word from the UK home office that his Dublin 3 claim for reunification with his brother has been accepted on 8 August.

And here at the end of September he is waiting for a ticket.

Maybe it will come next week after visits to the Prefects in both Calais and Arras.

Maybe.

And so we leave him, urging him to be patient, and as we round the corner into the welter of tents and shelters and people, a young man with the same haunted look as my friends stops us. He's 16 and has a brother in London and no other family in the world (as far as we can ascertain). Can we help him? And so it begins again. Taking details, making calls. urging patience and offering support.

How long? How long O Lord before their cries - and our cries - reach your ears and you deliver them (and us) from this agony of inertia?




The agony of inertia

Yesterday I sat in the sunshine with friends outside a hospital block. One of then, a young man recovering from horrific leg injuries, is almost ready to be discharged though he still needs a good deal of treatment and intensive physiotherapy. He is also waiting for a ticket that will enable him to travel to be reunited with his brother. He is excited at the prospect.




He is also close to despair. What the psalmist said of his people is true of my friend: 'their spirits languished within them.' (Ps 107:5). My friend has a languishing spirit.




I first met him on dank afternoon in November outside the library. He was cold and haunted by fear. He had only recently arrived and had not yet found a permanent shelter. He was desperate to get to his brother. But he was stuck. He had no idea how he could manage it and was afraid of trapped in this in-between place forever.




Eventually he got a shelter near the library and as winter set in, he hunkered down. Then early in the new year, something happened that left him with an aggressive infection that threatened to cost him his left leg. Months of treatment followed in hospitals where he didn't speak the language or fully understand what was going on.




He was haunted by a new fear: would he ever walk again without assistance? At 19 with dreams of riding a motorcycle and being someone, he was facing a life of disability. And he was alone. We visited him as often as we could but that did not really touch his sense of isolation. Every time I see him I catch that haunted, fearful look behind his greeting and his hug and his smile and his welcome.


And now he waits for a ticket.




This young Afghan man, whose family is scattered by the war in his land across at least three countries, whose father died in service of the Nato forces, waits for a ticket. He is on the final agonizing stretch of his journey. Fit enough to be discharged from hospital, he received word from the UK home office that his Dublin 3 claim for reunification with his brother has been accepted on 8 August.




And here at the end of September he is waiting for a ticket.




Maybe it will come next week after visits to the Prefects in both Calais and Arras.




Maybe.




And so we leave him, urging him to be patient, and as we round the corner into the welter of tents and shelters and people, a young man with the same haunted look as my friends stops us. He's 16 and has a brother in London and no other family in the world (as far as we can ascertain). Can we help him? And so it begins again. Taking details, making calls. urging patience and offering support.




How long? How long O Lord before their cries - and our cries - reach your ears and you deliver them (and us) from this agony of inertia?



Monday, August 29, 2016

Replacing inertia with action

It was good to see the jungle leading BBC news bulletins today and with none of the hysteria, hype and hogwash of the tabloid news papers.

In particular the beeb highlighted comments by the president of the Calais region suggesting that migrants in the camp in Calais be allowed to claim asylum close by in France.This is a view that is gaining traction in the country with two of the candidates for next year's presidential election also weighing in in favour of changes to the Le Touquet treaty.

Tomorrow our new home secretary is visiting her French counterpart in Paris. It is to be hoped that this issue will be on their agenda. Of course, we know the UK government's view. That was put to the beeb by a former ambassador who trotted out the line the government has been spinning for the past two years - handling things differently in Calais will act as a magnet. This is unlikely given the tiny proportion of refugees heading for the jungle compared the numbers going north to Germany and Scandanavia.

Instead the UK government thinks spending upwards of £60m on fencing and other security enhancements (which is the cost of the CRS in the camp) is the sensible choice.It is also wedded to the Le Touquet agreement whereby the UK was moved to Calais and the French one to Dover in a bid to quell the 'illegal' movement of people across the border. It hasn't worked.

And the people of Calais are fed up of living in what is increasingly feeling like a prison such is the rash of razor wire topped creeping across the city, shielding various sites from the migrants.

So they are beginning to ask what does the Le touquet treaty give them? And the answer is not much. It certainly isn't doing anything for the refugees living in increasingly squalid and overcrowded conditions in the jungle.

And the answer would seem to lie in the UK giovernment having a little immagination and making it possible for those in the camp to claim asylum in the UK. If they have a strong claim, then ship them to the country to be properly assessed. If they don't, then tell them that even if they can make their way into the country, they will not be able to claim asylum and will be returned to the first place they set foot on European soil. n that way, it wouldn't be a magnet; it would be a more humane response than the inertia that is currently our government's policy.