Monday, December 14, 2015

Queueing for everything but a shot at a decent life

The queue seemed to have been virtually stationery for an hour. Apparently it was inching towards the tiny door in the wooden shack with the label 'distribution point' above it right next to the listening caravan. People kept yelling 'Simon' but they didn't want me; they wanted a twenty-something, raven haired lad with a mischievous smile who was somewhere in or around the hut. Today was shoes. People wanting trousers, who'd waited an hour before they found out, began to drift away disappointed, grumbling. They come to our small group asking if we have shoes. But we only had what we were wearing.

Queueing is part of camp life. People shift from one queue to another through the day: a queue for a clothing handout, a queue for a hot meal, a queue for water for washing or cooking, a queue to use the toilets. There's not a lot else for folk to do during day light hours except queue. But it's no life for anyone.

Our group was a mixed bag of refugees, volunteers and visitors. I was having an animated conversation with a brother from the Taize community who I had just met and who was asking me about the listening project. A trio from a London church had just pitched up wondering where they should leave the contents of a seven-and-a-half ton truck. Samir is talking easily to residents and visitors alike, graciously dealing with questions while making sure all the folk in his care have rice and sugar from the box I've just given him.

Earlier we had been in the Afghan cafe, a sweat box where hot sweet tea arrived in your hands before you'd found a seat. It was humming with people. Europeans, Sudanese, Syrians, Iraqis, Ethiopians, Iranians and others were crammed into what seating there was. It was a camp meeting where representatives of ACTED, the French NGO sent by the court to enact its judgement against the French government, were talking about water, sanitation and shelters. They were outlining plans and then listening to comments and suggestions from all the residents' representatives.

The meeting happened in English and Arabic and was generally good-natured. I had a sense of being at the birth of a town council, where representatives of the residents would express their views, make their demands, and would receive a courteous and sympathetic hearing from the agencies and volunteers present. Everyone seems to want to make the jungle work - everyone except the French government and their representatives ringing the perimeter of this disused chemical site in riot gear, packing assault weapons and shades, who make life for residents harder than it need be. In the cafe voices appealed for a meeting with the police but ACTED could not deliver this; they'd ask, but... They can deliver cleaner toilets, better water, more coordinated distribution of food and clothing; and all that is welcome.

Following all this as best I could, I was reminded that historians tell us that revolutions are sparked not by the very hungry and dirt poor but by those who have begun to taste a little prosperity but who are thwarted from tasting more. The jungle is in that precarious position. Maybe this accounts for the rising tensions within and beyond it. As residents are getting their basic needs met, other needs surface: the need for dignity, being listened to, self-determination, the ability to have some mastery over their ultimate fate. That is still denied them as the French and UK governments stick doggedly to their denial of the camp's existence or the possibly legitimate claims of many hundreds of its residents for asylum In either country. Moves are afoot to test some claims. Hopefully that will lead the floodgates opening. Frankly we could absorb the entire population of the camp in the UK without anyone batting an eyelid.

I had come that day, with Linda, to see how the listening project was shaping up, meet a few interested people and pass on a bit more food to Samir. We made new friends, met up with old ones, shared amazing hospitality in Samir's kitchen as he dished up a feast of bean stew and thick salty porridge.

The camp has changed since my first visit a month ago. There are more toilets (though they still take your breath away!) and more water points; there are more and more shelters being put up, signs of some permanence as residents get set for a European winter; and at the far end of the camp, the ground is being cleared for a bunch of shipping containers, accommodation for 1200 people out of a population of 6,000+, being put onsite by the French government. There is a feeling - especially among those present at the meeting in the Afghan cafe - that the jungle is becoming an established township, similar to the kind you find across sub-Saharan Africa or clinging to the sides of cities in Latin America and South and South East Asia. You don't expect to stumble across one in a G8 country. But it's here and its taking root and shape and becoming home to thousands of people.

By next summer, if it's still here, it will be feeding Calais' informal economy with workers prepared to do a shift for pennies in order to have cash to feed the growing economy within the jungle. There's probably a really interesting development study to be done about the place. But what's more important is that the people resident there are recognised as human beings with needs and a just claim for our attention, so the jungle can be denuded of its citizens as they are granted asylum among us.

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