Thursday, May 11, 2017

A new jungle?

Well, it has been a while, but here is a reflection on today's visit to Calais. I caught up with friends in the warehouse, met new people in the Catholic worker house and went shopping with my favourite monk (everyone should have a favourite monk!) and I went to see where food distribution takes place on a daily basis...

On a piece of waste ground at the back of Calais’ Zone Industrielle des Dunes, a snaking line of a hundred or so people queues for food. A similar number sit in groups eating, talking, some catching up on sleep. 

This is not the new jungle but it is a rumour of it. Desperate people tell stories of being pepper sprayed last night by the police, of running for most of the hours of darkness to avoid the CRS vans. They gather here seeking a break from the monotony of dodging the authorities, a chance to catch their breath, tell stories.  But there are no shelters here - bar one (of which more in a moment) - and no evidence of any emerging. This is just a place for an hour or so's respite before the trudging continues. So it is no new jungle.

A gaggle of volunteers at the back of a transit doles out rice and beans and salad. The Calais Refugee Kitchen works with miracles with scant resources and a skeleton crew. 

Away from the groups eating, other groups huddle round jerry cans of water 'showering' as best they can, squatting with shampooed hair and cupping water over their heads. There has been an outbreak of scabies, an infection caused by lack of sanitation and living in the same clothes for days on end. With showers harder to come by because the authorities harass those groups that provide them, laundry services all but non-existent and new clothes in shorter supply than a year ago, this low-level plague will only get worse.

A CRS van cruises by every fifteen minutes or so but doesn't stop. So we sit and chat with a mixed group of Eritreans and Afghans, talking as best we can about the previous night and how long they have been in Calais, how often they have tried to get to the UK, and where they are going to try to sleep today or tonight before they try again. 

There's an Afghan family living in a tumble-down wooden caravan (the aforementioned single shelter). A mum and dad and three children, grateful that Secours Catholique will take them off for showers. As months give way to years, they wait for a government that will pay them the attention they are looking for. Meanwhile the children play and run and hug Mariam and eat oranges, juice streaking dirty faces and hands. Their hope breaks your heart, their plight raises a fierce anger in your gut, the desire to break down the fences keeping them from the safety and security we all take for granted.

Our wall - £2m-ish of UK tax payers money lining the A16 to the ferry port - speaks of our attitude to these people: a problem to be kept at arms length by concrete and razor wire, increased armed patrols, pepper spray and harassment. And this group of a couple of hundred, subdued, wary but smiling when we squat with clutches of half a dozen or so, welcoming us into their conversation, wanting to tell us as much of their story as they have language for, wanting to know who we are and where we're from, interested in making connection with the world beyond the constant search for shelter in the storm of indifference.

But this is not the new jungle. That had been a place of relative safety, somewhere, at least temporarily, to call home, a shack, a bed, a kitchen, and the rudiments of community. That was swept away in a wave of cleansing zeal by a prefecture which assumed that if they washed these people from the land, they would disappear. But they are here, large as life, still determined, still amazingly good natured, still steely in their determination to cross over to the promised land. 

And where are we? Most of us are home, tucking our children into bed, entertaining friends for a meal, enjoying a night out, settling in front of the TV, safe, secure and doing all the things those in the snaking line would rather being doing given half a chance.