In my nearly four years as a Trustee of Art Refuge UK, I have always enjoyed and admired the enthusiasm with which its staff and volunteers have spoken about the importance of its work. However, today was the first occasion on which I have found time to visit any of our overseas work overseas, to observe something of what they been talking about with my own eyes, on a quick day trip to Calais during planning for the next phase of our support for refugees in northern France.
I have visited other camps housing displaced people before - in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Rwanda and Sri Lanka - always finding it to be a sobering experience. However, what marks the Calais ‘Jungle’ out amongst that company for me, is its more ramshackle, slum-like layout and appearance, and the notable absence of many of the usual international agencies who provide some level of protection for displaced people. While many of us moan about the clashing of the relative mildness of this winter with the over-active central heating in our offices, the refugees stranded in this settlement are exposed to the wind and rain next to the North Sea, mostly in tiny donated tents at risk of sinking into the mud. French government bulldozers erecting more durable shelters and an expansion of Médecins Sans Frontières facilities were in evidence, but it is not yet sufficient for the demand. A lack of overarching coordination is leading to confusion in the camp about where help can be found and adding to the frustration and desperation of its inhabitants. By all accounts conditions further up the coast in Dunkirk where we intend to extend our service, are worse still.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that with all our society has learned by the twenty-first century, and with the resources and relative stability of first world western Europe, we really ought to have more of a collective response to offer than this. The neglect is not really because this a new crisis to which we are still racing to adapt – the Jungle has existed in ever-evolving form since the closure of the Sangatte reception centre in 2002. Rather, it’s because both international law and the resourcing of multi-governmental agencies allow help to be strategically directed towards discouraging migration, and that means that anything that does not encourage refugees to remain close to their point of origin is not a ‘favoured solution’. Our own government’s pledge to give funding to care for Syrian refugees still contained in countries bordering their homeland, rather than to those already in Europe was a recent articulation of this bias, long established through previous refugee crises elsewhere.
However, the recent surge in migrant numbers across Europe has generated greater awareness and, in some quarters, sympathy. There has been an outpouring of small-scale generosity by Europeans.
A smattering of interweaving initiatives by concerned individuals and charities working to support and protect this nascent community, is now clearly in evidence upon entering the camp and is a truly heartening sign. In spite of the efforts of ‘leaders’ bent on dividing us into nations, religions and philosophies, the obligation to offer sanctuary still remains of paramount importance for those of an empathetic disposition.
If you number amongst the many who have made material donations of such things as old clothing and cheap sim cards or have been frantically knitting hats, then rest assured that these are being very carefully put to the best possible use – marshalled by a small army of energetic volunteers giving up their time to help. During my visit, Art Refuge therapists spent the morning delivering capacity building support for volunteers connecting vulnerable people with medical care. This group of brave young people came from a wide range of backgrounds and different parts of France. For the rest of the day they and we fanned out across the camp. The value and need for the psycho-social support and opportunities for expression provided by Art Refuge was quickly in evidence. We could not get far without being recognised by refugees eager for us to spend more time in their tents.
Looking more closely at the ways in which people living in the camp have utilised the most limited of donated and recycled resources to erect homes and even businesses to sustain themselves, I thought to myself that these were amongst the most enterprising and industrious people I had ever encountered. Although most of the camp hums with the noxious odour of an adjacent chemical works, intermittent relief can be found amongst the wonderful aromas emanating from the makeshift restaurants and cafes that have sprung up with offerings reflecting the great ethnic diversity of the Jungle. Also on offer in the small area we explored was a hair dressing salon and a bicycle repair shop.
However, the delights of this makeshift high street are only for the enjoyment of those lucky ones who can come up with a scheme for scrabbling a bit of currency together. A common query from those who approached us was where to go for free food. My colleagues have observed some of those they have been helping visibly thinning over the weeks. A few conversations quickly reminded me that many of these people have been traumatised by war or persecution, most nurse the hurt of heart-breaking separation and loss, and all are disorientated by a new country with unfamiliar languages and surroundings.
As I had been told to expect, the majority of residents are young men, a challenging dynamic in itself. However, there are many women and children too and they must be particularly vulnerable. Indeed we paused for a while after Médecins Sans Frontières staff requested that we spend time with a young boy with special educational needs, whose father had been rushed to hospital. Thanks to their frantic enquiries, somewhere was found to house him safely in town for that night, but it was a troubling thought that he might soon have to return to the tents.
At home, our media often paint a confusing picture, continually trying to tie the suffering of these people in with the story of the day, be it the loss of steel jobs in Scunthorpe, a Commons vote on bombing ISIS or the future of the Euro zone. Just the day before my arrival in Calais, Belgian journalists were attempting to nudge my colleague into denouncing the efforts of the French people to deal with the migrants in Calais – perhaps hoping to rebalance the national pride books in light of some of the Paris bombing perpetrators having been tracked to Brussels. Please note that we would not be able to do as much as we are without the generosity of concerned French citizens who are helping.
After spending the day in the Jungle, I was reminded how proud I am to be associated with a group of people who aren’t concerned with such petty tribal loyalties and politics, only with helping people who are so obviously in need. I would like to thank Bobby Lloyd, Anna Kälin, Fawzia Afifi and Jess Linton for their great company, insight and tireless work in Calais, and our partners at Médecins du Monde for their warm welcome and ongoing support.
It is my great wish that Art Refuge UK can go on growing and developing its much-needed support for displaced people in Calais and around the world. We are being continually being approached by people seeking our aid, so please do consider helping us to respond if you can: http://www.artrefugeuk.org/#!get_involved/c8k2
Please note that the views and observations above are my own and not necessarily reflective of those of Art Refuge UK.