All jobs come with unexpected days – however there was nothing in the 2 ½ years I had worked in the Civil Service which prepared me for the first week of November 2016. On the Monday evening a phone call from my manager told me that I was to be deployed, along with a few hundred others to Calais in France. Over the last few years the growth of the migrant camp in Calais has become a symbol of several trends; the war in Syria, the butchery of Islamic State in the middle east, global poverty, and the failure of European states to offer a coherent, co-operative, or compassionate system of asylum, or safe migration.
The previous week I had been in Glasgow interviewing for the job I now have. At the time of my interview it felt strange to speaking of social justice, and the need for the church to welcome the stranger, when at breakfast I’d been watching the footage of the French authorities razing the camp to the ground after several weeks and months of discussion and threat.
That week the majority of the camp had been cleared, and the remains burnt. Between 1500 – 1700 young people (unaccompanied asylum seeking children), and families remained in two sections of the camp; the white UNHCR cabins seen on the news, and the buildings of an old summer camp next door. An agreement between the French and British governments had been reached, that those still in the camp would be taken to reception centres across the country, those eligible to come to the UK under either the Dublin Regulations (concerning those with family in the UK), or the amendment to the Immigration Act proposed by Lord Dubs (to take in vulnerable children from Europe) would have their cases considered and bought to the UK, the others would be considered for asylum in France. The purpose of my visit was as one (of many) who were there to show a presence of the British government; to reassure those who were being transported that this was not a trick by the French authorities, and that the British government had not forgotten them.
My team and I were used on the Thursday; various logistical problems meant that not all the camp’s residents left on the Wednesday when the operation began. For me it was a strange feeling to be going to a place which I had seen and read so much about. The graffiti on bridges calling for access to the UK, or freedom to travel remained, but the rest of the camp was all but gone; all that remained when we travelled in was debris, and the Eritrean church which had been built. The church had become something of a symbol within the camp of hope, but also safety; on Tuesday evening several young Eritreans had taken shelter there when tensions between the Afghan and Eritrean teenagers had erupted. (We witnessed the church being demolished as we arrived.) The smell of burning, be it from the fires that the camp’s residents had been using, or the recent destruction I couldn’t say – but it was all-pervading through the area.
Within the summer camp the graffiti was of a different kind; murals for peace, flags from the countries and nations the families had come from. A colleague shared a regret with me: that we were not able to photograph any of it before it is removed (I suspect that this destruction has now taken place). The logical and informed part of me knows how unsuitable the camp at Calais was for anyone to remain in. The residents living in some desperate situations, vulnerable to attacks, bad weather, the increasingly hostile local population and police, and the “agents”; the term used for people smugglers who exploit the desperation of the migrants, offering the chance to enter the UK, but using threats, violence and extortion to profit on the misery of others. However, there were others in the camp; the volunteers who have put themselves at the service of the poor, offering language classes, legal assistance, and the support which the state refused to offer. On board our coach waiting for the families we were to travel with I witnessed the tearful goodbyes between volunteers and migrants. Whatever greater safety we were taking them to – a community of people was being broken up over these few days.
During our journey, Wais, a young Afghan man a few years older than me with his wife, and Abeel, their 2 ½ year old son, told me that the camp was like being in England; “everyone spoke English, all the kids speak English rather than French”. On our journey Wais told me about his life; the disappearance of his mother, and kidnap of his sister many years ago, then the events that had led him to leave Afghanistan with a new-born child. He also told me about how he’d spoken with his mother, a refugee safe in the UK for the last 7 years, who had long believed him to be dead. They had not met; she was unable to afford to travel to France, but he was hoping to be reunited with her soon.
On our coach were 4 Afghan families. Jamal, a 14 year old, the oldest of 6 children travelling with their mother; his youngest sister was 5 weeks old, born in the camp. On the journey he was telling me about his time in the camp, his hope to see his father in the UK; but would grow silent when I asked about certain times in the camp before the family had been able to move to the more secure accommodation in the old summer camp buildings. When packing the night before we left I had grabbed my rucksack – still containing my things from volunteering on Salesian Youth Ministry summer camps. The playing cards and juggling balls (although these had to go away after going too near the driver and French officials at the front of the coach), along with the gloves from our first aid kit which after inflating and drawing on became “chicken-balloons”, provided some entertainment on the 16 hour journey. The biscuits and chocolate we had purchased for our team’s return journey instead became part of a midnight snack, and a small bridge of trust with the young people we were accompanying. Our arrival at the families’ new home came a little after 2am. I helped Jamal move his family’s belongings to their new bedroom, and, tired as we both were pulling suitcases (donated by one of the charities), he chatted about wanting to come see Manchester, my home city and especially Man United.
Saying goodbye and leaving to let all the families settle in, I found myself speaking with an employee at the site, another part of which functions as a care home for children with learning difficulties. He was telling us that there was some anger amongst locals; fears that the people being brought in were terrorists. Outside the centre I had observed several handmade banners in red and black; we had assumed (wrongly) that these were in protest about the children. The banners were actually in opposition to staff cuts, organised by their trade union. However, it was undeniable that the reporting on French TV had us on edge, and all coaches travelled under police escort when leaving Calais and for several miles before their final destinations. We had also heard accounts of other coaches where people had refused to board, refused to leave, and in one case, where the centre had refuse to admit the coach at all. The reactions of some people in the service stations we stopped at on the way hadn’t helped; at one stop the arrival of our group had prompted staff to pull the security shutter across the wide, open entrance, leaving a single file channel next to the till.
I travelled back from France after a few hours sleep, to the Salesian Youth Ministry meeting. Trying to reflect on what I had seen and heard. (I think that is also why I felt the need to start typing this). For me it is a lack of compassion and humanity which led to the growth of the camp at Calais. Whatever our country’s legal obligations, seeing people living in misery, and throwing themselves under the wheels of trains and lorries in attempts to reach safety has been drowned out by the hate-mongering of the press. The decision to accept vulnerable children into the UK should be praised. But for me a question which remains unanswered is : who decided to make the first groups brought over not the children I travelled with, but 17 year olds, bought over in the eye of the press, who were then subjected to the ignorance of the media and out of touch politicians making baseless demands for dental exams?
The day we travelled was 3rd November – the Feast of Martin de Porres - patron saint of those who work for social justice. When I discussed our trip to Calais with several colleagues I was surprised, but pleased, to hear that they had gone for the same reason; this was a humanitarian effort, and it isn’t often you get to be the good guys working for Immigration. I don’t doubt that those who volunteered to go believed we were assisting with improving the situation for those we travelled with, and all the stories I have heard since show the compassion and charity of my colleagues in difficult circumstances. However, I cannot ignore that it is the policies and prejudices of our government which contributed to the situation in Calais, and that there remains a fear of what will come next. The camp in Calais will almost certainly be re-established despite all the extra fencing and barriers which have been put up in the area, as we have so far failed to address the causes of the current migration trend. I also fear the politicisation of migration and asylum in this country following the events of last summer and the increasing tensions in our society.
I pray for Jamal, Wais, Abeel and their families. For others who are seeking safety, and for our compassion as a country and continent during these times. The morning prayer on 3 November , taken from Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, struck me when I read it on the coach:
Lord, when we open our hands and hearts to the poor, your kingdom is at hand. Remind us that there is always enough to give to those who are in need. Make us generous today with the goods you have entrusted to us. Amen.
Danny is a volunteer with Salesian Youth Ministry, and the Social Justice Co-ordinator for the Justice and Peace Commission of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland