I WENT TO CALAIS TO FIND OUT – and help, if I could. The news, like statistics, can’t convey it, each story, one of tens of thousands of little tragedies being played out barely 100 miles from where I live. These refugee people, puppets in the hands of war, famine and other unspeakable terrors; these mothers and fathers and all the other dearly beloved ones who are lucky enough, or rich enough, not to have died before they got to France, find themselves recycled from the tyranny of old terrors into the new, and at times equally complex, nightmare of Europe.
Grounded in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (which recognises rights to seek asylum from persecution) the United Nations Convention, to which, after the carnage of World War 2, Britain was such a proud signatory, supposedly preserves the rights of these people to safe harbour. However, this contract is expertly, regularly and conveniently circumnavigated, if not at times simply ignored.
I was instantly reminded of another great humanitarian European project, the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th century, lauded for setting the tone for tolerance and reasoning across the globe. This moral justification of European culture, often used as the excuse for the project of Empire, unknowingly showed the real underbelly of Europe’s capitalist soul in the terrors and tortures of the slaving ships and plantations survived by some of my ancestors.
Unlike that transportation of the masses of African peoples, buried in this little corner of France is part of the story of today’s extraordinary refugee crisis, the worst since World War 2. Conveniently for our government, this is a crisis of non-Europeans and we barely see women in the throng. They are left behind in what used to be their homes, in the hope that the men, in saving themselves first, will soon find themselves in a safe enough place to save them too. The women who have made the journey and survived stay mostly in their tents, hawk eyes on their children, and for good reason.
Last month the French cleared sections of the camp, putting up 10 foot fences paid for by British taxes. Military police, many ex-members of the notoriously racist French Foreign Legion, called shivering families from morning sleep. Once out, police bulldozed the makeshift homes, pulverising the few precious belongings, photos and relics of lives now shattered, so carefully carried across oceans, now turned to debris beneath bulldozer wheels. In the melee of tear gas and batons 124 children were lost, presumed stolen, by traffickers waiting to sell children into the ever-hungry European sex trade. Someone had conveniently let traffickers know what was happening, so they, unlike the refugees, were ready. As police lined up to do their dirty work, traffickers were already encircling the camp, ready to scoop up stray children who were bound to fall prey. It made me feel sick.
In a landscape as attractive as a levelled refuse dump, socks and dolls and the remnants of life in this part of the camp peek through what I am told is asbestos, a legacy of the polluted industrial site the camp was built on. Volunteers tell me of fears that dry weather will lift asbestos dust swirling in the air, finding little homes in lungs, but that fear is for the future. For now my eye is drawn to the middle of the devastation, to the towers of the shanty- town church, an ironical gesture towards the hopes of these human beings for the redemption, and maybe even the compassion, that has supposedly been Europe’s gift to the world. The mosques of course are gone.
One other building has been left untouched - the school, set up not by a teacher but by a remarkable refugee who saw a need and acted. The school compound is spotless and ordered. Sapling trees are well tended. A climbing frame and simple seats await the children’s play time. Each classroom has desks and small chairs, books and pictures for volunteer teachers who stay to teach the children. I can’t bear to ask how many of their students disappeared.
Ahmed can’t be more than 18 years old. Some day soon Ahmed tells me he will get to England. He’s tried already. He talks to a volunteer and tells them that one day, walking down a road, a lorry driver threw some object so hard at him he found it hard to walk. “Why did he do it?”, he asks.
The morning after my return I look from a window out towards the sea. I think of Ahmed and the others I met, and those I didn’t ever see, who had tried to make it to Britain that night, in containers, rubber dingies, walking through the tunnel, dodging trains passing at 100 miles an hour and I hope, I really hope, they made it. All of them.
I went to Calais to find out – and help, if I could. I packed food bags. I sorted clothes. I talked to people and decided... so many things.
Momentum Thanet is planning to take a coach to The Jungle in Calais on 18 June, joining the convoy leaving from London. If you want to find out more, or donate, please be in touch.
is on the Editorial Board of Labour Briefing and was until recently Vice chair of Momentum