Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Bulldozing A Lifeline: Hope and Community in the Calais Jungle by Tess Berry-Hart

"Half the camp have a book in their tent and most days our classes are full of students or kids getting used to the routine of school. At night everyone uses the rooms to contact family, make music or just keep warm. They're not just bulldozing wood and plastic. They're bulldozing a lifeline."
Mary Jones, Founder, "Jungle Books"

Music performances at Jungle Books Library, Calais Jungle camp
(Photo: Jungle Books)
A few months ago I blogged about Jungle Books Library in the Calais Jungle when I drove over with a van full of books, clothes and tents collected through the direct-giving volunteer group Calais Action. What I found was thousands of people from many different countries, living in tents on a flooded landfill pit, hemmed in by fences, police brutality and indiscriminate amounts of tear-gas. But what I hadn't been expecting was so many volunteer-built projects springing up in the camp which wanted to give the Jungle's inhabitants more than just the basics for life; these projects wanted to give them hope.

Jungle Books Childrens' Space (Photo: Jungle Books)
What was also remarkable was that these projects were in the most part built by ordinary people - not large NGO's, international charities, or funded organisations (because they are not allowed to operate in Calais by the French Government) - but by people who had come together via Facebook, and self-organised with incredible speed.

As well as Jungle Books, many other grassroots projects grew up and flourished in the camp; two schools, two churches (one of which featured on Songs of Praise), two mosques, the Good Chance Theatre where the Globe performed Hamlet last month, as well as the Women's and Children's Centre, a legal advice centre, and a new youth centre where the hundreds of children between 12 and 18 could go for help, clothes and emotional support. Three kitchens served up to 2,000 meals a day. A measles outbreak was contained by a vaccination centre.
St Michael's Church, Calais Jungle camp

In this way, a whole community was created by refugees and volunteers working together, whether it was building, performing, or planning. Not only volunteer projects, but refugee-run projects sprang up - over 70 restaurants, shops and cafes were built and run by refugees. Some refugees formed new lives in the camp - a caravan was found for a refugee nurse who currently lives in the Jungle giving medical care, whilst other refugees work with the volunteers solely for the benefit of those living in the camp. Art projects are given by visiting volunteers - a participatory photography project, called Welcome to Our Jungle, gave cameras to those living in camp to document their daily experiences and provide a counter-narrative to the refugee crisis. Though nobody disputed that the Jungle could be volatile and dangerous at times, voluntary projects such as these provide an essential place for people to go, to connect, to educate themselves and most importantly to feel human again.

The "Good Chance" Theatre, Calais Jungle
However, a few days ago the local authorities announced that the "southern zone" containing these projects and a large number of homes would be bulldozed, and the inhabitants rehoused in a newly-built container camp. It might sound to some as if France is finally taking charge of the problem, either cleaning up a hotbed of illegal immigration, or providing secure warm accommodation to those living in a muddy pit, depending on your political stance. However the reality is somewhat more complicated than this. The French authorities' modus operandi has been for many months to make the camp as miserable as possible so that people will either not come or not stay. It hasn't worked - because people don't either pass up a place on a smuggler's boat to Greece because they've heard how awful the Jungle is, or travel thousands of miles because they've heard some guys are handing out sleeping bags - and only under extreme international pressure and disapproval have the French authorities created a nearby "container camp" consisting of 125 cargo containers stacked on top of each other (the irony is self-evident).
Area in red marked for destruction, The "container camp"
can be seen as the white square middle right

However, the new containers only contain places for a fraction of the inhabitants of the camp (1500 places for up to 7,000 inhabitants), and the southern zone contains these very projects that so many inhabitants rely on. These will now be bulldozed and there appear to be no plans to replace them - no kitchens or community spaces, libraries, religious centres or schools which are so important for communal living. Not only that, but many of the most vulnerable - unaccompanied children and teenagers - will not be rehoused in the container camp but instead re-distributed around the country, far from the projects which have been providing help and advice, much-needed routine and structure, and the volunteers which have befriended and supported them.

A church in the Calais Jungle is bulldozed
(Photo Credit: Help Refugees)
The authorities say that around 800 people will be affected and moved, but the organisation Help Refugees which runs a warehouse and distribution centre in Calais estimates the figure could be twice that. Furthermore, many of those proposed to be relocated do not trust the French authorities or the French system - too many broken jaws due to police "heavy-handling", indiscriminate firing of tear-gas into the camp when there is no trouble, and reports of turning a blind eye towards far-right gangs who regularly attack the camps inhabitants. Only recently have a few men been arrested for attacking some Iraqis with iron bars, and that in itself was news. This means that many of the inhabitants may not choose to enter the camp (there is a palm-print registration system which some fear will hinder chances of claiming asylum in Britain) but instead flee again and take up residence in other places around the coast, at risk of exposure, lack of resources, and from hostilities by far-right groups.

Nobody is insisting that people remain living in tents in freezing mud. But at the same time, the refugee problem cannot be solved by treating people as statistics. The wholesale destruction and relocation of an arbitrary number of people does not take account of their individual circumstances. The inhabitants of Calais did not arrive all in one go marching in lockstep with the same wishes, rights, or legal entitlements. They are from many different countries and backgrounds. Many of them have family in England, and therefore a valid right under existing EU asylum policy. In January 2016 a landmark case was won by Citizens UK which held that Britain should allow in three Syrian minors and one dependent adult from the camp with relatives in the UK while their cases were examined instead of staying in a icy swamp.

An Afghani family living in the Calais camp
(Photo credit: Welcome To Our Jungle)
This Dublin III reunification policy allows certain nuclear family members to travel to live with relatives in the UK, but in the muddy dirty conditions of the camp, accessing legal advice and confusing online forms is impossible (though the camp was given wifi by grassroots groups and is accessible via Jungle Books). 

At a recent APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group) on refugees, MP Yvette Cooper (who visited the camp last year) told us that in the same way a political solution was reached for the asylum station of Sangatte, so too should a political solution be available for Calais. Sangatte was an asylum station set up in northern France and managed by the Red Cross for a few years (1999 - 2002), before the government closed it down. Under a deal managed by the UN, some inhabitants were taken into France, and others with UK relatives into Britain. This put a brake on the speed of illegal immigration for some years, but recently more "jungles" have sprung up from place to place, and been bulldozed, as in 2009, only to spring up again. But this time, the very projects that have created a community and hope are being destroyed.

As Mary Jones, founder of Jungle Books told me upon receiving news of the impending destruction, "Jungle Books has become so much more than a library. It is a space that has grown into a real community hub. Half the camp have a book in their tent and most days all the classes (often 3 or 4 in parallel) are full of students learning French or English, and teenagers and kids getting used to the routine of school. At night everyone uses the rooms to contact families with wifi, to chat, to make music or just keep warm. They are not bulldozing wood and plastic. They are bulldozing a lifeline."

What can I do?

Watch and share this video about the projects of hope created in the Jungle featuring refugees and volunteers alike, called The Lotus Flower.

Sign this petition to French ministers about the destruction of projects of hope in Calais

Email your MEP on this link (make sure it's the European Parliament not your UK MP - they have no power to intervene on this issue) - Calais Action has published an open letter that you can cannibalise although the website does not accept bulk mailouts, there's a button where you can search and mail your MEPs simultaneously.


Grean Herbz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Tess - harrowing but essential information.

Anonymous said...

This is so sad. These poor people. They have so little and now after so much hard work the authorities are going to bulldoze it all. The UK Government are just as bad as the French, they're pretending it's all France's problem and want to wash their hands of it.

Shirley Webster said...

I've signed the petition, emailed my MP sorry my MEP, and am sending around the video to all my friends. Keep the articles coming, Tess!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for this, Tess.

Anabel Marsh said...

The beginning of your post makes me so optimistic about human nature, it's ability to adapt and to create communities wherever it goes. The end makes me so sad that not everyone understands this. Your previous post encouraged me to support the jungle library. I'll now take the other actions you suggest - without a great deal of hope, it has to be said.