Lord Alf Dubbs – SUTR Conference 8th October 2016
Saturday was my third trip to Calais, but this was unlike the others, this was 3 weeks after the destruction of the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp, which had been situated on a contaminated former landfill site, near the Eurotunnel and Ferry Port.
From unofficial surveys, done before 24th October this year, it was estimated that there were 9-10,000 refugees and migrants in the camp, some 1500 of whom were children between the ages of 8 and 16; many unaccompanied by adults.
There had been a great effort made by Lord Dubbs, having sponsored an amendment to the Tories’ Immigration Act 2016, to have all unaccompanied children, and those with family ties in the UK identified, rescued and brought to safety. Demonstrations were held locally and Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) held a National Conference to debate and demand action from the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd MP. Despite the imminent danger to these children the British Govt has only managed to process and rescue 70 thus far. Once the demolition of the camp began on October 24th somewhere between 120 – 400 children disappeared.
Let them in – Rally Oxford 14th October 2016
Over 3 days the French Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS – formed post WW2, originally most were former Communist/Socialist partisans; they were purged after a strike in 1948), who now have a reputation for brutality and racism, removed refugees and migrants from the camp on buses, demolishing, then burning the fragile shelters; bulldozing the remains. The CRS were responsible for the daily, casual lobbing of teargas grenades into the camp, and had often abducted men or boys, taking them to an isolated area where they would be relentlessly beaten by Facists dressed in black. It is worth reminding ourselves that refugees and migrants are not criminals, but people like us, moving from home only because of war or poverty.
Desperate to support the aid effort and to discover for ourselves the situation on the ground, four of us from Oxford C2C (an organisation originally founded to support the Convoy to Calais organised by SUTR and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity on 18th June) collected items of aid requested by Care4Calais (a Charity set up by Clare Mosley in September 2015). This list is renewed weekly, dependant upon the circumstances at the time.
We were able to fill 2 cars with tinned fish, bottled water, toiletries and 140 individual care packages which were donated by NHS staff and a group of Jewish school pupils.
Beginning our journey at 0430h we travelled south and across to France on the Eurotunnel, arriving at the Care4Calais (C4C) warehouse in Bleriot Plage at 0920h. Volunteers were already busy, and helped us to unload our vehicles. There were volunteers of varying ages, experience and background; some there for the weekend, others for a few weeks.
We then gathered around whilst Clare briefed us on the current situation:
‘The camp has closed, but we do not believe that this will change anything long term.The CADA (French Govt reception centres) that they have taken the refugees to are not meant to be a long term solution. What we were told is that they will be able to stay for a 4 week period, during which time they can decide if they want to claim asylum in France. That 4 week period ends this week. What we have seen over the first 3 weeks is a very harsh period…The French Government are committed to keep the refugees off streets of Calais, and in order to do that the police have been militant, picking them up and chucking them in detention centres as fast as they can, because they’ve got to be seen to stand by that… after the 4 week period ends they will deport anyone they can…it feels pretty horrible at the moment it feels like they are criminalising refugees; driving them underground. That’s not morally acceptable; refugees are not criminals. We are in a period of change which is difficult to deal with. People say to us, ‘What is going to happen?’. Well we don’t 100% know. We know what is going to happen long term, because long term it’s not going to change anything, because the reason refugees come to Calais is because they want to get to the UK, but the idea they all want to come to the UK is wrong. There are a massive number of refugees in Europe; there’s a massive number in France. A small proportion come to Calais, and those have a strong reason to get to the UK; This exercise won’t change that. Many [refugees and migrants] have family in the UK, or have worked or been educated in the UK. If anything what we may see is smaller camps springing up further along the coast in Dieppe, or Belgium. Refugees are arriving in Calais every day, either by train or on foot; our job is to intercept them before the police get them. The problem is there are over 1000 of them, whilst there are only 20-30 of us.
The French Government have 2 choices, either they start a new facility in Calais, but if they do that they risk another camp in Calais, which is what they said they did not want. Or they set up smaller detention centres in towns all over France, to intercept people before they get here. Whatever they decide, refugees will continue to make their way here.
As the 4 week decline approaches this week we expect things to become desperate as refugees make the decision to run away from the CADAs, rather than be deported.
This makes it hard for us to answer your questions, to put updates on Facebook; it is hard for us to motivate people. I don’t want us to appear disorganised or not focused. We are focused, we are focused on helping refugees in any way we can.’
Clare Mosley (centre)
Jobs were then assigned, 2 girls who spoke Kurmanji and Arabic were sent to a detention centre, to give moral support to a group of Syrian men on hunger strike; some were sent over to Dunkerque, to take supplies and review the situation there. Others called mobiles to provide vital credit top ups, or sorted clothing and food packages. I volunteered to be driver for 2 more experienced volunteers checking and collecting from the local train station.
On the way we detoured to check the site of the ‘Jungle’ for anyone camping out there I was eager to see what was left of the camp I’d visited in August, and anxious about finding young men hiding out in ditches or scrub. What would their reaction to me be?
Driving up, under the motorway flyover, was strange. Before the place was bustling with human traffic, in and out of camp; some men had been playing cricket, and there was noise. Now there was silence and a white CRS van full of Police, looking bored. We split up, and I followed the route I had taken through the camp in the Summer, except it was completely different. Detritus squashed into the sand everywhere i went; shoes, toothpaste tubes, bits of plastic, a bicycle and clothing. The atmosphere felt heavy and full of ghosts.
Whilst I wandered the police van would occasionally drive slowly past; I ignored it. I discovered later that the young filmmaker I was working with had been stopped and questioned. She was told to leave, but didn’t.
One thought that kept going through my head was that however awful the camp had been, it was a community, it had a vibrancy, it had a school and restaurants. It had life and hope. It made it possible for charities to concentrate on one site.
The Train Station
We left and drove to the small Calais train station in the centre of town, to be met be a Syrian volunteer who had found 3 boys getting off a train. They were 15 and 16 years old, and when he brought them out they looked scared. They were Eritrean. We stood outside talking to each other and these boys, while about 20 CRS sat in vans or wandered around in pairs. The atmosphere was tense and oppressive. I was sure we stuck out, and waited to be approached, or pounced on, but it didn’t happen. We walked out of sight and continued the conversation. Phone calls were made to the warehouse. One of the boys, Simon (15) wanted to go to a reception centre, the other 2 back to the station to take their chances on a train to Paris. They wanted to go on to Switzerland (though I never discovered why). We were going by another 2 Eritreans, another 16 year old and a man in his late 20s; he had travelled from Norway (where he had been welcomed and given permanent residency for the past 4 years) looking for his sister who was in Calais yesterday. Her phone was now out of credit. He only had until the following day to find her as he had to be back at work on Monday.
I collected my car and drove them , in two groups, around the one way system, past the Police, to ‘The Family Pub’ whose owner was sympathetic, and a place frequented by the volunteers on their time off. There we continued our conversations. The three 16 year olds were adamant about catching another train, so i drove them back, past the Police, dropped them off, and wished them luck. I was amazed that my car had not raised suspicion, and was not pulled over.
On my return to the pub i was told that our friends’ sister may have been picked up and taken to the reception centre we were taking Simon to. I discovered from Simon that he spoke 4 languages (his English was excellent), and had walked From Eritrea through Sudan and Egypt, to Libya. There, he had joined 300 others in a wooden boat and sailed to Italy. He had been an assistant Chef, and he had an Aunty in the UK; he didn’t know where, but he had a phone number.
We set off to take them both to St Omer (42 miles away), driving through torrential rain and Police diversions, arriving whilst it was still light. We were introduced to the Manager of the centre who appeared kind; she explained to Simon that she would sit down with him later and explain his options fully, so that he could decide what he wanted to do. He would have a bed and food and other young men in the same situation to talk to.
She did tell us that he would have 5 days in which to decide to apply for asylum, and where he would want to apply. If he chose not to, he would be deported, but if he chose to leave the centre beforehand, he was free to do so. The young man called Mebrahtu was told there were no girls in the centre and that there had never been. This was really upsetting because of the limited time he had, and the assurances given earlier that the girls were here. The manager explained that she would email us contact numbers for other centres in the area and charities working with refugees, which he could use to try to trace his sister.
We made our goodbyes and left with Mebrahtu, beginning our journey back through the countryside, in the dark, and lashing rain.
After dropping everyone off I joined my comrades to discuss our different days and what we had seen and learnt. Driving home was a time to reflect and process everything.
One thing is evident, especially with the rise of the right across Europe and America. We have to continue to fight racism anywhere and everywhere; we have to educate and demonstrate, whatever the obstacles and frustrations. We have to stay motivated and focused on helping refugees and migrants in any way we can.