Thousands of refugees endure a living nightmare reports Wendy Pettifer
My first morning on ‘the jungle’ as a pro bono lawyer and there’s a thick mist between the A16 motorway and the arid land where south camp used to be before it was destroyed – making about 2000 migrants homeless. After seeing small phantom figures with rags around their heads, I realise that the mist is tear gas and find out later that the CRS riot squad is a permanent presence on the Calais camp. Someone helps me find the Legal Shelter: a small caravan with two tables and six chairs deep into the Afghan section. The previous shelter was burned down. I will spend three hours here every day for three months advising on all aspects of asylum law and particularly taking charge of requests from kids as young as eight with close family members in the UK as part of a mainly French team. Our centre has a French and an English lawyer supervising (mainly French) law students. Like the camp, it’s chaotic. We have no internet, no office, no copying facilities. Even so, in the three months I was there, we were able to get 14 minors out of the camp to join family in the UK.
Different nationalities live cheek by jowl in horrendous conditions. When I arrived in May there were around 7000 occupants, which has since grown to an estimated 9000, about 800 of whom are children. The camp is the only refugee camp in the world which is not supported by UNHCR. Instead, over 100 French and English NGOs attempt to run the camp through a council of community members, mediating between various warring factions. The multiplicity of services is bewildering. On the east side lies the main road to the main hub, the Jules Ferry centre, and the enclosed women’s camp and the hospital centre. On the west side is a street with over 100 shops, community centres, and restaurants including the Kids cafe which provides invaluable support to the 800 plus children on camp. At the bottom of the street are 700 containers access to which is controlled by fingerprinting. Next to that is the Sudanese hill, the sprawling Afghan community and several mosques. In spite of its size, the French authorities do not recognise its right to exist. The right wing mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchard declared after the UK Brexit vote that she intended to renege on the “Le Touquet” joint agreement which enables the UK to externalise its border to Calais. So far she has failed to get the necessary backing from President Hollande so the camp continues, its occupants enduring a brutal level of harassment by the French state.
On 22nd July the CRS riot police raided 13 so-called “restaurants” set up to feed the inhabitants, including the Kids Café. They were closed on the grounds of failing to pay tax and inability to meet health and safety food standards. The closures were later declared illegal by the Tribunal Administratif in Lille. The Kids Cafe immediately reopened but this is typical of the state-sanctioned harassment taking place in order to destabilise the camp and deter new arrivals. The jungle is a violent place, not least because of this. Many people die in the jungle mostly when trying illegally to get into lorries, but they also die in fights and fires. A massive brawl towards the end of May resulted in 40 hospitalisations and many tents and shelters being razed to the ground. Fires are a constant hazard with kids falling asleep beside lighted candles. Many fires are set by arsonists, possibly at the behest of the state.
To reach a better life
The main jungle activity is trying to reach the UK and a better life. This means illegally clambering into juggernauts travelling to the port at night. Small boys run after the lorries to try and open the back so the adults can get in. People are killed and many are injured: broken arms and legs, fingers and toes, lacerated faces and hands from scaling barbed wire fences. Calais hospital has a whole unit dedicated to treating camp occupants. In the week of 22 July three people died, including an 18 year old Eritrean girl who was run over by the lorry she was trying to get into. The French refused to allow us to hold a vigil in town. Trying happens from after supper to dawn. People then return to their shelters and sleep until midday. An evening meal is provided at 8 pm by two large UK NGOs arriving in vans with food in plastic containers. The camp has no means of processing rubbish, so an enormous amount of waste lies around in black bin bags, waiting to be collected by NGOs and this led to an explosion in the rat population. An extermination drive in July led to the surreal sight of flocks of seagulls feasting on rat corpses.
Children are living feral. There’s only one tiny school. They are at constant risk of abuse, hundreds of them sleeping in tents and shelters with up to six adult men. Following a UK case known as ZAT, the French have reluctantly set up a system to process the children’s “take charge” requests to join family members in the UK. In 2016 over 50 children have passed to the UK but this is thanks to the efforts of the legal shelter and its UK equivalent, Safe Passage. But this is a tiny percentage and the system is hopelessly inadequate. Currently there are 127 children in the system awaiting either approval by the Home Office or processing by the French once that approval has been granted. And there’s still no system for adult discretionary take charge requests. I am about to return to Calais to bring a 19 year old man to the UK to join his brother. He’s been very ill, the Home Office has approved his request but there is no system in place for adults to actually get to the UK. Although the “Dubs amendment” included in the Immigration Act 2016 provides for the safe transfer of an unspecified number of children to the UK, shamefully not one child from Calais has been transferred as a result of the provision. MPs need to act now.
If the living nightmare of the Jungle is to be humanely dismantled, the French must agree to putting serious resources into processing both children and adults who are legally entitled to join family members in the UK and assist all those who are not applying for asylum in France. Until that time I remain humbled by the spirit and generosity of both camp occupants and volunteers and I will continue to work to get children out of there and to safety.