I got back to Belfast yesterday evening, after an 18-hour journey home.
My week in France flew by. At the same time, I also feel like I was with Care4Calais for a lot longer than six days. The whole experience was exactly as I had hoped: to see, for myself, what is happening ‘on the ground’ and to relay this back to my friends and family, as well as to anyone else I could reach through social media.
I can only imagine what things were like when the so-called ‘Jungle Camp’ was open. At one stage there were several thousand refugees living there. From what I understand, there are now just under 1000 refugees living in and around Calais. I should say that I have recently started to cringe when I hear, and indeed when I use, the term ‘Jungle Camp’ (although, it is, undoubtedly, the easiest way to convey what’s being talked about). However, for me, this type of language is a large part of the problem. It contributes to the stigmatisation of refugees, creating a sense of ‘otherness’ and casting aspersions on the type of people that they are. The top result, on a quick online dictionary search, defines ‘jungle’ as ‘a location marked by intense competition and struggle for survival’. Wiktionary defines it as ‘a place where people behave ruthlessly, unconstrained by law or morality’.
Refugees did not choose to live on the streets of Calais, or Brussels, or wherever else they might now be living in a state of limbo. The vast majority chose to seek a new life, over one in a war-torn country, or over poverty, or natural disaster, or fear of persecution. And many of them want that new life to be in England, in the UK, which boasts worldwide of its own prosperity and high standards of living. For the French and British authorties to decide that those people, including many unaccompanied minors, must instead live in tents, in a city outside of the UK, completely cast out from society, surviving in the conditions I saw, is, in my view, simply immoral, and goes against the very concept of human rights. And to top it off, they then call that place a ‘jungle’. Whilst, of course, the main camp no longer exists, for many of those who were living there, the situation has not changed and, ultimately, the damage it caused to their reputation has long since been solidified in the eyes of many.
I have listened to many different debates and contributions to this subject. One individual who has resonated and whose words have stuck with me is Akala (the English rapper, poet and political activist). I haven’t heard any of his songs but in the shows in which I’ve seen him appear, he talks a lot of sense! In one, he posed the question: if it was ‘a bunch of white people’ drowning in the Mediterranean, would governments of EU nations continue to remain silent on the issue and fail to act? Would the UK still be ‘ok’ with one of its national newspaper columnists (Katie Hopkins) referring to refugees as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘a plague of feral humans’? I very much doubt it.
For me, and the point that Akala makes is that, race and racism is central to the issue of how refugees are treated. From what I’ve read, I’m satisfied that the colonisation, of African countries in particular, by the West, has played, and continues to play, a significant role in the struggles and complexities those nations are experiencing today. This, in turn, has contributed to the mass movement of people out of those countries.
Whilst I had an invaluable insight into the situation for refugees in Calais (and beyond), I am left with a nagging feeling of frustration and helplessness, one which I doubt will leave me for some time to come. Ultimately, I could not give the refugees I met what they really want. I’m not even sure where I would start in trying to find a solution. What I do know is that the solution would not and should not involve treating fellow human beings like animals. It requires European countries to work together and share responsibly, to afford basic human dignity and respect to those wishing to carve out a new life for themselves and their families.
There are also things I believe we can all do in our own daily lives to help gradually change mindsets. We must continue to challenge the political rhetoric and biased, inflammatory language used towards refugees and migrants, something which was particularly prevalent in the Brexit debates. We should keep expressing our abhorrence of, and objections to, the views of the Donald Trumps and the Katie Hopkins’ of this world. We can help to welcome asylum seekers and refugees in our own communities, by getting involved in local organisations and events, thereby acting as an example to others. Let’s also keep reminding ourselves, and others, that no one in this world gets to choose where, or in what circumstances, they are born.
And that brings me to the end. (I could probably go on, but I won’t!) Thank you for all your support and encouragement throughout this process. Going to Calais, and telling people about my experiences, is something I’ve thought about doing over the past year or so. I hope that it has given you an insight into what’s really happening, and that you will feel slightly more confident talking about this issue as a result. If you have any questions or would like further information on any aspect, please feel free to get in touch.
I never expected that I would get as much interaction and positive feedback as I have, and that, in itself, has made the project so worthwhile.
• The charity Care4Calais provides direct aid to refugees living in the worst conditions across France and Belgium who do not have access to shelter from the elements, basic sanitation or health facilities, adequate food, clothing or other daily essentials – http://care4calais.org/
• Maria McCloskey is on Twitter at @MariaMcCloskey