Saturday October 22nd: On the first day at the L’Auberge warehouse it was made clear that, due to the imminent closure of the camp recently arrived volunteers would not be able to take part in distributions. There were a large number of new arrivals at the warehouse. Some had come for the weekend and teachers on half term were among those fresher faces. We were told that if we went to the camp independently, sightseeing so to speak, L’Auberge would ask us to leave the organisation. The point was made that we were needed in the warehouse, sorting, packing and cooking.
There was a little more tension about as the last distributions before the closure of the camp were planned and delivered. The atmosphere was just the same; positive and good-natured. And some of the smiles had given way to faces lined with stress and tiredness.
I got a text from a long-term volunteer. I’d met her when I gave her a lift from London to the Jungle. She asked me to help her prepare and deliver a presentation to minors at the camp. Spain was offering to take a small number of young, unaccompanied refugees and the opportunity to make a new start in Cadiz had to be explained. I found the work in the warehouse hard but rewarding. I was feeling that I could get through to the end of my stay. So I had mixed emotions about going to the camp. If I couldn’t justify going on the basis of there being a real purpose, why go? And I didn’t want to add to the burden that people living there were already facing. But, having weighed the choice, I decided to help her. We began in the city, doing laundry for the friends she stayed with in the camp – Syrian refugees who no longer had access to any means of washing clothes on site. That done, we worked on the presentation. It was basic information about Spain, its festivals, culture and history. The presentation prepared, we drove the van to the camp.
The Jungle was established following the enforced closure of an earlier camp nearby at Sangatte. In early 2016 the authorities had carried out a partial closure already, moving people from one part of the camp and installing the re-purposed shipping containers in a fenced enclosure – which would become the setting for almost the last, desperate days of the camp. There were areas which were dirty and strewn with rubbish. But there were also elements which stood as a tribute to the combined efforts of refugees themselves, volunteers, and aid agencies to bring a measure of humanity to bear. A library, school, safe spaces for women, a kids cafe, a church and mosques had all been fabricated from a mad variety of scrap materials and some old vehicles. There was even a beauty to it, to parts of it. The squalor may have been just as hard for residents but humans are resourceful. You read in the papers about knife fights, assaults, petty crime and disease. In any group of ten thousand people there’s always the chance of such things. But the ingenuity and spirit that had flourished was largely unacknowledged in the mainstream media.
Somehow, tiny shops and several cafes had been established and were doing what they do. People had tried to make the best of things – sometimes decorating or embellishing their shelters. The camp existed largely because people fleeing war and persecution were seeking what they felt would be a better life in the UK. The Jungle was a stop-gap for them rather than an end in itself. I didn’t want the camp to be closed – but because even I could see that the timetable for closure was unrealistic and inhumane. It would be incredibly disruptive and difficult for the thousands of already troubled people – especially the children and the vulnerable groups. At the same time I didn’t want these people to have stay here, in these conditions, in Western Europe in 2016. It was clear that the UK would be unlikely to take more than the young, unaccompanied people with family ties to Britain and a number covered by the Dubs amendment. France, and other EU countries, have a better record of accepting those seeking asylum. But all the EU states involved, including Britain, share the blame for allowing this humanitarian crisis to proliferate on their doorsteps. Why had there been no attempt to process asylum requests more quickly? Volunteers, with scant resources, had provided the amazing Refugee Info Bus – a mobile resource that offered free wi-fi to refugees so they could contact family, free legal advice and a means for the voices of the camp residents to be heard. If such a valuable resource could be created from nothing by people donating their time, expertise and money imagine what a tiny amount of state support could have offered. Just one per cent of the millions of euros spent on miles of razor wire topped fencing, on the CRS policing budget, or on the huge concrete wall that is being installed, as I write, courtesy of HM Government at a cost of millions of pounds. Instead it was left to NGOs, charities and groups of volunteers to struggle on.
The situation in the camp was confused. We walked back and forth and spoke to different groups. After a time it became apparent that there would be no presentation. The minors we had hoped to bring the information to were not able to attend. It was a confusing and complicated time and, ultimately we had to leave with the aim of the day unfulfilled. A frustrating missed opportunity.
We left and trudged across the bleak landscape. A group of refugees played cricket, watched by a small crowd. The was a sombre atmosphere in parts as people waited for the unknown, for the closure, to begin in a matter of days. It would be the end of something extraordinary. And hopefully, for most if not all, it would be the beginning of something better. I hadn’t achieved much. It would have been difficult to foresee the way things became so chaotic. It had taken a whole day and it was frustrating not to have been able to do more. There was one thing which redeemed the feeling of a missed opportunity. I met a young, unaccompanied minor who knew the woman volunteer I was helping. He spoke to her for a few minutes, chatting about the situation. Unexpectedly he then turned to me and began to speak. I’d been told not to ask about people’s experiences because of the trauma. I sat and listened and he talked. Probably for half an hour. He spoke about his life in Afghanistan, his father’s business, the journey he’d embarked upon, of being in the back of a fridge lorry with everyone smoking, feeling he was going to suffocate. He spoke about how surprising and confusing it was that in Europe women hugged him and how they didn’t in Afghanistan. He talked about how nice the police in Afghanistan were compared to those in Belgrade and in Germany. Someone said to me that people in the camp sometimes felt they were talked to a lot but not listened to. I hope that he is being well looked after wherever he has gone to. He deserved to have his story heard.