Yesterday, myself and five others got up early, left our homes and made our way to Calais. Unlike many others making this trip from the UK, we were not on a booze cruise or European road trip. Instead, we were travelling with all the warm winter donations we could squeeze into six backpacks and heading for the migrant camps of Calais.
The trip was inspired by David Charles and Beth Granville’s “Thank-You Letter to the Daily Mail”, which called for a “D-Day-style flotilla of solidarity” with the Calais migrants, courtesy of the Daily Mail’s £1 P&O ferry promotion.
But, while I am proud of us for gathering donations and travelling to France, our small act of solidarity is not the story here.
The story is that more than two thousand people, mostly fleeing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, are being forced to live in horrendous conditions, not in a war-torn corner of the globe, but in the heart of Western Europe. The story is that we too, through our tacit support for our government, are complicit in this tragedy.
Life in Calais
We reached the Tioxide Camp after a long, depressing walk through barren concrete landscapes. This camp is home to as many as a thousand people, mostly from Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is centred around a former gymnasium and two incongruous basketball rings hang above row upon row of cheap tents, the sort you see abandoned at the end of music festivals in the UK. There are hundreds more such tents outside the court; the most luxurious are raised on hard wooden pallets to keep the occupants off the frozen ground.
When the site was taken, there had been water and electricity, but that has long since been cut off by the landowner. Now there is just one water source, across the road from the Tioxide Camp and shared with another ‘jungle’ of mostly Afghan migrants.
We were met, at first with some apprehension, but then with smiles, handshakes and invitations. Donations were dealt out in a flurry – gloves and dominoes were snapped up eagerly, shoes tried on, socks and jumpers claimed, and an issue of STRIKE! passed around.
We were welcomed to sit in the corner with a small group, while an Italian woman who has been coming to Calais since 2009 played the guitar and sang Buffalo Soldier by Bob Marley. It was a beautiful bubble of simplicity within a complicated, foreign situation. As the music ended, I was acutely aware that soon we would leave Tioxide and travel back to the city where so many of these men are desperate to go.
After leaving the camp, we walked again down desolate roads, hemmed in by huge grey fences, towards the town. We were silenced by what we had seen. I walked a few steps ahead for a moment as I fought back tears. Then we began to plan further trips, more organised and on a larger scale. We were walking away from the camp, but none of us were willing to walk away for good.
A police van drove by, slowing as it passed, scrutinising our appearance. The only vehicle on the road, it provided a stark reminder of the day-to-day reality of these migrants’ lives. They want only to leave Calais and make the most of their lives, but are instead tormented and scapegoated by governments on both sides of the Channel. They are grateful for a day without arrest, pepper spray, beatings – or death.
Our last moments in France were spent on a shuttle bus on the way to the ferry port. A small team of police with two dogs were patrolling a row of parked lorries. As the dogs began snarling and leaping at one of the lorries, my heart sank. I wondered if someone’s attempt to cross had been thwarted – and what awaited them if it had.
In my pocket was a small booklet, my photo and personal details printed on its pages. That small booklet was given to me because of where I was born. It allows me to pass into almost any country in the world without molestation. That same coincidence of birth, commemorated in the gold stamp on my booklet’s cover, affords me a standard of living that would be considered luxurious by most of the world’s residents.
Why do we accept, in our silence, this inequality?
Supporting the Migrants
Unfortunately, the Daily Mail offer is now finished, but ferries to Calais remain relatively inexpensive. Anyone wishing to travel to Calais should contact Calais Migrant Solidarity beforehand. They have a great deal of information on their website and can tell you what items will be of the greatest benefit to the migrants in Calais.
If you are not able to travel to Calais yourself, you can help by sharing the truth about the migrants there. We must counter the dominant alienating narrative perpetuated, in part, through publications such as the Daily Mail. No one should be subjected to this treatment. It is unacceptable and must not be swept from view or used as a scapegoat for the political failings of the ruling class.
Calais is on our doorstep, and we cannot ignore the suffering of these human beings or the complicity of our government. We are all human; let’s reconnect with humanity.
Big thanks to David Charles for some amazing edits on this.