Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
This month we spoke to Jon. Jon is a Glaswegian passing through France on his way home from Galicia in Spain. Realising he would pass through Calais just days before the first scheduled eviction date, he decided to go there with the hope of being able to contribute to solidarity efforts.
Can you describe what was happening in Calais when you arrived there?
When I first arrived in the jungle a few days before 17th October – the first date given for eviction – there was a sense of growing tension and a real hunger for news and more importantly options among people. The first impressions, I guess, were of the sheer number of people, then the sounds of a bustling thoroughfare, with Pashto, Kurdish, Arabic, English filling the air… “Hello, my friend; welcome!” being one of the most common things you hear. Then there are the smells, some pretty bad, but many pretty amazing as you walk past the very inviting Afghan restaurants. The camp was a hotchpotch of wooden structures decked in plastic, caravans and tents, and the sheer size of it over-whelmed you on arrival.
Did you work with a particular organisation?
I got ‘adopted’ by some Sudanese friends I met on the way there, ‘kidnapped’ may be a better word, as there was no chance I was going anywhere until I’d met each and every one of them, drank cups of tea and coffee, and ate with them! The Sudanese are pretty keen to upstage everyone else in hospitality, and it was a fortuitous and very special first few hours in the Jungle for me. Around 7pm that evening I witnessed the CRS (riot police) firing tear gas at Western edge of the Jungle for no reason. I even climbed the small sand mounds to get a view of potential targets, but I could see no-one and no activity. As a result tents were set on fire (from tear gas projectile), and the youth gathered and responded with stones. Three hours of this ensued complete with water canons and police charging in formation. This was ‘normal’ but many people felt this was also timed to raise fear and tension levels and to practice for the upcoming eviction. This continued almost every night while I was there. In those first few days several things became evident: how dangerous the rumour mill could be; how many gaps there were in so-called reliable legal information; and the difficulty of safe distribution of supplies, particularly shoes. People were attempting to provide these things but the sheer numbers of the camp made these gaps inevitable.
Another thing that became evident was that all the associations, NGOs etc. where closing themselves off and not accepting new people. By accident I went to one of the schools to find safe shelter for two people who needed to flee the Jungle. They kindly took us in, and the following day I helped in return and eventually became an English teacher there. I learned from another school that if you speak English – you’re an English teacher – the only question is whether you have time to give a class or not! After a few days there were some more autonomous people, and also others who felt frustratingly contained within roles and strict rules of their organisation, we all met, discussed, and formed a new collective to organise and fulfil a role that existing groups either couldn’t or simply wouldn’t. One component of this was assisting self-organised migrants*. There was evidence of self-organisation in various communities of the Jungle, however our engagement with these groups became difficult as things became increasingly tense and confused.
What does it mean for people who were living in the Jungle camp for it to be demolished? And what are the biggest obstacles for people to be relocated safely?
The obvious impact on the people is the psychological blow of no longer being so geographically close to the UK. You can see from any vantage point of the channel in clear weather. The second, perhaps obvious aspect, is loss of community and the infrastructure of the camp, both self-organised and food provision etc. that the Jungle provided. Although the Jungle was a pretty dangerous place at night and it was far from safe, it did provide shelter, food, clothing and a sense of security in numbers. This loss is starkly evident in the vulnerability of small groups to being stopped and arrested by the police as they were dispersed around Calais and beyond. I don’t have numbers at hand but this was the fate of scores of people in the last week. There are of course far more grave outcomes resulting from the eviction of the jungle. For those who have been finger-printed in another EU country their main fear is being deported to that country under Dublin Treaty rules, and from there to their country of origin. To ease the evacuation of the camp the French state made a promise (verbal only) that ‘Dublin’ was finished and people need not fear this outcome. So far, this seems to have been honoured. So far. For many others who have not had a ‘fingerprint’ in the EU, their chances of claiming asylum in the UK are better, so for them the fear was, and is, that they’d be finger-printed or deported by the French State. Again, only a verbal promise that this would not happen was made. It’s difficult to answer this question further without replacing the voices of the migrants themselves who could best articulate their loss.
In your opinion, how does the situation on the ground in Calais compare to the media reporting of it?
It’s hard to answer this question as I found it too difficult to read much UK media during that hectic and extremely tough week. The racism and lack of empathy in the press was simply too much to take in. While at the same time, we generally thought focusing on the Jungle and helping people was work enough and left interaction with media reporting to others.
What I have observed in these last few days as I rest outside Calais is that there does not seem like there is too much discussion about what is happening with the children that has any congruency with the actual situation. For example, hundreds of children seem to be missing. The containers in which those registering as children and potential interviews with UK officials quickly became full. An NGO and team of lawyers and activists providing legal support had taken many underage children to a hotel. This demonstrated the complete negation of care on the part of the French State and the government in Westminster and makes a mockery of the terminology ‘humanitarian operation’ used by the French to describe the eviction. Clearly no forward planning was in place leading to many people in utterly powerless situations of fear and uncertainty. Yesterday underage migrants were beginning to be moved out of the containers to different areas of France. An Edinburgh-based Calais volunteer group published an update of this in positive terms, pointing to the group of UK officials apparently charged with the care of each bus of underage people who are either going to the UK through family reunification, going through or waiting interview process. The reality was in fact very different. One messaged me yesterday, confused and scared, saying they had been placed on a bus without any translators to explain why they were leaving Calais (i.e. was it connected to their cases to go to the UK?), where they were being taken or how long it would take? They had been on the road eight hours by this point. This morning it gets worse, they arrived at a CAO near the Swiss and Italian borders and no UK officials were there. Instead Italian officials with translators explained to them that the UK officials will come in one week and the whole application process will take three weeks. They then left, with the translators, leaving only French officials who are are reportedly refusing to speak in any language but French. My friends do tell me that they were all given mobile phones and/or sim cards with credit so they could make calls or use the Internet.
Today another anxious and worried message from a friend in Salaam, the French government told women and children, that they too were now being moved elsewhere, and like my friends yesterday; had no idea where they were going or how long it would take. I’m still awaiting news, her and her amazing four your old daughter made a great impression on me. It angers me and should anger more people that we are shoving people on buses to unknown destinations, this is psychological abuse with some pretty dark historical connotations.
What was the most uplifting moment during your time there?
I feel very blessed and honoured to be with and become friends with some of the people in the Jungle and there are many special moments which deeply moved me. The Kurdish guys dancing to an accordion and violin medley played by two Andalucians as a big group of Eritrean women who’d just cooked for us all laughed and clapped along. The American TV crew who didn’t ask consent before filming getting told ‘do one’ in six languages until big roars of laughter and collective back-slapping between Afghans, Sudanese, Kurds, Ethiopians and one Glaswegian! I could go on but what really moved me was the resilience and sheer strength of human spirit most of the people displayed in their smiles, humour, laughter and astounding kindness and hospitality. I feel strongly that they have come here to unintentionally teach or remind us of community and kindness but very few in Europe seem willing to learn.
I encountered people full of hope, plans, ingenuity, agency. And a reckless bravery of many that had got them this far, sometimes displayed in their desperate and often fatal attempts to cross the channel. The CRS police chief employed a quite horrible, yet effective use of psychological warfare on the Jungle. People became wore down by the constant changing of information, lack of information and constant dis-information from the authorities. In addition to this there was the frequent arrests, the tear gassing in the evenings, the announcements to demolish the shops and restaurants, and a threatening rumour mill created an atmosphere of fear and confusion. It seemed that everyone, including NGOs and activists were effected by this; it was extremely difficult for me and my friends to organise as key things like freedom of movement to and from the Jungle, for migrants and for us, would constantly change. The Dunkirk camp was beginning to resemble a government run facility, and in Paris – an increase in racial profiling and arrests left so many people simply frozen with indecision. To see the effect of this on friends brimming with that ‘Tomorrow London, inshallah’-confidence, to see the sparkle in their eyes replaced by sad resignation was deeply moving and painful to see. In the end, most joined the queues for the buses, despite their deep skepticism of the verbal promises made by the French state. The fires, particularly the suspiciously precise fires in the early hours of Tuesday morning, did the rest.
How can people in Scotland support those who have been most affected by the Jungle being demolished?
Most of the people in the jungle were bused to CAO’s across France. These are welcome/housing centres and differ in size and conditions, and should not be confused with detention centres. Many more have been arrested and sent to detention centres and the roads and train stations around Calais are full of police looking for migrants who have dispersed from the jungle or are arriving for the first time – yes – people are still arriving to Calais from long journeys across Europe. For those who have funds earmarked for Calais could support the work of the Legal Shelter which is currently over-whelmed trying to provide vital legal advice, support and representation for those being rounded up. For those whose work revolves around political pressure perhaps getting behind efforts to pressure the UK government to extend family reunification from children to adults. Many, many people from the UK, including Scotland of course, have come or sent aid of some sort to the Jungle. It’s a hope that many of these people will now support and join migrant solidarity in the towns and cities in the UK. Here we have detention centres, immigration raids and an increasingly hostile and racist environment for non-UK nationals in which to live, especially if they are in vulnerable legal positions like Asylum Seekers. Its all good and well-meaning helping migrants in the Calais jungle or the next camp that will surely emerge but hopefully more and more people will see the need to support migrants that are in the UK.
All photos credit: jon
We are really grateful to Jon for providing such an insightful and impassioned interview. Is there someone you know, or have heard of, that you think would make for an interesting interview? Let us know using the form below!