We refer to it as “going to camp”, but that is a generous term for a large expanse of ground, edged by a stinking ditch, with a few spindly trees here and there, and areas of spiky weeds. People have tents in different areas, trying to create a bit of privacy with tarpaulins strung between them. Piles of rubbish await being burnt for warmth as the temperatures plummet towards nighttime.
The people staying here are people-on-the-move, numbering roughly 150 at that time. They come from countries including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan, all with different backgrounds and stories, different journeys behind them. Many of them will have crossed oceans already, in dangerous vessels, many of them will have been illegally pushed back to Turkiye or Libya. All of them are hoping to reach the UK - whether because of language skills, family ties, or belief that the UK will provide a warm welcome and a fresh start.
The “camp” had two areas where different organisations were providing services. Near the gate were a group with a shower van, hot tea and snacks. Later in the day, an NGO handing out needed equipment and clothing would come by to find out what people were in need of and another with packed lunches. Another area, a 10 minute walk down a mud track, had been cleared and made into a social area. There was a covered area made of rough branches, a couple of structures from palettes and tarps which served as shops and restaurants and another that was a tea stand. This area is where Roots has showers, a water point and where we set up phone charging each day. Huge tents get unpacked an erected in just a few minutes, with a generator powering charging tables and a heater, with partner organisation No Border Medics next door providing medical care in privacy.
Living in a tent in winter is horrible. The cold, lack of hygiene and comfort are evident, but before the eviction by the French authorities, at least there was some semblance of routine and structure.
The authorities used tear gas, destroyed tents and personal belongings and used heavy machinery to tear up not only the structures of the social area, but the very ground itself to prevent rebuilding and continued activities. The shocking violence of this left a mark with us all that day. We went later in the day and offered charging and met with people. Everyone I spoke to was in shock. Some had had enough warning to gather their things, many had faced similar things before, but many agreed that the methods used by the French were worse than in other countries.
“We have no choice, we’re not going to go anywhere else, so why make it so hard?” one man from Pakistan asked, he lived near the Afghan border and had been approached by the Taliban, and was hoping to join two brothers in England.
But why? That’s always the question I fail to answer.
Because of politics - France receives $75 million from the UK to keep the “problem” of asylum seekers on French soil.
Racism - Safe and legal routes were provided for people fleeing war in Ukraine. What’s the difference between that war and the one in Syria? Just the colour of the people fleeing.
Misinformation - the public is led to believe that Britain can’t afford to accept more people, yet if people were allowed to work instead of being confined to hotels or camps, there would be a lesser cost to the UK, whilst numbers of people arriving to claim asylum was higher in 2002 that it was last year.
There is no doubt in my mind - the solution to easing the hardship of people forced to flee is to provide safe and legal routes to claim asylum, as were provided for Ukrainian refugees. Let people apply, their claims processed in a timely manner, and let them work while they are waiting.
If you too think that spending huge amounts of money causing physical and emotional harm to people is wrong, please get involved. Donate to Roots, write to your MP, follow Refugee Council on social media to stay informed. Comment below with thoughts or questions.