Silenced Voices: The Desperate Situation in Calais and Dunkirk

As a child in school, I remember learning about human failings throughout history and wondering repeatedly: how did so many people effectively neglect the problems they faced?  So many years later, I still have the same question swirling around in the recesses in my mind.  Last week simply brought this to the forefront of all I think about, thanks to the rude awakening that was our office’s fact-finding mission in Calais and Dunkirk.  These failings of humanity to pay attention to and help fellow human beings in a humanitarian crisis are still prevalent today. What’s worse?  This problem is right in our backyard.  With this horrific realisation, I am left wondering once more: how do we fix it?


When we took up our posts, Lord Roberts asked us to try and address the refugee crisis which Europe was just beginning to recognise.  None of us could have possibly understood the immensity of the problem when we first began research.  It seemed like something in another place, another time, so distant and far removed from us that its tangibility faded to nothingness.  Then, we began speaking to those people who had been working tirelessly on the ground to try and stem the seriousness before it escalated out of control.  Meetings between our office and NGOs helped to uncover greater barriers to solutions than any of us could have ever imagined.


A few months later, after countless briefings, questions, and attempts to put greater pressure on Her Majesty’s Government to act, it became apparent that our office needed to explore the situation on the ground for ourselves.  We arranged travel to Calais and Dunkirk with a grassroots organisation and an international non-governmental organisation, both of whom took us around the camps and provided insights from their differing perspectives.


We arrived in Calais unsure of what we would find there.  At the train station, grassroots organisers picked us up in a volunteer taxi they arranged and took us to Dunkirk.  As we were driving along the motorway, I was staring out the window at the grey skies and vast, flat fields of France.  This is when I saw a line of two dozen refugees traipsing through the mud next to a small canal, heads bowed against the fierce wind that was bending even the largest of trees.  One of the young men had stopped and was staring at the road, his scarf billowing violently and his hat pulled low against the frigid air.


The next sight from the shuttle was even more compelling.  There were police vans parked with blue lights flashing and sirens hushed, visible in their haunting form as we drove past in silence.


Once we arrived in Dunkirk, we were shown to a muddy field in a barren forest filled with tents.  These tents house thousands of people – Kurdish families who have fled Northern Iraq because of the violence.  As we walked into this camp, I looked down in the mud and spotted a small baby’s welly.  It was nearly buried, barely visible through the dense, quicksand-like mud. As we were shown around, the volunteers explained to us how the French authorities have prevented all construction materials from entering Dunkirk.  The reasoning?  Fear.  Fear that these materials, intended for shelter and safety, might encourage more people to join the camp.  Inherent in this assumption is that this is a desirable state of living, yet one long look around the camp is enough to understand that nobody wanted this.  Despite such attempts at deterrence, upwards of a hundred new arrivals show up on the metaphorical doorstep of Dunkirk every day, where they are relegated to tents when any are available.  These are the people who need help the most, even as they are categorically ignored.


Photo Credit: Mark Lavender

Within the camp, there are an incredible number of dangers faced by refugees each and every day.  The conditions (low availability of daily sustenance, freezing cold conditions, poor shelter, and difficulties with showers and drinking water) are burden enough on their own, yet these are not the only hazards faced.  Those who fall ill have access to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), but there is no doctor allocated to the site outside normal working hours.  Volunteers are thus faced with the challenge of guessing what to do in case of medical emergencies when no doctor is accessible.  Another danger families face is the ease with which traffickers and smugglers may enter the camp.  They are matched with little resistance from authorities.  A little over a week ago, three refugees were shot dead in the camp.  Even though there was an enormous police response to the incident, it appears that there will be no further investigation into the incident.  The police turn a blind eye.


After leaving the camp in Dunkirk, the grassroots group we were with took us to their warehouse.  This is the place where donations for both Dunkirk and Calais are sorted, boxed, and organised for distribution.  From donations alone, this organisation manages to feed 5,500 people each week.  As we walked around, it became apparent that this is thanks to the many volunteers bustling around, some peeling vegetables and stocking donations while others load prepared food into vans to deliver to refugees in the camps.  Upbeat music plays in the background, seemingly in rhythm to the clanking of pots and pans in the industrial kitchen.  Despite the constant urgency motivating their work, spirits in the warehouse were high and productivity was incredible.  As we looked on, I could not help but be amazed by the dedication of both donors and volunteers in helping the people of Calais and Dunkirk.


Once our group finished having a look around the warehouse, we continued on to the ‘Jungle’ in Calais.  When we arrived at the camp, a mosque had just been destroyed and a church was being mowed down by French authorities.  Our group looked on as the pastor of the church clung to the cross, and members of his congregation stood around with overwhelmingly forlorn expressions on their faces.  These holy sites, promised protection by the authorities, were torn down punitively after a clash between xenophobes throwing stones and refugees who defended themselves.  This has created a greater sense of distrust between the refugee communities and authorities, whom refugees fear will tear down the newly built school next.


Photo Credit: Mark Lavender

As the armed guards pushed us away from the barren site where the church had stood minutes before, we decided it was time to move on and see more of the conditions.  The first thing I noticed is that there is graffiti all around the camp.  The majority of this is filled with messages of love, hope, and optimism as written by the refugees themselves.  Yet in some places, swastikas have been drawn on their tents – a clear threat from right-wing, xenophobic groups.  We saw one which the refugees had attempted to obscure with a bit of orange paint and a message of love, yet it still glared through the covering paint ominously.  Who could miss such blatant symbolism?


These groups have done more than paint threats, however.  Refugees have been victimised by brutal attackers, who come in the night with metal pipes and hearts filled with hate.  Only recently have the authorities begun to take notice of the dangers these vulnerable people face.


As we walked around, we came upon the newly-built shelters sanctioned by French authorities.  These white, sterile units are surrounded by a fence, and their presence has instilled fear of internment in many of the refugees.  Some of the people we talked to feared that they would lose their ability to be free, to have community spaces, and to have basic human dignity. The authorities have built enough of these units for 1,500 people, yet there are an estimated 6,000 people in the camp.  Where will the rest of these vulnerable people go?  This is a problem that cannot be solved by simply pretending the numbers are not so high and bulldozing the only shelters available for so many.


Another problem within the camps at Calais and Dunkirk is the information deficit.  Many of the refugees are not able to access well-presented options of where to go next.  Because of this, many feel confused about where they can or should turn next.  They are then stuck in these deplorable conditions, with little access to legal recourse.


As we walked around the camp, learning of these problems and seeing the conditions first-hand, my colleagues and I also had an opportunity to speak with a few of the refugees themselves. One man came up to me, eager to tell his story.  It was heart-breaking, especially when he finished by gesturing to the rubbish heap and broken tents next to us with a sigh and then explained, ‘this is my life now’.


Many of the refugees were coughing, though the cause could be anything from cold and flu to lungs filled with tear gas.  These people we encountered were desperate, that much was apparent.  There were doctors and nurses and economists in the camp, who had fulfilling lives before this civil war upset their equilibrium.


After returning home from this fact-finding mission, at first I was speechless.  Then, I sobbed.  I wept in the way a grassroots organiser did as she stood in a muddy field surrounded by tents and hopelessness.  The situation in Calais and Dunkirk is incredibly dire for thousands of people, yet little is being done.  Grassroots organisations are overwhelmed with the scale on which they are expected to work, while international organisations have their hands tied by bureaucracy and legal hurdles.  As one young woman told us, ‘…this is not a refugee camp.  It’s a camp filled with refugees’.  That was unmistakably shown as we looked around.  Another of the aid workers, who has previously worked as a crisis respondent in many different refugee camps across the world, informed our group that this is substandard compared with any refugee camp she had been in.  Due to the lack of camp management, paired with the French government’s rejection of various resources and Britain’s feeble claims of not being involved, basic humanitarian needs are not being met.


Even in the face of hopelessness, there are symbols of hope around the camp.  Makeshift restaurants serve food and love, while spray-painted messages of hope conceal hate.  There is a firm belief that our societies will not ignore these people forever.  Let’s prove them right.


Photo Credit: Mark Lavender