15 December

“The humanitarian work needs to be sustained and developed on a more organised basis – hence the importance to give generously to the Advent Justice Appeal.” Today, Ban Bano from Seeking Sanctuary, a small Kent based organisation promoting awareness of, and providing humanitarian aid to, the migrants and asylum seekers in Calais, offers a powerful insight into the current situation in Calais and what help is needed: https://www.canterburydiocese.org/category/advent2015 #adventjustice

Tuesday 15th Dec - Ben Bano

The squalid conditions in what is known as the ‘jungle’ just 20 miles away from us, across the Channel, have been with us for the last few years – in fact conditions were even worse in makeshift camps in and around Calais before the ‘jungle’ was set up as a ” tolerated zone” by the French authorities. And yet it has only been in the last few months that interest in the jungle has been heightened, as the desperate attempts to get to England received publicity. Conditions in the jungle are squalid to say the least – there are a very few toilets, few washing points and the potential for disease is rife. There are now many more women and children than a month ago as the camp continues to grow.

To obtain a meal at the distribution centre it is necessary to queue for up to three hours. And as the winter is setting in conditions have become even more challenging. The recent wet weather has left much of the ground sodden. Sleeping bags and blankets often do not last longer than a night or two, and can become useless as there are no facilities to wash and dry them. Skin complaints are common and a recent report published by Birmingham University warned of the risks of a return to the condition of ‘trench foot’ which was common in the First World War. There is a desperate need for medicines. Tensions are running high between many of the migrants and the police, as the authorities attempt to defuse the situation by moving people away from Calais to other parts of France – only for them to return a few weeks later.

And yet there are many signs of hope in these challenging conditions. There is a thriving ‘local economy’ where shops and restaurants have sprung up. The beautiful Eritrean Church provides a quiet spot where Eritreans can worship together. When I was last there I was shown a Bible Study Group where mothers were teaching their children. There is now a library in place and regular classes in English and French. There is a vibrant cultural scene as well as a theatre where actors and producers from London theatres are working with the people in the camp to sustain and develop the rich cultural heritage of the many nations represented in Calais.

The response across the diocese to appeals by us and by others has been magnificent. Church members have been moved by the humanitarian crisis on our doorstep and have collected a variety of useful goods which have been taken over to Calais. The Cathedral congregation as well as other Churches have been particularly active. Bishop Trevor, when he was in Calais in September with Bishop Jaeger from Arras and Archbishop Smith of Southwark, signed a declaration of solidarity which commits the three dioceses to work together to press for more humane solutions to the problem. But the humanitarian work needs to be sustained and developed on a more organised basis – hence the importance to give generously to the Advent Justice Appeal.

Many people are asking: ‘What can we do to help in a practical way?’ The situation continues to evolve rapidly. Collections of clothes are no longer the priority as the warehouses in Calais are packed with goods from all over Europe, some useful and some much less useful – there is a shortage of volunteers to tackle the massive tasks of sorting and distribution and we can put people in touch which can use the services of volunteers for periods ranging from a few days to a few weeks.

We also receive many requests to assist in visiting the ‘jungle’ and we are happy to put people in touch with experienced French volunteers who can facilitate a visit with knowledge and sensitivity. We are in touch with several groups who have collected useful items and have been able to distribute them directly in a helpful and sensitive way. Many of those in the camp often just need to talk and share their experiences and to be treated as equals rather than just objects of charity – this helps to restore their feelings of dignity. But we do strongly advise against random visits by people who appear to be tourists and who do not respect the dignity of the individual exiles. You will find advice about visiting on our website: www.seekingsanctuary.weebly.com.

The migrants and their plight can be remembered in prayer through our prayer resource website: www.prayersformigrants,weebly.com. Above all our politicians and decision makers need to be lobbied to seek other solutions and to work with the French in improving conditions. So far the UK government has spent £8 million pounds – but on razor wire fences! An access point in Calais to enable people to claim asylum in the UK might, if operated fairly, prevent some of the desperate and life threatening attempts to cross the Channel.

As our thoughts and prayer in this festive season turn to those so near us and yet living in such squalor, let’s respond generously to Bishop Trevor’s appeal to help the ‘least of my brothers’ both here in Kent and just a few miles away in Calais.

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