MP for Faversham and Mid Kent Helen Whately joined Bishop Trevor on a recent trip to the ‘jungle’ in Calais and spoke powerfully at Diocesan Synod. She urges people to contact their MPs and to make their voices heard on the matter of refugees and migrants, as it gives their MP permission to act compassionately in their name. Read her account of her visit here: http://www.canterburytimes.co.uk/MP-s-trip-Jungle-Calais/story-28079603-detail/story.html
Helen’s speech to Diocesan Synod
What does it mean for an elected politician to have seen first-hand the situation in Calais?
Thank you for inviting me to talk about my trip to ‘the Jungle’ – the migrant camp just outside Calais. But this morning, it’s hard to think about anything other than what’s just happened in Paris
The awfulness of it all, the loss of life, the hatred in those who did – claiming to do so in the name of God, the implications, which we can only begin to imagine. And buried under that news, the reports of a fire at the jungle camp, wiping out the few possessions some of the people there had.
So reading through this morning what I had planned to say, I wondered whether it still made sense – to talk about Operation Stack, traffic jams…
But actually, the events in Paris, the exodus from North Africa, and the Middle East, the camp in Calais, these are all connected, especially as the Bishop asked me to talk not just what it was like, but critically – what it means, as an MP to have been
Yes I went – but so what?
I believe that if you want to understand something you should go and see it for yourself. I’d seen the knock-on effects of the situation in Calais here in Kent, with Operation Stack. Queues of lorries on the M20, businesses struggling to make deliveries, staff not getting to work, schools starting lessons late, NHS appointments missed, funeral guests not turning up… I’m sure you have your own stories.
I got some letters expressing great anger at migrants for their contribution to the problems. And other angry letters, angry at Governments – French and British – for failing to keep migrants off the trains and the tracks. But I wanted to see the other side of the story, see the situation over there for myself
And at the same time, this was when the pictures of Aylan Kurdi were in the newspapers, like so many of my constituents who were collecting donations of clothes, I wanted to do something to help. And though that outpouring of sympathy was for refugees crossing the mediterranean, we have refugees on our doorstep. So this was a chance to do something to help them
So we set off early one misty Thursday morning, me and two other MPs, in my car to folkestone and out the other side. Predictably, we got lost and drove halfway to Paris on the autoroute
I get lost at the best of times, but trying to find our way to a camp which the French authorities are in denial about… turns out it’s tricky. Eventually we got there. Within seconds my car was surrounded by desperate young men, peering in at us, and the moment I stepped out – walking boots in my hand as it was clear shoes were not up to the job… one of these young men was trying to persuade me to part with my shoes.
I clung onto my shoes…and have to say, the arrival of the bishop, tramping confidently through the murky puddles, was a welcome sight!
I’ve travelled in poor places – India, Nepal, Zambia, South Africa, North Korea… but the shock was to see this right on our border
A shanty town of flimsy tents, plastic shacks… constructed on the sand dunes, dotted around puddles with who knows what in them. Standpipes providing water, around 40 portaloos for 5000 people. 5000 desperate people, mostly men, but some women and children too, from Eritrea, Senegal, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and apparently some from Syria, though we didn’t meet anyone ourselves.
All gathered there to try to get to England. The country – they told us – of Freedom. Yet just alongside the camp you see the towering fence, as high as a 4 storey building. Graveney Church tower perhaps, with razor wire at the top
The message is clear – and it’s not a message of freedom.
That’s part of the problem. The dream of Britain is so different from the reality of trying to reach us. And with that comes disillusionment
Perhaps the most memorable conversation that day was with Mohammed, who left Afghanistan when he was 14 after his parents had died. He made it to the UK, worked until he was found out and deported to Italy. He made his way back to Calais to try to return to Britain. But now he’s given up
He’s asked to be deported back to Afghanistan. Will you be safe there, I asked him?
I’m going back to fight the British, for the Taliban, or for ISIS he told me, because you have treated me like an animal. He had said this straight, looking me in the eye, with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen in a young man
He had dreamt of a land of freedom, hope now turned to hatred.
So – what do we do?
There is such good work being done already by charities, the church, Secours Catholique – helping people, providing facilities, like the church there, the library, basic toilets, providing medical care. That’s vital. We must support it.
But it doesn’t make the jungle a good place to be. It’s still cold, wet, unhygienic, dangerous, not a fit place to live – a humanitarian crisis on our doorstep,
I cannot imagine how bad things will get as winter draws in.
Still, those thousands of people determined to come to Britain, who will keep on trying – as we heard again and again with the rare exception of Mohammed – they have no plan B. Every night, despite the security, a few get through. And behind those few thousand, millions more, making their way from the dark places in Africa and Asia and the Middle East across Europe.
Coming with hope, ending up with hatred.
You asked me to talk about what visiting the jungle means for me as an elected politician, bearing in mind that as an elected politician my constituents must always be my first priority.
First, the visit informs the way I approach the problems of Operation Stack and the migrant role in it.
Second it affects my stance on the migration problem overall. It brought home to me the flow of humanity trying to reach Britain – that it’s not just Syrian refugees, it’s people from many many countries.
Perhaps as a result I’m actually more certain that we can’t just open the doors as Germany has, because there are so many people, and because I can see how hope turns to disillusionment. So just as that’s happened in the camps, so it will happen when these young people find themselves in the UK if you don’t give them support.
And just as we saw segregation in the camps based on where people had come from, and heard about how fights break out, how you’d get segregation and conflict within communities in Britain unless you make sure you can integrate people.
And if you take more migrants than you can cope with, the chances of giving them a good start, and integrating them, are poor.
I think we should give people a chance to apply for asylum from outside the UK, not to have no chance unless they break in. Just as the Government is doing for Syrians, they should too for those in Calais.
Thirdly, it’s made me think hard about what I can do – what levers can I use to influence the Government, to get something done, at the very least about the conditions, and the way we’re dealing with it that makes people feel we don’t care.
I’ve written to the immigration Minister James Brokenshire, with suggestions, but haven’t heard back
Twice, I’ve asked Government ministers in the House what they are going to do about the situation – and twice, been disappointed by the answer.
Frustratingly this falls between two government departments and the Jungle is on French soil so it is easy to blame the French.
When I talk to journalists, they all want to know what I think about junior doctors. There have been other things higher up the priority list – Syria, refugees massing at European borders, tax credits…
Now everyone will be talking about security in the aftermath of Paris
Despite the fire last night at the camp it will be squeezed off the agenda again. Or will there just be a security response?
These events probably mean it can’t just be ignored, but the approach needs to be human not a brutal one. Compassion not cruelty. Each as an individual.
I will keep on trying to bend the right ears and get it on the Governments radar. I’ll keep trying to get people to listen – seizing chances like today to talk about it. And in any event, I will never forget what I saw there.