In November, Refugee Officer Domenica Pecoraro spent a day with volunteers in Calais to try and understand the current situation facing migrants in the area. Plans to create a post in Calais to serve the needs of the local community, migrants and volunteers, have finally come to fruition, and full details of a joint post between the Dioceses of Canterbury, Europe, and the charity USPG, will be announced in the New Year. As Domenica discovered, the need in this area is still great, meaning the post is more vital than ever.
It was a fairly cold November morning.
As I stood outside the Dover Premier Inn near the ferry terminal, a taxi driver chatted with me, curious to understand why I was going to Calais.
He also asked me why all migrants stranded there want to come to the UK.
It is a common question, and one that I am often asked; part of the reason for my trip that day was to be able to find out some of the information I need to answer such questions. I also wanted to understand a bit more about what has been happening in Calais since the camp was dismantled in October 2016 and the Dunkirk Camp burned down in April 2017.
I was waiting to meet with Phil who would be my guide that day – helping me untangle a very complex situation for migrants in Northern France.
Phil is one of the cofounders of Seeking Sanctuary, a small charity based in Deal, which for the last decade has worked tirelessly to raise awareness in the UK of the situation facing migrants in that part of France.
When Phil arrives, his car is packed with warm clothes, kitchen utensils, food, two pushchairs and children’s books. I feel guilty for occupying my seat; that space could have been used to store more donations.
As we drove past the former ‘Jungle’ – an area now undergoing regenerations works – we pass by current refugee hide-out areas.
Along barbed wire high walls and fences, young arrivals sit in groups at the edges of the motorway and under bridges, others walk around in circles. Since refugees can’t put up tents, they live in the woods 24/7, regardless of the cold, rain, and wind. People seem to be just left there, dehumanised and demonised for fleeing from war, famine, and persecution.
The media attention may have gone, but some dedicated support organisations have remained to offer their support.
Organisations like Secours Catholique – the French arm of the Catholic agency, Caritas.
When I arrive at their warehouse it is very busy, with people doing all they can to sort shoes and wash, hang and iron clothes; there are plans under way to provide a day centre for migrants run by Secours.
I meet Pascal, a volunteer, who explains that each day he sees young migrants, many of whom appear to be under the age of 18, lost and in need of guidance and support. In his view these young migrants are the most vulnerable and easy targets for exploitation by traffickers and other abusers. What concerns him the most is that these young people are seldom offered a place to stay overnight in shelters because, as they are ‘sans papier’, it is at the discretion of each hostel whether they accept them overnight or not.
Volunteers working on the front line in Calais do not foresee an end to the flow of forcibly displaced human beings in Northern France, and the situation is not unique to Calais; in Dunkirk there are approximately 30 Kurdish families with young children sleeping rough and without tents. (This video by the ABC news shows their story).
With temperatures dropping, many young people and families are exposed to punishing living conditions, and there is a fear that people may die because of the cold.
I remember the question of my taxi driver – ‘why do all the migrants stranded there want to come to the UK?’ The volunteers I met explained that many of the migrants in Calais have a connection to the UK, mostly family or friends. These connections are often one of the strongest pulls for those travelling through Europe. Many refugees living in Calais speak English and see the UK as the most logical place to begin building a life as a result.
Providing safe routes to sanctuary would not only spare the loss of many lives, it would recognise the migrants as fellow humans.
On my way back from Calais I had a lot to take in. While waiting to board on the ferry back to Dover, a police sniffer dog stopped at a lorry. Border agents go in the back. Then a little boy, no older than two, and a young woman get out from the back of the lorry. At that sight, I found my soul in a dark place.
Seeing what I had seen left me questioning when and how could the suffering and injustice be stopped? I had no easy answers, but I hoped for our hearts in the Diocese to stay close to those who suffer and to suffer with them.
I also offered a prayer of thanks for the proposed Calais Chaplaincy post which will soon be a reality, that the person who takes up the call to serve this place, and all those within, will help bring cohesion to the community, and those seeking refuge.