A visit to Calais refugee camp – reflections of the UCU delegation

Four of us from the UCU, Linda Newman, Saira Weiner, Dave Muritu and Roddy Slorach, spent Saturday 7th May at the refugee camp near Calais. Our guide for the day was Sara Tomlinson of Lambeth National Union of Teachers and Stand Up To Racism, who has been co-ordinating teaching work at the camp with for several months.

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We began with a visit to the warehouses used by Care For Calais, on the opposite side of town from the camp. It’s an impressive and large-scale operation, with teams of volunteers sorting through donations of food and clothing daily before arranging their distribution. Although women and children make up only ten percent of the camp’s population, they attract the large majority of donations. This means that most of the latter have to be sent elsewhere. Volunteers told us that the volume of donations has fallen significantly since the end of winter, but they’re just as badly needed as before.

Calais 1Calais 9Calais 10Calais town itself is largely poor and deprived, with lots of unemployment.Many of the local population are indifferent or hostile to the camp. Refugees sometimes experience hostility when in town, and attacks by armed far right gangs are usually ignored by the police. The hostility isn’t universal: one youth hostel near the seafront, for instance, offers discounts for volunteers working in the camp. Several locals also help out there regularly, working with the French charity Auberge des Migrants.

The camp is next to a motorway west of Calais, on an old industrial site which is now a toxic wasteland. You notice the stale chemical smell before you even arrive, but people get used to it quickly. The ground, muddy in colder months, is now largely dry and parched, and dust frequently blows across the plateau. Food packaging, bits of clothing, toys and other debris litter the ground everywhere.

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Almost all of the Jungle was bulldozed in early March. Only a few ‘buildings’ survive, thanks to a local court ruling. These include the ‘street’ of cafes, shops and restaurants, two school compounds, a mosque, a church and a youth centre. These temporary structures are made of plywood, plastic sheeting, and whatever other materials can be found. The local authority has appealed against the court decision to save these remaining buildings. In the meantime, the many tents or other living quarters risk being destroyed without warning.

The much smaller refugee camp to the south of the area, which we didn’t see, is where the women and children live. Facilities there are better, and other refugees are allowed to use the hot showers there once every two weeks.

Since the Jungle was demolished, most refugees have been forced into a new compound comprising white steel containers, arranged in numbered blocks and enclosed by high fences. Each has room for 12 beds but little else. It is a matter of chance as to who is placed with who, and the containers are only used for sleeping. Elsewhere, groups of tents allow new friends to stay together, and house clusters of different nationalities. The vast majority of refugees are young men in their twenties from war zones such as Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea or Sudan. 90 percent of the refugees are also Muslim. Some of them had already heard that a Muslim is the new Mayor of London: their enthusiasm about this was clearly more genuine than that of the likes of Donald Trump!

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Despite the appalling conditions, we found that most people went out of their way to welcome us. As we walked, one youth startled us when he sped by on a bike, shouting “Y’awright mate?” at us with a grin. We met lots of people. Some had been here only a few days, others for over a year. An economics professor from Kabul, here with his two children, astonished us when he said that he liked Tony Blair. He then told us of Blair’s deal in 2001 with other European leaders, to accept all the refugees from nearby Sangatte – in return for its permanent closure.

Mudather, a young Sudanese, forestry student, told us of his nine month journey to Calais. This included six months in Libya, then a boat to Italy, then walking all the way here.

Another refugee, Darado, a health and safety specialist from Sudan, stopped us to ask for help to repair his plastic recorder, then insisted that we join his ‘family’ for a cup of tea in their tent. He introduced us to seven other Sudanese men, the youngest of which was aged 17. They had all adopted a ‘mother’, Natalie, an Auberge volunteer from Calais who regularly visits them. Two of those who had been there the longest appeared fragile and depressed. Given that most refugees have experienced some kind of trauma (such as torture or witnessing war deaths) along with separation from friends and family, mental health difficulties in the camp are common. Help, however, is hard to find.

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All the men in Darado’s ‘family’ told us of their regular attempts to get onto lorries as they slow down on the approach to the ferry terminals. Between 11pm and 7am, crowds of refugees run up the hill to the main road next to the camp, facing the batons, rubber bullets and tear gas of the ever-present CRS police. Those who are caught usually have their shoes confiscated. Anyone who does manage to cling to the undercarriage of a lorry risks injury or death. Despite the danger, Malik told us that each month a few people do succeed in getting to England, and so large crowds make the attempt several nights a week. It was disturbing to be told much of this in such a casual and matter-of-fact manner, indicative of the desperate hopes cherished by all those who are stuck here.
The camp has two main schools, the biggest of which is run by the indomitable Marco, a modest man with a ready smile and who is, Sara told us, an oasis of calm in every crisis. He fled Iraqi Kurdistan with his family in 1999 to settle in the UK, when he was only 13. He first came to the camp last year with a delegation from Middlesborough, and has since then spent most of his time here. Marco built the school with his friend Zimnako in four months. The compound includes two schoolrooms – essentially a primary school and one for everyone else – and teaching also takes place anywhere space can be found, when the right teacher is available for someone wanting to learn. There’s also a kitchen and a makeshift adventure playground for children. Marco carries with him the keys to all the buildings in the compound, including the (always miraculously clean) portaloos. He or someone else always stays overnight in the small room he has in the compound. On one rare occasion nobody was there, the generator and Marco’s ipad were stolen, along with petrol and gas canisters.

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Many of the refugees are desperate to learn languages, particularly English, and also French. The camp’s most experienced teachers say that interactive methods with small groups of 4 or 5 people work best. They’ve learned that it’s best to avoid beginning with subjects like home or family (the starting point of many language textbooks), but instead to start with people’s immediate concerns, such as transport, tools, the body and medical matters. Most classes take place from 11am to 4pm. It’s hard to ensure some structure or continuity, with different teachers coming all the time.

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The UCU delegation discussed the proposal to help provide summer classes with Sara. She told us that the situation is fluid and unpredictable. If the appeal by the Calais authorities succeeds, for example, the schools could be demolished at any time.
The biggest demand is for English lessons. ESOL teachers are best equipped to provide these without much preparation. There is, however, lots of interest in most subjects. Any UCU members going to Calais, however, would need to be flexible in what they can do. There might be an opportunity to teach for up to several hours a day, or if that isn’t possible, help is always needed in the warehouses. In any event, refugees are always keen to meet people from the UK, even just for a chance to practice their English.

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