The National Union of Teachers’ members spent the week volunteering with other Care4Calais, one of the organisations offering support and solidarity to refugees in northern France and Brussels.
During half term week, I saw some of the best that humanity has to offer and dare I say it, some of the worst …
It is now just over a year since the French authorities destroyed the Jungle refugee camp. One of the consequences of this is that the issue has moved down the news agenda. The problem has not however, gone away.
Hundreds of young men, and some women and children, are sleeping rough and are regularly subjected to what can only be interpreted as harassment from the French national police (the CRS).
This is not just my eyewitness assessment. According to a report from the Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP), police brutality includes beatings severe enough to break limbs. The RRDP report says British and French authorities have abandoned refugees in the Calais region, and have allowed recurrent and gratuitous attacks from local racists as well as the police. (Reported in the Observer 29/10/17).
Teenage boys from the horn of Africa and Syria are to be found around the canal area in central Calais. Aid agencies regularly take them supplies and generators to charge their mobile phones. They have also supplied footballs and enthusiastic games are organised by the water edge.
Unfortunately, while I was there one of these games got too enthusiastic and a young man fell in the water. He could not swim. His friend dived in immediately to rescue him. A small group of French men stood and watched from their boat. I shouted for them to throw their life rings. They did not flinch.
Their friends dragged the young men out of the water, but a shouting match ensued between the men on the boat and the refugees. This event could have ended in tragedy, and was symptomatic of the way that many, not all, locals treat these young men. With increasing support for Marie Le Pen in the Calais region, it is difficult to believe that these reactions are not going to intensify.
The next day as we were distributing warm clothes and food, the CRS raided. Riot police in boiler suits demanded our passports and engaged us in petty questioning, and nonsense about needing a visa because of Brexit, while their colleagues in decontamination suits seized the refugees’ property.
According to French legal observers who witnessed this with us, our presence stopped the police spraying these young men with CS gas against the orders of the local prefecture of police.
When the police left the scene, we loaned our phones to some of the boys. One young man spoke to his mother in Ethiopia. She had not heard from him for eight months. She thought he was dead. All he told me was she could not stop crying.
These are small snapshots of what is happening just two hours from London. The EU has spent millions building fences to keep these talented, multilingual and young people out of the UK. Every time I visit I am in awe of the work that Care4Calais does and how the refugees maintain their optimism and energy despite the dire situation they are in.
The next mass convoy to Calais is on December 10.
See the Care4Calais website for details of how you can volunteer and donate.