The refugee crisis has not gone away and the need for solidarity and aid is as great as ever. The destruction of the the “Jungle” last autumn, however, has meant that the issue has drifted down the news agenda. Now as winter approaches thousands of refugees face the prospect of sleeping in the woods around Calais and Dunkirk, under the motorways of Paris and in the parks of Brussels.
We visited these sites with Care4Calais in August and September. This is what we found:
Norrent Fontes was a small camp outside a village off the Calais–Paris motorway, an hour from Calais. It housed about 60 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, a quarter of them women. It had plywood huts, water and a generator. On a first trip here we left some supplies and took details to put credit on phones so refugees can speak to their families. On a second trip we delivered toiletry packs, especially for women, and also left volleyballs and basketballs as the refugees had cleared small courts for these games. Norrent Fontes has since been demolished by the French authorities, with the refugees taken away in buses and dispersed in reception centres.
This is common. The French government is determined that no permanent sites should be established. The result is constant police harassment, often very aggressive. Possessions are taken and destroyed and the refugees rounded up or dispersed.
For Brussels we made up hundreds of individual packs including hoodies, boxers, socks, toothpaste and toothbrushes, water, fruit juice, biscuits, cereal bars, dried fruit, nuts, tinned fruit and tinned fish. We distributed these in 20 minutes outside a major bus and train station. We took bulk supplies to the Belgium Kitchen, which provides 600 meals a day. We took the generator to charge phones and a medical team of five, who performed surgery for several hours in a park near the station. The medics went with us on every trip.
Most refugees in Brussels were Sudanese or Eritrean and nearly all were men. The following week we prepared toiletry packs for distribution and food packs to celebrate Eid. Belgian police have become more aggressive and persistent in trying to move the refugees on.
A long drive to Paris delivered food supplies to one support agency and sleeping bags, roll mats and tents to another. These were for immediate distribution as recent police raids on groups of migrants have confiscated sleeping bags and any equipment providing shelter.
There are around 600 mostly Kurdish refugees living in woods near the site of the Dunkirk camp which burnt down. Some, but not all, have tents. Here we distributed rucksacks, tents, roll mats and blankets on one visit and clothes on another. One volunteer was charging phones from a generator. There are also women and around 40 children.
It is estimated that there are more than 1,000 refugees living in at least seven sites in parks, woods and on wasteland in and around Calais.
There is still a heavy police presence everywhere in town. We visited a group of 200 mostly Ethiopian refugees in woodland near the old Jungle to take clothing and charge phones. A Red Cross van set up a water point and another agency had a van for wi-fi. Hot food was distributed by another agency in the evening. Nearby was a larger group of Afghan refugees. In the town there were smaller groups in two parks and under bridges.
These numbers though don’t properly tell the story of what refugees in northern Europe have to confront. Ahmed (all names have been changed) is 26 and lives in the “new jungle”, which is a piece of barren land and clumps of trees. He studied medical science for two years in Eritrea. His English is perfect and as he studied an English curriculum in his country, he is fascinated by the history of the British Empire. He fled his country as the lack of democracy made a normal life impossible.
In Dunkirk Hussain, a Kurdish boy of about seven, plays with a can of air freshener. He is mimicking the actions of the police who regularly come into the camp and spray CS gas and rip up tents and sleeping bags with their knives. Hussain is very friendly and clingy but clearly is in a state of hyperactivity.
Perhaps most remarkable of all was the family we met in Dunkirk, with two small children and the mother’s brother, who somehow had made the journey from Iraq despite being confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy.
The refugees have not gone away, despite the efforts of government and police. Getting support to them remains vital, as does political campaigning to ensure the refugees are able to find a permanent solution to their situation.