by Sue Hubbard
Four a.m. on an October Sunday morning. It's dark and there's a chill in the air as we head towards Dover. I am joining an artist friend to visit refugees in the Calais Jungle. She is a Catholic, so we are going with a west London Catholic mission. In the back of the car is a tiny Portuguese nun, Sister Natalia, who has many years of experience working in Africa and speaks Arabic, also a young missionary nun and a Somalian school-dinner lady, who is now a British citizen. As we drive along the empty, early-morning roads Sister Natalia prays and sings.
As the sun rises I stand on the deck and watch the White Cliffs of Dover disappear and think how easy it is for me to cross this narrow strip of water and how hard it is for so many others in the world.
We arrive in Calais as the church bells are ringing and go straight to Mass. This is not what I'd expected. I am neither a Catholic nor a Christian. But this is not my trip. I've just tagged along in order to give out the goods – toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, socks, woolly hats and gloves and a few tarpaulin – brought in Poundland with the meagre donations I managed to gather over the course of a few days. Someone explains that attending Mass is not simply a religious gesture but a means of ensuring good relations with the town. The local church was the first to respond to the refugees washed up in their midst.
Since the group was last here the ‘Jungle' has moved. There are rumours that this new land is toxic. We want to give the goods I've brought directly to people who need them but find all the roads to the camp are blocked by the police. But our small friendly nun is an advantage. We pull onto the verge and Sister Natalia, all four foot something of her, marches up to the police and works her magic. The barriers open and we drive in.
Other groups are already dispensing goods from the back of vans when we arrive. The queues appear orderly. Young men come up and peer into our car and ask for shoes. Some wear flip flops, some slippers, others have shoes that have seen better days on their hikes from who knows where. We tell them that we are going to the Eritrean ‘church' to deliver our goods and negotiate the car through the encampment of makeshift dwellings. It's a sunny morning, but even so the track is muddy and littered with rubbish and debris, though there have been attempts to collect some of the garbage into bags and piles.
The Eritrean ‘church' is built from salvaged wood and sheets of plastic. Inside there's carpet on the floor and walls, candles flicker. There's a large wooden cross in the centre and an ‘icon' has been painted on the outside. We're asked to take off our shoes before going in. Then a short service is held outside. A young man bows and kisses the plastic church walls in prayer. Most of those attending are young men. When Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea's president, introduced compulsory military service in 1995 he insisted it was for the good of the country. But each year many thousands of Eritreans flee in order to avoid the draft that they liken to a form of slavery. Conditions are terrible. Those under the age of 50 are enlisted indefinitely. One in 20 Eritreans lives in vast barracks in the desert and is forced to work on reconstruction projects such as road building, earning no more than $30 a month. They can't go to university or get a job unless they've been officially released from military service. Since conscription became open-ended in 1998, this can depend on the whim of a commander and take many years.
Outside the church volunteers have cooked a meal and the young men line up with good humour. We go down the queue and ask if they want socks, soap or toothbrushes Oral hygiene is not a priority among these youngsters, who look to be mostly between the ages of 18-30. But woolly hats and socks are popular and we don't have nearly enough gloves. I also have hats and gloves for children but we can't find any. Those that are here are in the women's camp further along, run by the French government, and they won't allow us ‘non-French nationals' in for ‘security' reasons. So we give them to someone who says he can dispose of them and hope they find their way to the children.
As we go round the camp dispensing the delicatessen bread we persuaded an upmarket London deli to donate at the end of the previous day, the young men are mostly friendly and interested to talk. Apart from Eretria they come from Somalia and Afghanistan and who knows where. I meet the ‘only Kosovan' in the camp. His English is perfect but he is walking on crutches. What happened, I ask. He broke his leg falling off a train trying to get into the UK, he says. He's already lived and worked there for a number of years but was deported. Now he's desperate to get back to his friends.
For many the UK is their dream and their goal. But some have grown pragmatic and realise that'll probably never be let in and are considering seeking asylum in France. Despite terrible living conditions – a couple of stove pipes providing water for thousands, mud, dust and dwellings made of flapping plastic with nowhere to wash or cook – on the day we come, at least, there's a sense of calm over the encampment. Those who've been here longest have cobbled together shelters from next to nothing and proudly invite us into their ‘homes'. Others have started small shops selling fizzy drinks and phone cards. There's even a ‘restaurant' and a ‘hotal'. And, as young men will, the world over, they play football. Others have erected basketball hoops. A group of Afghanis is playing cricket. Elsewhere music blares from a ghetto blaster keeping those who are reconstituting bicycles from spare parts in a makeshift ‘workshop' entertained.
Some have been living in the Jungle for years. Yet still they seem to have a sense of optimism and purpose. They've started a school where they can study English, French and mechanics. Some keep a few chickens. They know that they're not likely to be leaving anytime soon.
With the emphasis having shifted in recent weeks to the appalling conditions in Syria, focus has slipped from the situation in Calais. And it's is all too easy for those of us living comfortably in the rest of Europe to dismiss these faceless young men as ‘economic' migrants; as though the desire to have a better life was a crime. For many there's no doubt that even living rough in Calais is better than what they've left behind: the Taliban or the Eritrean military. Some will get asylum and come to Britain or remain legally in France. We met a number of young volunteer human rights lawyers who'd set up impromptu clinics to offer advice. But most of those in the Jungle will remain in limbo. They've risked everything to get here, walking, travelling by lorry. It's really only the young who can make the strenuous journey. Most want to work. They are car mechanics and barbers – ‘the number one barber in Calais'. Their desires are no different to those of any other youngsters. A job, a home, a family, somewhere safe to live – a pair of smart trainers. But France doesn't want them and neither do we. So they remain in limbo as the weather begins to turn cold. It's not surprising they're asking for gloves. And they are not going to go away. For where can they go? Not back to their war torn impoverished countries.
I'm not a politician and don't pretend to have the answers. But they are here in Calais, a rather grey run-down depressing sort of town. It's a fait accompli.Surely if Europe funded a project rather than left it to France to sort out, built homes and schools, factories and workshops, these people could revitalise the region with their skills and youthful energy. But France will never agree and Europe rather sweep these young men under the metaphorical carpet. But the carpet is not big enough and there are many more, even now, en route to join them. Whether we like it or not the distribution of the world population is changing. It's only an accident of geography and birth that it's them and not us.
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Sue Hubbard is an award winning poet, a novelist and freelance art-critic.