Day Trip to Calais (Refugee Camp)


Under the flyover of the road leading from the exit of the Channel port were a huddle of lightweight tents, the portable kind you might put up on a beach or carry on a walking trip. These are the latest arrivals at the Jungle, the shanty town housing 3000+ refugees hoping to cross to England. I had arrived for a Welcome to Refugees rally, where there would be an agreement of solidarity signed between English and French bishops to support and welcome these unwanted guests of Calais town.

On this vast scrubland site, about 4 or 5 km out of Calais town centre, the first impression was of enthusiasm for the rally, with a large ‘Emmaus’ van pumping out energetic music, and hundreds of people, mostly men, assembling to walk to the rally site at the gates of the port. The second impression was the dirt. There is no rubbish collection on this site. Visitors like us came with placards of support, cameras, and a quest to see what was going on. Jo Siedlecka of Independent Catholic News and I were guests of Ben Bano, who runs a small charity, Seeking Sanctuary, from his home in Kent, which sends clothing and bedding to Calais on a regular basis. He in turn was expecting Archbishop Peter Smith who would meet his French counterpart Mgr Jean-Paul Jaeger, bishop of Arras, and the Anglican bishop of Dover, Trevor Wilmott. We tagged along behind the clerical group, picking our way through puddles, mud and old clothing, to the precarious Eritrean church built by an inhabitant, and now the venue for a bible class with women and children. After the muddy ground outside, the clean or even new rugs inside spoke volumes. Here there was dignity and an oasis in the chaos. We took shoes off and sought permission to take pictures.


A makeshift church built by an Eritrean inhabitant

Everyone aims to live as best they can in a lawless situation. They carry huge containers of water in shopping trolleys to their tents, wash at the stand-pipes in full view of the motorway, set up little ‘village’ shops, and devise compounds of their own nationalities. There is some tension and one man was killed recently, but police presence could only be described as ‘light’: I saw one lone officer, looking down on proceedings from the motorway above. Later at the rally, police had blocked off a few hundred metres from through traffic, but made no attempt to come near the small crowd. Passing through town on the way to the rally my friend and I took a wrong turn and came into the town centre which was calm and empty. Calais keeps the whole issue at a distance and if possible out of sight. How can we British criticise that? We keep it, with razor fencing, on the other side of the Channel.


Out of sight, out of mind

Still in the camp we looked for the centre supposed to house women and children, but were misinformed, and saw the outside of the government-funded building, Centre Jules Ferry, where services such as showers (queue early), meals (one a day) and medical advice are offered. But the other 99% of the camp was open to the four winds. Shelters were constructed from ‘bache’, the kind of sheeting builders use to cover skips, timber frames, and nails. But in between these ambitious structures there were dozens of ordinary little light camping tents, some in a sort of compound formation with wind -breaks around them and a ‘concierge’ on a chair keeping guard.

Men were in the vast majority, and some greeted us in French or English, and even struck up a conversation when we admitted to coming from that Eldorado, England. One, perhaps a third of my age even proposed marriage so as to get there. Safer than jumping on a train I suppose.
Secours Catholique, Secours Islamique and Auberge des Migrants were some of the agencies visible by their jacket markings, and vans bringing supplies from Birmingham and Lancashire had many Muslim volunteers: people of good will from both sides of the Channel were doing what they could in a totally disorganised situation. With no sanitation, drainage, electricity (one pylon goes to the government centre) , or social service infrastructure (education, medical services, policing), the camp worked amazingly well.


Jo and I walked most of the way into town along a hot and dusty industrial road, and joined the rally outside the port gates. One French radio journalist asked me, “What do you think of the fencing your government has put up? Twice the height of the French one!” I could only express embarrassment, as we watched some of the refugees pressing themselves against the fence to get a better look at the traffic moving in and out of the port – a sunny afternoon in Fortress Europe.


The bishops (see Independent Catholic News for further details) met and signed a solidarity agreement for the churches on both sides of the Channel. A Welcome to Migrants van sold drinks and young men painted slogans and flags on a wall reminiscent of the much bigger wall in Israel-Palestine. One, reading ‘We Need a Solution’ seemed to sum it all up. The UK has just spent £7 million on super-fencing: it could have spent some instead on toilets and water in the Jungle, emergency shelters and more lighting.

We visited at the end of summer, on a sunny afternoon, having asked Ben Bano, ‘What is needed?’ More than clothes, food or blankets, what is currently lacking is overall good organisation and distribution systems. The NGOs admit they are not coping. A bigger player, such as the Red Cross, UNHCR or Medecins Sans Frontières needs to address matters before winter sets in. And our government needs to play its part.

Written by Barbara Kentish, 20th September 2015

For information and the bishops’ statement, please see Jo Siedlecka’s news story and her own eye-witness account. Find more photos here.

These are some of the organisations where you can make financial donations:
CAFOD’s Refugee Crisis in Europe appeal
At the moment Ben Bano of Seeking Sanctuary is not taking further goods, since Secours Catholique’s warehouses are full, but contact him for further dates going into winter.