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Refugees Face Indifference, Hostility in French Camp

I have been visiting regularly the refugee camp in Calais, France, which increasingly looks like a suburb of the city.

The so-called “jungle” is home to a group of friends struggling to hold their lives together in the teeth of sometimes the indifference and often the hostility of their neighbors.

Tensions were high and nerves were frayed during my most recent visit. People joked and told stories, but their eyes and body language indicated that they had deep forebodings about the immediate future.

Soon after we left and were safely relaxing with coffee and chocolate as the train rattled back to England, heavily armed men raided one of the cafes we frequent.

One of my friends was beaten and kicked as his business was searched and semi-ransacked.

The perpetrators of this crime were the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), the French riot police, partially paid for by British taxpayers to keep the peace of Calais and the security of our borders.

I felt sick as I read a report of the incident the morning after, and then I felt fury rising from the pit of my stomach. So, what’s happening?

The tensions are rising because the story is being put forth that the French government wants to close and demolish the camp by the end of March. If necessary, they will use the army to get this done.

It gives the regular meeting of community leaders, volunteers and ACTED – the French nongovernmental organization sent in by the courts to make up for the French government’s callous disregard for the humanitarian needs of the 5,000 or so residents of the camp – something of an edge.

This meeting opened with two announcements a few weeks ago. One was that the street lighting would be repaired. The other was that the water was now safe to drink.

Two visitors, one from Amnesty International and one from UNHCR, attended the meeting to gather statistics and stories.

They were met with a storm of indignant disbelief. Voice after voice was raised asking how many times the refugees have to tell their story before things change.

A Syrian asked when people would take seriously the daily threat of violence from those they call the fascists – supporters of France’s Front Nationale, a socially conservative party that opposes immigration, who, on a nightly basis, are attacking anyone from the jungle they happen to see out and about in Calais.

A north African community leader asked when all these organizations would have enough details to take action.

“It seems that human rights in France are just for white people,” he said. “You people come for 40 minutes; we’re here for months. Some of our people have disappeared, some have died; there’s no protection for us here while you gather statistics.”

I felt a degree of sympathy for the beleaguered woman from Amnesty, but I share the frustration of my friends.

Too often, they’ve told their story in the hope that things will change. Too often, nothing happens.

There is anger in the camp that the police do not protect the residents from the Front Nationale.

An Afghan leader, speaking in slow measured tones, said, “We tell our people not to fight the police but the police do not protect us from the fascists. Sometimes the police seem to egg the fascists on, standing aside while they beat our people.”

Before the meeting ended, people from L’Auberge and Secours Catholique, relief organizations aiding Calais refugees, announced that they were seeking a court order to prevent any more demolitions until everyone in the camp had an offer of proper help and accommodation.

The man from Secours stressed he was not defending the camp as such but rather the right of everyone in it for decent housing, care and dignity.

Of course, the French authorities would retort that they have built a container village for 1,500 and have secure assessment centers across the country where people will be fed while they are processed.

An Ethiopian man voiced the opinion of many that everyone here wants to go to England, asking, “Who is helping with that?”

He added that no one wants to go into the containers because you can’t leave that prison at night and so you cannot try your luck at the border.

The next community meeting was more subdued but still preoccupied with the same issues.

There were no good news announcements at the start of the meeting. It was reported that the street lights had only worked for a day and that the water supply had gone off to one section of the camp.

The major concerns of the community leaders were “Where are the missing?” and “Why are the police not protecting us from the fascists?”

Even the Syrian interpreter for the meeting spoke of not feeling safe in Calais. You can cut the fear with a knife.

And Syrians are talking of leaving, not to try to get to Britain but to go home to Syria to fight.

My friend says, “I’m dying here, I might as well go home and die fighting.”

It fills me with despair to think that it’s come to this. That after a 5,000-mile, year-long journey in search of hope and freedom, the only way forward is go home and take your chances with Assad, ISIS, the Russians, the coalition, Al Nusra, the Iranians, the Turks and the Kurds.

Even so, the building goes on. A youth center has opened with space for young people to hang out and play games.

A friend is building a center for several activities, including his Narcotics Anonymous meetings, where people want to kick habits acquired as a result of their flight from terror.

A theater space is thriving, and the education rooms are full of eager learners.

Amid the death, the camp is in life. Where there’s despair, humans can’t help but sow hope.

Yet, more of the camp has been earmarked for the bulldozer, with St Michael’s Church, a makeshift chapel, and a mosque being demolished recently.

The fear ratchets up, spirits are crushed and an impotent rage rises in the guts of those who spend our time supporting this community but aren’t permanent residents.

It’s possible that the camp will be destroyed by the beginning of March and that its residents will have been scattered to the four winds yet again, alone to take their chances in a Europe that doesn’t give a damn about them. It breaks my heart.

Simon Jones is ministry team leader at Bromley Baptist Church in Bromley, a suburb of London. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, A Sideways Glance, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @bromleyminister.