‘I’m not racist but..’ – Calais and the wider issue of humanitarian crises

On Tuesday the 30th of August 2016, an Eritrean woman gave birth to two beautiful little boys in the Calais jungle.

On Tuesday the 30th of August 2016, ‘Calais Jungle migrant gangs targeted tourists’ cars with log missiles forcing them to crash in terrifying new ambush plot’.

Ignoring the heinous lack of punctuation provided by The Sun, unsurprisingly one of these was recounted by an eye witness, and one was reported by a bias media source; a bittersweet juxtaposition of the beauty of life, and the sad reality of the UK’s perception of the Jungle.

For the last two weeks I have had the privilege of being part of a wonderful community of volunteers, along the way meeting some of the most interesting and inspiring people I have ever been lucky enough to know. A group of people who have chosen to dedicate their own time to helping 10,000 refugees living in squalid conditions, striving for better lives. The volunteer warehouse is a temporary home to a vibrant melting pot of students, travelers, medics and philanthropists alike, all with a broad humanitarian view on the world. Everyone here appreciates and understands the needs of every individual in the jungle, as opposed to seeing them as a ‘bunch’ or ‘swarm’ of migrants, as the government’s perspective tends to be.
You may think the term ‘jungle’ is insensitive or perhaps even degrading, but it comes from the inhabitants themselves. Attempting to tread carefully whilst teaching English to a wonderful Afghan man called Ali, I referred to the area as a ‘camp’, but he corrected me to ‘jungle’; “it is like a jungle, not a nice place”.

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Ali is one of the 62% of the refugees that are young males, having left his second year of a Law degree, his parents and his younger brother to journey to England to meet his older sister, who is living by London Bridge with her husband. He’s been here for 5 months, and has high hopes to continue his degree in the UK.

Ali, along with dozens of other Afghan, Sudanese, Eritrean and other nationality men, spends his evening in a wooden structure covered with blue tarpaulin called ‘Jungle Books’, on the edge of the south side of the jungle, between the remaining tents and the wasteland that exists since the french government tore down half of them camp in early 2016. Jungle Books gives the men, women and children a chance to improve their conversational English or French, depending on where they’re choosing to seek asylum. Sometimes it’s just a platform for people to come and share their story, all the while improving their language skills.

14302988_1665696313758993_6216358_nThe statistics in the camp currently stand at around 10,000 refugees, 1,000 of which are children, and around 608 of those children are unaccompanied. This is far from a static number, however, with around 50 migrants arriving at the camp on a daily basis. These diverse humans who had the misfortune of being born in a country of civil unrest, are all searching for a life that we were lucky enough to be born into. The very idea that I can leave the jungle and return to the luxuries of my every day life that are so often taken for granted – education, sanitation and a comfortable bed – gives me renewed gratitude, but also a wider perspective on the word problem.

People lucky enough to be living in first world countries, people just like you and I, lose perspective on the issues that matter, and get caught up in the superficial and inane. Many of the mundane problems we face on a daily basis are futile when compared to the bigger picture of 65.3 million humans forcibly displaced from their country worldwide. 34,000 humans a day forced to flee their homes due to worldwide conflict IS a problem. 10 million stateless humans, again humans just like you and I, being denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement IS a problem.

A frightening number of migrants – men, women and children, die whilst attempting boat crossings on overcrowded boats. Vulnerable lives turn into statistics and numbers. It takes something as horrific as the death of little Alan Kurdi for people to care about something further than their own back garden. The media in the UK chooses to largely ignore this humanitarian issue in favour of short news reports about the Kardashians, or the latest footie scores – things that apparently affect the citizens of the UK. But here’s the thing – the refugee crisis does affect the people of the UK. It’s happening now and it’s happening barely a 2 hour boat ride from the south coast of our own island.

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I know many people that generalise, and further demonise the migrants as violent people with malicious intentions. UKIP, BNP and National Front advocates discuss them as if they are animals, and the CRS (Colourful Rainbow Squad as they’re colloquially known among volunteers) treat them as such. Luckily there are opposing forces, whose actions speak louder than the words of the vocal conservative ‘facebook preachers’, and those opposing forces are again the volunteers that see these people for what they are – equal but vulnerable humans.

The donations and volunteer run kitchens feed 9,000 people every single day, also providing basic dry foods such as lentils, chickpeas, beans, spices and sugar along with firewood to cook such items. The Calais Woodyard spends around 8 hours every day chopping and sawing donated wood to be no larger than the size of a your palm, so it can’t be deemed as building material. Hundreds of clothing donations are sorted through every day and turned into appropriate welcome packs, along with basic hygiene items such as deodorant and feminine sanitary products.

14249357_1665696257092332_1518889097_nSitting in one of the restaurants along the main street of the jungle, or playing cricket on the strip they call ‘no man’s land’, it’s easy to get lost in the hope and high spirits of the people inhabiting the jungle, and forget the fundamental reason we’re all here. To help provide these people with the life they deserve. On the first occasion I went into the jungle I saw a young girl learning to ride a bike, being helped by her friends, and even teased by the boys, just as kids do. Imagine if this was your child; your little girl. There is no difference. Every child is just that – a child, no matter where they are born. This young girl is not inferior to anyone you or I know, nor less deserving of the life we are privileged enough to lead.

We can’t solve the problem of displacement at its root, but we can provide aid where most needed. Without sounding like a guilt trip, money that means another pint or maybe another shade of pink nail polish to you could mean a meal to someone who really needs it. It could even be something as simple and vital as a pair of socks, something that’s a necessity in their life as opposed to excess in yours.

We only share this planet, why not care about everyone on it.

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Anna Smith

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