The whole operation began on Calais station before the train arrived. I noticed a team of armed police arrive, followed by security types and then a policeman with a large dog on a leash. They grouped around the stairs leading up from the station platform and hesitated as though they were not sure to which platform the train was arriving. They gathered in two small groups at the top of each stairway to the two platforms each looking hesitatingly at the other and then began to lounge around waiting as people on a mission are want to do.
The onlookers were slightly bemused by this, “All they’ve got to do is look at the platform indicator” someone said in French and then slunk off, not wanting to be singled out as a troublemaker.
It was then I noticed not all French people like what’s going on. But they know very well to keep their thoughts to themselves.
I didn’t notice the train had arrived until it was too late. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity. The two groups flowed into one and disappeared into one of the roofed stairways and emerged surrounding what looked to me like a youngish teenage boy.
He was so short and thin. He was wrapped in an overly large winter jacket with a white fur trimmed hood. This framed his young (terribly young), dark face with two large overly darting eyes, the whites of which stood out as much as the white trim framing his small, dark face.
The boy was very quiet and resigned and quietly walked within the surrounding gang who by this stage began to look like they had done this many times over.
“Watch closely” I said to myself, “with all that muscle they could be prone to use it”
So I made sure I was quite visible to them by standing really close by and watching intently.
“All this effort”, I thought. “All this effort for such a small boy”.
Within minutes he was in the Paddy Wagon and being driven away to God knows where.
This is Calais today and is also happening all over France and in many parts of Europe.
We managed to “rescue” two Eritrean boys before they were picked up and they were moved to a centre staffed by volunteers.
In spite of the authorities about a dozen refugees arrive every day.
When I’m in Paris I stay in the Square de’ Republique’. A place dear to me because that whole square with its memorial reeks of democracy and human rights. I was there last year amongst the crowds when President Hollande and Johnny Halliday led the Charlie Hebdo memorial and was moved to tears at the robust singing of The Marseillaise, “liberate, fraternity and equality” still loom large in that country.
But not it seems for the young kid they bundled away in Calais and thousands like him all over France.
Over the past 15 months I had visited Calais at least three times and it’s ‘The Jungle’ where up to 12,000 refugees had gathered.
This collection of refugees from the Middle East and all over Africa made shelter on an old asbestos and chemical waste dump/floodplain from whatever they could find. Wood, plastic, rope, canvas cardboard and old tents and formed a community of souls desperate to get to England. Each person wanted to get to England because they still believed in what they had been taught about England. That it is the land of the free. A place where one can live in peace and if they work hard, prosper. Many had extended family members there or their family had fought with the British in Afghan wars and other skirmishes. What they didn’t realise was that this propaganda was meant for the British and not anyone else.
So, due to the fact that to get asylum you have to be in England and you can’t do it from anywhere else, the struggle was to get there to claim asylum.
The struggle was also to avoid registering in France for six months as that avoided The Dublin agreement which required refugees to register there and get stuck in France or the first European country they arrived in.
Countless numbers died in the attempt.
I decided to go to The Jungle by myself and to simply sit with those refugees and beside them to see for myself what was going on as I had simply didn’t trust the spin of the politicians, governments, churches and NGO’s.
I would simply go and sit.
I would listen to their stories.
It changed my life immeasurably for the better. Those people who had nothing gave me everything.
I was moved by the number of unaccompanied minors who were there and how vulnerable they were. It was estimated there were up to 2,000.
Over my visits things began to change. Child traffickers and Mafia types began to become more prominent and the time I was in The Jungle, a week or so before it was bulldozed, a lot of bad stuff was going on.
What stands out in my mind was one day trying to get a really ill young girl into hospital and the intransigent nature of the French bureaucrats who just kept blocking.
My fear is that she is dead now.
So the 12,000 inhabitants were moved into more than 160 government Reception Centres who basically had no idea of what to do with them and basically weren’t prepared for them anyway. And the kids, well there was next to no or at best inadequate planning for them.
To put it simply, the problem was too big and complex and beyond competency of the government to deal with it. That meant that basically any authority figure was able to do what they liked in an opaque way and the muddle continues to this very day. Many are being deported back to the regimes that tortured them. Many are in Reception Centres and many (children included) are sleeping out in the fields and forests.
The refugees have now been reduced down to small groups which means they are much easier for the authorities to harass, detain, move on, take to holding centres or deport. The whole process seems random and relies on the goodwill or lack of it amongst the detainers or whether the individual detainers are bullies or not. Most don’t seem to be trained so what they do is arbitrary and there seems to be a lack of accountability that allows all sorts abuses to occur.
Ad hoc camps that spring up around Paris or other centres are arbitrarily moved on. To try and avoid all this, many, including kids, are sleeping out in the snow. Many lie in the snow in sleeping bags because tents make them too visible which allows death by hypothermia. The sub zero winter weather is so cold it makes my face go numb.
All this is happening under an umbrella of “The problem has been solved” to a public desperate to hear those words and believe them.
Britain is up to its eyes in this mess and muddle. It agreed to take in 3,000 children but is lagging at best and obstructionist at worst. The process of selection is opaque and slow and seems to be arbitrary. So far less than 800 have been selected. Meanwhile kids are dying in the snow.
This is the very reason I have been going in on my own and looking. Political spin is winning and needs to be exposed for what it is. The problem is not solved, it’s becoming increasingly hidden.
Meanwhile, kids are dying in the snow.