A guest post from Hope Virgo, an author and mental health advocate, after she spent a day volunteering in Calais with a refugee organisation.
When is this going to end? When will the inhumanity that so many people face disappear?
Those were the questions running through my mind as I visited the refugee camps in Calais for the second time. I made the trip out to Calais to spend time with the people there, and to work with Care 4 Calais in their warehouse and distribute warm clothes and food to those living in the area.
The situation in Calais is controversial, but whatever your views are, the fact is there is a huge number of people completely stranded. Their lives are on hold and they have nowhere else to go.
Nothing can prepare you for what to expect and the pictures in the media barely do justice the situation out there. What really struck me this time, was the vulnerability of those I met.
The two main areas where I spent time, other than the warehouse, were Veroitta and the “roundabout”. After the semi-permanent camp, commonly known as the jungle, was shut down the refugees dispersed. They had to rebuild their communities elsewhere.
After distributing over 100 bags made up of jumpers, socks, gloves, hats and dried fruit or nuts in Veroitta I spent some time chatting to the refugees. One story really stuck with me.
A young man, 24 - well-educated. He had been in Calais for around 5 months having fled from Ethiopia. We talked for a while about his family, but as he began to tell me about his journey to France (which had cost him over £8000) he got visibly distressed and told me he didn’t want to think about it - it was too hard. It was heartbreaking watching him struggle with his emotions. We joked around and he asked me how I looked so young compared to him. I said it was because I ate lots of vegetables but the reality is I haven’t had to travel across deserts, spent days without food or water, or see some of the things he had seen. As I was talking to him it began to snow but by now he was so used to sitting in the cold that he didn’t even flinch.
After seeing how distressed he was, and the conditions he was living in, I couldn’t help thinking about what he would do to get out of there. Would he pay another £8000? Would he accept a job or a lift from someone he didn’t know he could trust? What if after all he had been through he ended up not making a life in Europe, but instead being trafficked, and forced to work for no pay, under threat of violence?
The roundabout was the other place I spent some time, it is literally a roundabout in the middle of a busy road. After distributing around 130 sleeping bags I messed about with some 13 year olds. They joked about, throwing the bags over each other’s heads and trying to zip each other up. It was a bittersweet snapshot – children playing on a roundabout, surrounded by tents and mud.
The boys told me that the police would often destroy their tents and burn their sleeping bags and clothes. One of the older boys said he felt like he was treated like an animal. It made me so angry! These young people are trapped with no way out, mentally and physically exhausted. All they want to do is work and live but they aren’t able to.
Their playing had shown me how young they really were, too young to know how to protect themselves. What if they were offered a job by a stranger, would they take it?
The refugees are so desperate for a way out that they will do anything. As a result many people end up being trafficked. Trafficking is so often overlooked as a refugee issue, but it is a very real part of their lives. Many refugees pay smugglers to get to Europe, only to find when they get there that the smuggler demands more money, or forces them to work to pay it off. Some are trafficked into the sex trade. People of all ages are victims of false promises, sold dreams of a better life.
I still don’t know the answer to my questions. But the more time I spend with those I met in Calais, and as I reflect on their stories, I know that even when this crisis does end, when there are no longer roundabouts covered with tents, the emotional scars will linger.