All jobs come with unexpected days - however there was nothing in the 2 ½ years I had worked in the Civil Service which prepared me for the first week of November 2016 when I was sent to Calais to see the last days of the “jungle”.
Most of the camp’s residents had been cleared, but there remained between 1500 and 1700 unaccompanied children and young families. Following an agreement between the UK and French governments these people would be taken to reception centres and considered for travel to the UK. The purpose of sending us was to show the presence of the British government, to reassure those being transported that this was not a trick by the French authorities, and that they’d not been forgotten.
It felt strange to be going to a place which I had heard and read so much about. The graffiti on bridges calling for access to the UK, or freedom to travel remained, but the rest of the camp was gone.
All that remained was debris, and the Eritrean church. This became a sanctuary on the Tuesday evening when tensions between the Eritrean, and Afghan communities had erupted. It too was bulldozed as we watched on Thursday morning.
Part of me knew how unsuitable the camp at Calais had become Residents were vulnerable to attack, the weather was so often bad, the local people and police had become increasingly hostile local, and then there were the “agents” - people smugglers who exploited their desperation with promises of a passage to the UK.
But while I was there, I witnessed both love and tears. There was the love of volunteers who had put themselves at the service of the refugees, offering language classes, legal assistance, and the support that the state refused. I was moved by the tearful goodbyes between volunteers and migrants.
This was a real community of people broken up over those few days. And it is people’s stories that stay with me.
Wais, a young Afghan asylum seeker travelling with his wife, and Abeel, their 2½-year-old son, spoke about his life back home, the disappearance of his mother, and kidnap of his sister many years ago. Then there were the events that had led him to leave Afghanistan with a new-born child. He also told me how he’d spoken with his mother. She was a refugee who had been safe in the UK for the last seven years. She had long believed him to be dead. They had not met because she was unable to afford to travel to France, but Wais was hoping to be reunited with her soon.
I also talked with Jamal, at 14-years-old, the eldest of six children travelling with their mother. His youngest sister was just five weeks old, born in the camp. He spoke about their lives, his hope to see his father in the UK – and wanting to visit Manchester to see Man United play.
I travelled back trying to reflect on what I’d seen. I believe it was a lack of compassion and humanity that led to the growth of the camp at Calais. Whatever our country’s legal obligations, seeing people living in misery, and throwing themselves under the wheels of trains and lorries in attempts to reach safety seems to have been drowned out by hate-mongering headlines and the resurgent far-right. Even those few we do welcome are subjected to the ignorance of the media, and sycophantic politicians making baseless demands for dental examinations to “prove their age”.
My new role with Justice and Peace Scotland promises to be a busy and varied one. But I hope that journey, a week after I had learnt of my success in being appointed, will stay with me here in Scotland.
“You must treat the outsider as one of your native-born people - as a full citizen - and you are to love him in the same way you love yourself; for remember, you were once strangers living in Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34
(Danny is Social Justice Co-ordinator for Justice and Peace Scotland. Originally from Stockport, he is a lay volunteer with the Salesian of Don Bosco.)