It’s been the focus of much coverage this summer – but beyond the headlines what’s life like for those living in the Calais “Jungle”? And is there anything those moved by the unfolding humanitarian situation a few miles from our shores can do to help?
In an attempt to understand the situation a little more a small group of volunteers with a bus load of supplies travelled to Calais last week. The trip was in part organised by Jamie Cutteridge, deputy editor of Premier Youthwork magazine, and included two Baptist ministers and a number of young people in Baptist churches.
Gemma Dunning, Children, Youth and Families Pastor at West Cliff Baptist Church in Bournemouth, initially wasn’t planning to go when she shared Jamie’s Facebook post requesting items to take to those living in the camp.
‘I was just trying to find things for Jamie, who’s a friend of mine,’ she said. ‘But another friend (fellow Baptist minister Juliet Kilpin) saw the post and said she had been thinking about going.
‘When Lynn’s statement came out on the Friday, it just felt right to go. Part of Jamie’s goal was to find the truth, as well as what could be useful longer-term. At our church we have this expression “not just charity, but solidarity”, and the visit seemed to fit with that.'
Gemma booked a ticket for herself and her 17 year-old son on the Friday. They were in Calais on her day off the following Tuesday (18 August).
The reality was both “heartbreaking… and beautiful”, said Gemma.
There are 4,000 people living in the camp, with just three taps. Four hundred meagre food parcels are handed out twice a week (on Tuesdays and Saturdays), on a first come first served basis. A food delivery took place while the group was there, which they supplemented with biscuits from a nearby Lidl.
More general supplies such as clothing, blankets and toiletries are less of a problem, but their distribution is, continued Gemma.
There are simply not enough people on the ground to sort through what has been sent to the camp. Jamie captured the situation in a short clip he subsequently posted on Youtube. The centre is based in an old Catholic church run by the Secours Catholique charity, and opens once every three weeks, for 500 people.
The fact that no major aid agencies are currently operating in the camp contributes to the lack of food and distribution issues.
‘The charities on the ground are local and small,’ Gemma says. ‘The distribution centre is run by a remarkable man called Pascal, but there is only so much he can do. I couldn’t believe there was no major agency there but the feedback I’ve had off the record is that it’s too political.
‘Whatever your view on immigration, this constitutes a humanitarian crisis. It’s a refugee camp, and these people are going nowhere fast.’
But amid the desperate conditions, there was something else.
'Since I’ve returned and reflected on the visit, I’ve described it as “beautiful, heartbreaking, joyful; and worship-filled,”’ explained Gemma.
‘We met some amazing people. I was struck by their resilience, strength - people from countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Afghanistan. Many were fleeing political situations. They had spoken out about something, and it was made clear they couldn’t go back home.
‘There were beautiful creations of homes; some were wonderfully creative structures. Life was happening.'
The group was able to visit St Michael's, the temporary church in the camp, the scene of that weekend’s much-debated edition of Songs of Praise. They spoke with Mima, an Ethiopian with a theology degree who helps lead it. Mima told them that while he orignially wanted to reach England, he now feels a call to stay.
‘The church has such a presence God,’ Gemma said. ‘It is giving people such hope.
‘Because a number of English people had travelled to the camp with the BBC that day, the church collection bag was fuller than usual. They decided to buy a speaker – so more people could hear the gospel.’
Through their various contacts the group have been trying to raise awareness of what they saw, and lobby for greater help. Between them they are have made contact with a number of larger aid agencies.
Teenager Matt Dominey of Leigh Road Baptist Church in Essex penned a reflection that has been picked by both his local newspaper and The Baptist Times. In the piece he explains why he has created a petition lobbying the UK Government to take in its fair share of refugees. Another young Baptist, Grace Claydon, wrote the following blog.
‘All of us, in our own ways, have some influence in getting the truth out there,’ Gemma says. ‘We want to use those positions to influence and educate people, and work out what’s useful and sustainable for the long-term.’