Fighting for survival in the Calais jungle
Thursday 18th February 2016
ZITA HOLBOURNE explains how she and fellow black activists have overcome racist border guards, obstructive officials and a lack of funds in order to bring desperately needed aid to the refugees in Calais and Dunkirk
FOR the past six months Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (Barac UK) has been carrying out humanitarian work to support refugees in Calais stuck in limbo living in inhumane conditions in the shanty town there. It’s known as the “Jungle” but many refugees we have met find that term derogatory.
On our first visit we joined a peaceful march in Calais organised by local charities, refugees and anti-racist organisations from Britain.
We took aid and gave out gifts and cards which were requested by organisers as a way of showing solidarity.
It was also a fact-finding mission for us. …
As we were leaving, part of our group who had gone back to get our vehicle witnessed local police threatening a group of young Eritrean women. The women were marching and chanting that they were not animals, that the jungle is for animals and that they demanded their rights. The police threatened to set riot police on these women peacefully marching but our group were able to intervene and prevent this. Watch it unfold on this video.
This video is called Eritrean Women in Calais march for Human Rights.
We discovered that many people there were in their teens and early twenties, that there were many unaccompanied minors, that the cultural and dietary needs of some there were not being catered for and that people were collecting firewood to cook on and having to make shelters out of sheets of plastic, fabric and twigs which were destroyed quickly in adverse weather.
With a handful of toilets, stand pipes and a couple of showers, hygiene and washing was a problem and illness was spreading quickly.
People would have to walk for two to three hours to a charity where they could access a shower. We were asked if we could help with dietary needs by bringing traditional food items, African hair and skin products. At that time the majority community were Sudanese.
Most people were experiencing post-traumatic stress from the long and perilous journeys to get to France on top of the persecution, war or poverty they were fleeing.
Many had lost their families.
Since then we have made regular monthly trips to take aid and solidarity and to help the local charities, L’Auberge Des Migrants and Secours Catholique.
Seeing that people were having to collect firewood to cook, we purchased camping stoves. I am a visual artist and curator and we raised funds for these by auctioning and raffling my and other artists’ art.
During Black History Month I donated a percentage of all my art sales towards items to take.
The humanitarian work goes hand in hand with our work campaigning against racism and for migrant rights as we recognise that aid is not a solution. We are a founding organisation of Movement Against Xenophobia and were instrumental in the “I am an Immigrant” poster campaign in Tube and train stations last year. We have also been campaigning to make the links between migration, the current refugee situation and climate change, and in December I spoke at the Paris climate change conference at a session organised by the PCS union on this issue.
In November in addition to bringing food, skin and hair products, our focus was on supporting people to survive the cold winter months, we took tents, blankets, sleeping bags, packs containing thermal fleece hats, scarves, gloves, socks, vests and bottoms, leggings, cocoa butter, toiletries, emergency blankets, tissues, hand gel, tea, coffee, sugar, snack bars, biscuits, sweets, rain ponchos and fresh fruit. We also appealed to the London artist community and took the art materials they donated to the art school at the camp. I donated about 100 of my own books to the library.
Our journey to Calais took 10 hours due to border officials and police questioning and detaining us at the ferry terminal and raging storms meaning we were stuck at sea for several hours. We distributed in the dark and freezing cold while other volunteer groups abandoned their aid distribution attempts that day; then it took another 10 hours to get home. It was a small taste of the harsh outdoors conditions and of what it is like to be stuck in limbo between France and Britain.
In November I also accompanied the London Interfaith Forum on a fact-finding and solidarity visit to the Calais camp, at the same time London Citizens were there with Labour MP Yvette Cooper and the two groups met. Since then a campaign has led to some unaccompanied children in Calais winning their legal case and being reunited with family in Britain.
On every trip we have been questioned and delayed by border officials and police, who have been stopping volunteer groups, charities and activists under the Terrorism Act. We at Barac face an additional layer of racial profiling and questioning and police even stated that they were checking on us as if we got to France we could go on to Turkey then Syria. We are even asked if we are the same people going back as went out. This is because we are a group of black volunteers.
On our most recent distribution in January we took traditional and basic food supplies for distribution to the community kitchens and fresh vegetables, spices and fruit, plus survival packs, blankets and sleeping bags which were distributed to new arrivals, a large supply of toiletries from Lush distributed to the women’s camp and books donated by Newham Bookshop to the camp’s aptly named Jungle Books library.
Volunteer groups also help in the Calais warehouse and with cleaning up and building work in the camp, among other things, so after our distribution we filled our van with family-sized tents to take to another camp in Dunkirk. Police were stationed all around and banned tents and building materials from being taken in.
The conditions there were far worse than those at Calais, without the same resources, and reminded me of my first visit to Calais last summer with people cooking with firewood. Conditions were extremely muddy and with no washing facilities, mud-caked clothes need replacing. There are only a handful of toilets and one shower, plus a tiny classroom.
Trade unions including PCS, CWU and GMB have supported our efforts by sponsoring transport and travel and we are seeking sponsorship for future humanitarian visits.
We have given a commitment that all the money we raise on GoFundMe goes directly to refugees.
If anybody wants to sponsor us or can provide a minivan, please get in touch with us. Financial donations towards aid can be made via GoFundMe at mstar.link/barac-gfm and aid or travel sponsorship can be made directly to Barac. PCS head office in Falcon Road, London SW11, is a drop-off point for donated items and should be addressed to Zita Holbourne, PCS NEC, C/O Harvey Jacobs.
We now aim to distribute to both Calais and Dunkirk and welcome all support. Adverse weather, frequent fires, police and state brutality, state-imposed exclusion zones and lack of adequate facilities mean that aid will be needed for some time to come.
People in the camps are threatened with short-notice evictions and left with very little time to gather and protect the few belongings and what little shelter they have.
It could be any of us fleeing persecution, poverty and climate change. Instead of accepting the myths and lies told about refugees and migrants as benefit tourists and “economic migrants” coming to Britain to steal jobs and housing, we should recognise that every human being deserves the right to survive and to seek and find a safe and secure place to live. Nobody goes through perilous journeys to face inhumane living conditions unless what they are fleeing is far worse.
Zita Holbourne is a co-founder and national co-chair of Barac UK, a community and trade union activist, human rights campaigner, writer, poet, visual artist and curator. For more information see http://www.blackactivistsrisingagainstcuts.blogspot.com or follow @BaracUK.