‘We don’t want to die, we want to live!’
Thursday 29th October 2015
The fate of those trapped in the Calais refugee camp known as the jungle rests in the hands of a government which does not care for them, writes Bethany Rielly
LAST week I went to the jungle refugee camp in Calais. It was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
My journey to the camp began in Windrush Square, Brixton, at 7am.
A convoy of cars had been arranged by campaign group Stand Up to Racism to take us to Calais where we would join a nationwide solidarity demonstration later that day.
I travelled with Austin Challen, a social worker living in Forest Hill, London, his two children Louis and Sarah from Dulwich and Karen Ibrahim from Brixton.
I was impressed that Louis and Sarah, although just 12 and 17, knew a lot about the situation in Calais and were eager to help.
Louis told me: “I wanted to come today to show refugees that there are people in Britain who welcome them, regardless of the anti-refugee stance held by the government.”
The demonstration beautifully conveyed Louis’s message of solidarity. People from Brighton, Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, London and Scotland marched with refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, Iraq and Syria, chanting: “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here!” and “No jungle! No jungle!” (a chant highly favoured by an energetic group of Kurdish refugees).
I spoke to a Kurdish man from Iraq called Karzan about why he wanted to come to Britain. He replied: “We don’t want to die, we want to live. In Iraq there is so much terrorism, if you go out to the shops you will probably never come back.
“We like England because it is well known throughout the world as a place that accepts people of any religion or race.
There is no difference between white people and black people.”
Many of the refugees I spoke to said similar things.
They consider England to be among the leading countries in the world for education, healthcare and tolerance of other cultures. Although I was proud to learn that they held these views, I was also painfully aware of the lack of acceptance the British government and public has expressed in response to the refugee crisis.
After the march we headed to the jungle.
The road leading to the camp is met on either side by industrial estates, petrol garages and warehouses crammed with alcohol, all companies churning out billions in profit, a sick contrast to the poverty that soon followed.
The camp entrance is marked by a bridge which bears beautiful graffiti of birds and peace signs.
Once you emerge from the bridge you’re confronted with a shanty town of tents and makeshift homes. Mounds of rubbish line the sides of a muddy path which meanders to the left and right.
With every step I took, the burden of guilt I felt on behalf of my country weighed heavier on my shoulders.
To my surprise one of the first structures we passed was a restaurant, selling sweet tea, curries and shisha. The owner told me that he had worked in a restaurant in Newcastle for 16 years but had been deported a couple years ago after his visa was refused.
I didn’t quite know what to make of it. On the one hand the owner is making a profit by capitalising on the poor, but on the other he is sustaining his own existence whilst also trying to retain some normality in his life, despite being a resident of the jungle.
It was a surreal experience, lounging on long cushioned seats, smoking shisha and chatting to young Middle Eastern men, all the while surrounded by one of the most deprived and poverty-stricken areas in Europe.
I was touched by how kind and welcoming the people of the camp were to us. I shook countless numbers of hands and received thanks for our presence and support.
One man, noticing how cold Sarah’s hands were, offered to give her his gloves and another offered to give Karen his coat! They both kindly declined.
The contrast between the generous and caring people I met in the camp and how they are often portrayed by certain politicians and media outlets was striking and almost comical.
This is when I came to the realisation that terms used to describe refugees such as “swarms,” “marauding” and “economic migrants” effectively act to dehumanise them, making it easier for the public to disregard those that live in the camp.
It’s a clever way of subtly creating distrust and fear of a people who in reality are normal individuals in need of a stable life away from fear and poverty.
Although the demonstration may have helped lift morale in the camp, the fate of those living in the jungle still rests in the hands of a government which does not care for them.
With the camp’s population swelling to over 6,000, and winter approaching, the only hope these people have of surviving is if Britain decides to take responsibility and open its borders.
These were thoughts I left with as we drove away from Calais, and they didn’t feel good.
On Wednesday, upwards of 50 refugees died in several boating accidents while making the journey from the Turkish coast to the nearby Greek Aegean islands. In the worst accident, which took place on the way to the island of Lesbos, 242 refugees―including many women and children―were rescued by fishermen and the Greek coast guard: here.