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Care4Calais: Tia Bush describes the situation

6 Sept 2020

Tia Bush

Care4Calais: Tia Bush describes the situation

I first went out to Calais last October and haven’t been able to stay away since. As a long-term volunteer with Care4Calais, we have been providing aid and support to refugees living in squalor in Northern France. I’ve just come back to the UK to start university and looking back, I can’t believe how much I have seen the situation change.

When I arrived in Calais nearly a year ago, I thought the conditions were terrible. As the weather got wetter and windier than I thought possible, people became extremely dependant on their hot meals and drinks, as well as regular distributions of blankets and coats. At Care4Calais, we offered regular non-food item distributions ranging from tents or sleeping bags to joggers or underwear. We also had services such as hot drinks, phone charging, hairdressing, sewing and bike repairs. That was before a global pandemic, a health crisis, and the suppression of what little support there was for refugees.

As March arrived and lockdown hit France, the charities providing hot food had to stop due to a lack of volunteers and fears about their health. Levels of support suddenly dropped: where we usually had 20-30 volunteers, five of us were trying our best to hand out the most essential items to hundreds of people, buying in food on a daily basis. Most of our services had to temporarily be put on hold. In Dunkirk, the brief appearance of toilets and showers was overshadowed by major evictions where they were yet again dismantled and taken away. As tents and sleeping bags were slashed, families and children slept outside in the dirt and the rain. As lockdown eased and the hope of some form of pre-Covid normality began to emerge, the main ‘Jungle’ in Calais underwent the biggest evictions since 2016. Support was returning; however, refugees were prevented from accessing it.

People live in constant fear: they hope that the UK will provide some form of relief and a fresh start. Most of them speak English or have family in the UK: they want to integrate, study and work. It’s heart-breaking to watch a young boy kept alive by hopes that will be all but destroyed when he crosses the border. A man I know in his thirties was just deported from the UK to Germany on a charter flight. He’d had his fingerprints taken there years ago when he tried to claim asylum upon arriving in Europe. After four years however, his claim was refused. We met a few days ago back in Calais where he is yet again, lost and defeated: facing persecution back in Iran, he doesn’t know where to go.

Britain’s current hostile environment is terrifying: where racism and hate are given a voice and a platform to be heard by the government itself, we forget the humanity of those facing desperate situations. As I was on one of my last distributions, a young man with good English asked me where and what I was going to study at university. We talked for a while and I asked him what he would like to do in the UK. He laughed and told me he would do whatever he had to in order to be safe.

This year has been an incredible blow for everyone, not least for refugees and the charities trying to support them. The lack of festivals means our donations of tents and sleeping bags are merely a fraction of what they were. It’s now autumn and still, as people lose their tents and belongings at the hands of the police on an almost daily basis, we can often only replace them with a tarpaulin and a blanket. I dread to think of this coming winter. I know how cold and harsh they are by the North Coast.

At least five people have died in camps or in the Channel since I have been there. I hate to think about how many lives will be lost before we adopt a humane perspective and the situation changes. If only that could happen before the ground starts freezing and people walk the streets of Calais throughout the night to stay warm.