~~ Kate McNally, QCEA Forced Migration Policy Volunteer, reflects on her recent experience at Calais and the children that are still there.
I had the opportunity to spend some time at Calais at the beginning of this terrible week, when it was still hoped that things might work out for the more than 1000 unaccompanied children in the camp. They were being cared for by volunteers and were facing the threat of losing the only home they still had left.
I spent the time I was there working in a warehouse where donations are accepted, sorted and distributed to the residents of the camp by volunteers. Many of the volunteers had been there for a long time, living on the warehouse grounds in conditions not very different from those in the refugee camp. They worked incredibly hard to ensure the comfort and safety of those in the camp. They knew these people, their stories, their hopes and struggles. They were feeling anxious about what would happen in the coming days, as well as sad that the people they had come to know would be leaving for an unknown future.
I met young people who had dedicated their time to helping those less fortunate. Some had been there for a few days, some for a few months. Some had left careers to do this work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many tattoos, piercings and locks in one place – or such single-minded dedication to others. They worked long hours, often with little sleep. My mother might have crossed the road to avoid many of them. At Calais, they provide hope for the future.
On Monday, the first day of the clearances, the volunteers worked to keep all the residents of the camp informed about what was happening and what they needed to do. When in the next days it became clear that the children were going to be accommodated in shipping containers with no plan for their future, the WhatsApp messages between the volunteers became more and more frantic.
In this warehouse more than 2500 meals are prepared every day from donated food. Hot meals are served, and packs of food to cook are distributed by volunteers.
In another section of the warehouse, clothing is sorted and put into backpacks and suitcases. The volunteers wanted to ensure that everyone in the camp had a warm coat with a hood to protect against the rain, as well as gloves and a backpack or suitcase to put their few belongings in as they were forced to leave the camp.
On the day the camp clearances began, I left my hotel for what should have been a 15 minute drive. It took an hour. Roads were blocked and cars were being checked; I was very aware of my white old lady privilege – that let me pass unimpeded.
I saw many young men walking through town in hooded coats (check!) and gloves (check!) with backpacks (check!), donated by people from all over Europe. They were leaving the camp for an uncertain future, choosing not to wait for buses that would take them to an unknown destination. One sight that touched me particularly was a young man standing in the morning mist on a bridge over the motorway with both of his hands out in front of him, praying. Hoping for a safer place? I silently wished him Godspeed.
As I write this, five days after the clearance began, the camp is destroyed, burned or knocked down by bulldozers. The only thing left is the section built from shipping containers, housing between 1000 and 1500 children (estimates vary).
They are left there by the French and British governments to fend for themselves amid the ruins, without water, without food, without sanitation and without social workers. They are cared for, fed and protected only by volunteers. They have been cast off by those from whom they sought refuge. The children of Calais.
– Kate McNally can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org