This morning I read a newspaper headline which suggested it is a delusion to think we are a kind society, and sadly, it does feel more and more difficult to disagree with that sentiment, even if you don’t buy into the writer’s arguments. It doesn’t take long to find examples of behaviour exhibiting an utter lack of empathy; political rhetoric, responses beneath online newspaper articles, or comments on Twitter, for instance, which often demonstrate a callousness that never fails to stun. However, I am able to take comfort from spending time with people who are doing whatever they can, no matter how small it might seem, to contribute positive and empathetic actions in a world that appears increasingly un-empathetic and indifferent to the suffering of others. We may indeed be an unkind society but there are plenty of kind-hearted people from all walks of life out there, including those with virtually nothing to offer.
When I go with Just Shelter to Dunkirk, I am very lucky to be given the freedom to go off and speak with people as I collect stories, and images where possible, from men and women who tell me what it is like to be living in fields, behind supermarkets and next to motorways. I want to repeat some of the reports but I am in two minds about this. I can’t corroborate anything. I’m not a journalist and although I spend what time I can documenting the situation, verifying what I hear would demand resources I don’t have. I am also very aware that few believe much of what they read online anyway. Nevertheless, despite living in an era of intense cynicism, I know that the empathetic amongst you would be appalled by what I am told in Dunkirk.
I am also wary of revealing details about people that would put them in danger. But we need to consider our responsibility as we allow this situation to exist, without proper facilities and processes in place. And so I will write carefully about the reports of police intimidation, of brutality, bribery, extortion. I will describe a man who wanted shoes and a sleeping bag, and whose broken fingers were causing him such pain. Fingers reportedly crushed by police officers forcing him to register in one country when he was desperate go to another, for reasons that we can’t fully understand and therefore can’t make judgments about. Because we don’t know what it’s like to be forced to flee, leave behind jobs, loved ones, our own history, citizenship. I will let you know that traffickers were referred to as ‘the mafia’ by everybody I spoke with; their presence in the camp engenders such fear and suspicion. Or that it reportedly costs €5000 per person to pay someone to smuggle you across the Channel without guarantee of success, and €10 000 if you want to be sure of arriving in the UK. Or that there are rumours of collusion and dodgy deals between various authorities. Or that the police routinely visit the area with knives to destroy and cut down tents, batons to beat people, and dogs to terrify them. ‘Residents’ often mention the aggressive dogs. These are things I have been told about by numerous people specifically during my previous two visits. While in the makeshift camp during the last two journeys I met a barber, an estate agent, a lawyer, a chauffeur, a mechanic, someone who told me he worked with CNN. I met a father of young children, two girls and one boy, whose right arm was horribly bent and disfigured. He told me it had been being broken when he was tortured back home, and not set properly before healing. I met someone fleeing his government, persecuted for his work with human rights. I had philosophical discussions about the meaning of borders, religion and some of our innate animalistic traits. A few of the people I spoke with were in the camp the last time I was there, and one family in particular, I had met in the Dunkirk camp which burnt down earlier this year. Many were new though, fleeing horrors and desperation we in the West can only imagine.
I have been travelling to the area in Northern France since the end of 2015 and it has always seemed hopeless and shocking. But this latest visit somehow seemed more so than ever. We had just a few pair of shoes to hand out, and the sense of panic as our small stock ran low was palpable and frightening at times. The people there really have so little and what is given to them is often taken away by the police soon after, so must be given again. And critically they have no-where to go or to be. No-where. No-one wants them. Many cannot go home. In some cases there is no home to go to. Or it is too dangerous.
I know as I write this that there will be readers who don’t believe any of it, who believe it but say, so what? Or who think, ‘not my problem… we have our own issues.” There are also those who will be appalled and horrified. We humans are difficult creatures. We are frightened and suspicious, some of us damaged beyond repair, some of us sadly born with little hope of ever being able to cope in life, perhaps due to genetics, perhaps to circumstances. There is something very strange going on in our world at the moment, and the sort of damage I’m describing, which negates or impinges on empathy for others, seems to be driving economic, political and social agendas in many parts of the world, including our own, leading to world that does seem extremely unkind. And yes, we do have plenty of problems to solve here in the UK too. But dehumanising desperate people who live on our doorstep without ensuring even the most basic of human needs are met, and in effect therefore dehumanising ourselves, will not help us find workable solutions. Surely it will only compound problems in the future.
To those of you who want to know how it is possible to contribute, no matter how insignificant you think it may be (it isn’t incidentally), you can do so by supporting Just Shelter or any one of their associates. To borrow a phrase, “If you’re not doing something to address the problem, you’re part of the problem.”
Views my own. Images (c)SJField 2017