As some followers of this blog will be aware, for several years I’ve been documenting trips to Northern France with London-based charity Just Shelter, who raise money, collect necessary items and organise educational activities for displaced children in France. For others, it might come as a surprise to hear that people are still living precariously in Calais and Dunkirk. The well-publicised Jungle closed in 2016 but families and individuals have continued to arrive in the area and many are existing without any of the basics most of us take for granted.
Donated toys are washed and books sorted in a warehouse in Calais before being given to children and families. Another warehouse nearby continues to provide food for people in need. (2020)
Over the last few years, I have focused on landscapes which aim to mark the passing of time, as well as the Just Shelter’s activities, and when appropriate I’ve photographed people we met. Cameras and displaced individuals are not a great mix, but one of Just Shelter’s aims is to remind people that there are still many in need as well as busy, underfunded, volunteer organisations providing support.
The Jungle was a vibrant albeit difficult and unsatisfactory home for up to 10 000 people (January 2016)
A camp behind a shopping centre (Winter 2018)
Food distrubtion (Summer 2017)
Children living in tents (2017)
This weekend was the first time I accompanied Just Shelter after a break of several months, and it was distressing to see that, although some things have shifted, the situation is not improving. One is left wondering if it ever will. Today, as we remember some of the worst events from of our history, we can reflect on the way people are being treated in the US and across Europe, and consider the lack of empathy evidenced by Parliamentarians recently who voted not to reunite refugee children with family members in the UK.
Images of a workshop run by teachers with Just Shelter and volunteers from Project Play this weekend with children who really enjoyed the games and maths lessons provided. (2020)
Last Saturday I travelled to Dunkirk once again with local charity, Just Shelter. As we drove into the wooded open spaces behind an out of town consumer village, which always reminds me of something from a J.G. Ballard novel, we saw an elderly man limping in front of us. He carried a small assortment of possessions, blankets perhaps, and his ill-fitting coat was barely wrapped around him despite the desperately cold and wet February weather. He noticed the car and moved over to the side of the road, and as we passed he thanked us for our patience as we had slowed down for him.
We parked and shortly afterwards one of the Just Shelter leaders went over to another group, a team of volunteers from Holland delivering food and blankets, so she could discuss distributing alongside them. The man we’d seen arrived at the same time and according to my colleague, the kindness of the strangers he met prompted him to break down and sob. He was in pain, hungry and cold. Exhausted. He’d only just reached the location, with nothing except the support of his son. They had no tent or any of the items people who have been there a little longer manage to keep hold of. I say manage because often the police visit and destroy or confiscate everything. Volunteers hand out coats, blankets, and tents and then the police come along a few days later and tear it all down. All that any of us could do for the elderly man was offer him a handful of paracetamol and a single meal handed out by the Dutch volunteers. There were no tents left on the shelves of the local shops and as we were leaving later that day the man was sitting under a tarpaulin in the rain waiting for something or someone because he had come as far as he could go. (continued below)
We were able to move him to a more sheltered space and alert a visiting medical team who went to see what they could do to help. We also asked one of our contacts working in France to find him and his son a tent so he could at least get out of the rain.
I can’t stop thinking about that man, who in the last years of his life felt that living in the country he thought of as home was so dire, it would be worth the momentous and risky journey across Europe in search of safety; a better existence. And while I have no idea where he’ll end up, it seems desperately wrong that Europe should do so little to help him and all the other people who have made the same decision.
One of Just Shelter’s aims is making sure we don’t forget the many, many people living without basic amenities all over Europe, as they flee countries which have become untenable for a number of reasons. At a time when here in the UK we are faced with difficult news on a daily basis, which alarms us and makes us angry about how people in this country are being treated, it is not always easy to find ways to keep this story alive. Understandably, many people are worried about homelessness in the UK, or the fact that workers are being fined for taking sick days and dying as they try to avoid punitive measures. Or how a system has evolved which allows companies to make vast profits while the people working for them sit on pavements in all weathers, often unpaid, until they deliver our pizzas and curries, and with no workplace benefits whatsoever. We are horrified by stories about claims being stopped when people fail to turn up for interviews because they are in hospital. Across the political divide, we are angry that many of our politicians seem so disconnected from the reality of our lives. Thinking about people from other countries when we have so many issues to think about here can seem like too much. But there is a strong argument to suggest all of these things are connected in some way. And perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear, I do not believe refugees are to blame for the world’s ills. (continued below)
The dejected man I saw in Dunkirk reminded me a little of my late father. His life was obviously very different but he too was broken during the latter years of his life. However, he could get out of the rain. He could sit in front of the TV and escape a depressing reality with his favourite soap operas. He could drink and eat what he liked and he could go to bed under a roof with central heating warming up his rather dilapidated flat. These things are such basic requirements and no-one in Europe regardless of how they arrived here should be without a roof. I am well aware that people here in the UK are struggling to pay for heating, but again, it isn’t any refugee’s fault. The man we saw in Dunkirk is not just a story on your social media feed. He’s far more than a collection of pixels. He’s real. He’s a person. And he’s somebody’s father, grandfather, somebody’s loved one. And he’s old and living on the ground behind a supermarket car park.
If anyone is interested in helping Just Shelter either practically or with donations, please get in touch via their Facebook page.
Writing about the state of education today, Julian Astle*, of the Royal Society of the Arts, expressed himself so eloquently that I start by quoting his words alongside the latest series of images taken during Just Shelter’s recent trip.
“The root causes of the West’s culture wars are many and complex. But chief among them is the fact we live on a dangerously overheating and ever more densely populated planet where conflict and persecution, flooding and drought and vast inequalities of opportunity and wealth have displaced 65 million people and created a migrant population greater than that of Brazil. Amid the backlash to this unprecedented movement of people from poorer to richer nations, liberalism is in full retreat, while nationalism, nativism and protectionism are all on the rise. And with an angry populist politics on the Right feeding off, and feeding, an intolerant and censorious strain of identity politics on the Left, our ability to transcend our hardwired instinct to tribalism — to put our shared humanity before our group loyalties — is once again being severely tested.” (2017) (Bold lettering mine.)
These photographs show the area in Dunkirk which Just Shelter has been visiting to deliver donations for the last few months. They include an image of a man who said he was beaten by the police who, according to reports, regularly tear down and destroy tents, confiscate belongings and attempt to move people on. He is not the first person to show me such injuries. As we drive to the woods after disembarking from the ferry, we pass several groups of people in and around the area. There are an estimated 1000 people living rough in Calais and Dunkirk according to Care4Calais**. Each time I’ve travelled with Just Shelter I have met people who have lived in the area for over a year, several months and some who have only just arrived.
If you are interested in supporting Just Shelter you can find out how here.
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 Shelterto 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 Shelteror 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.”
I was incredibly pleased Just Shelter invited me to accompany them on Saturday to the Dunkirk Refugee’s Children Centre again, and I’m grateful to all involved for allowing me to document the day. Since first going to the Jungle in Calais in December 2015 I have been mindful of respecting people’s privacy and have avoided posting images of recognisable faces online. However, a part of me really wishes I could share more of the images I took this weekend, but of course safe-guarding means that isn’t possible. If it were you would see children just like yours and mine, playing, laughing and enjoying a fantastic day. We are all used to seeing some incredibly powerful images in the news, as journalists cover the crisis, but often those images emphasise and re-inforce difference. During all of my trips to northern France I have tried to focus on aspects which I recognise as deeply human regardless of any of the categorisations we apply to each other. For example, an innate creative response in all and every social group. This morning, as I looked through and edited photos from Saturday, it was extremely clear the children I photographed in Dunkirk and those I might be employed to capture in south London are exactly the same. Although the former aren’t living surrounded by all that we take for granted, they are just kiddies doing what kids do. The people who set up and run the Children’s Centre in Dunkirk have done a fantastic job making that a possibility.
If I could show some of those other photos I took, the ones with faces, you would see joy in the smiles of the girls who had been singing and dancing to Let it Go from Frozen several times, just like my friends’ daughters might have done, before playing All About That Bass as loudly as they were allowed to. You’d see the eager faces of toddlers who enjoy showing off artwork or toys they are particularly fond of. And perhaps you’d be able to recognise and connect with the physicality of the little boy who skipped through the camp in exactly the same way my own four-year-old son does routinely. The delicious hysterical laughter triggered by Earlsfield based performer, Jake Rodrigues, was, as always, wonderful to hear. Perhaps one of the best things from the day was the genuine, utterly spontaneous laughter from so many young children, and we were rewarded with plenty of it. Jake thoroughly entertained everyone, including a journalist who insisted on joining him with a guitar he somehow found during the second half of the day, which led to an impromptu mini-gig for all. I’d hope that rather than difference my photos would show you how very similar we all are. But even though we had such a lovely time the seriousness of the situation could not and should not be ignored. For instance, you can’t help but notice the rashes and bites some children have on their skin, an inevitable and common problem in refugee camps, as it would be for anyone living in cramped conditions without adequate facilities. I have nothing but admiration for any parent living under such conditions while bringing up their children.
During our time in Dunkirk, it was very hard to conceive of anyone wishing those children harm, or of being unable and unwilling to offer sanctuary; yet there they are, stuck with their families in a refugee camp that is woefully inadequate, despite being a far cry from the first Dunkirk camp, shut down last year. The officials who allowed the current camp to be built have done so with some risk to their political careers and should be applauded for that at least. Even so, families are in dire circumstances and the help they receive is deeply appreciated. I know Just Shelter and the Children’s Centre have expressed their huge thanks for all support they receive.
Just Shelter are hosting a coffee morning on 10th March in Earlsfield at 9.15am to raise awareness, garner any further interest and help, as well as raise funds or donations. I will be giving a short talk and showing some more photographs from my various trips to the area. Please get in touch if with me or Just Shelter if you are interested. Numbers are limited so don’t leave it too late.
Yesterday I accompanied Just Shelter, a local organisation which aims to raise funds and items wanted by charities who are supporting refugees. We spent time at the Dunkirk Refugee Children’s Centre helping out and delivering donations from people in my local community. The people who work there do so with a kindness and generosity that should only be admired and applauded. Click on the links to find what you can do to help in some way, small or big.
I also returned to the site that was the Jungle, where I photographed the ice on the ground and ponds until the police asked me to leave. You can see those images and the rest of the project which I began at the end of 2015 here.