Last week I made another emotional journey with Just Shelter to Northern France. Since then I have read several articles which relate to the plight of people whose lives have been so badly affected by war and/or climate changes that they feel compelled to flee. It is good that journalists are once again focusing on the situation, but the news is far from positive. Newly-elected Italian leaders have responded to the situation by closing its ports, but we are told by The Guardian, “Mayors across the south of Italy have pledged to defy a move by the new Italian government – an alliance of the far right and populists – to prevent a rescue boat with 629 people on board from docking in the Sicilian capital.” (Wintour, Tondo, Kirchgaessner, 2018).
A hundred people drowned in the Mediterranean just last week, according to Global Citizens. The article reporting these deaths goes on to tell us more than 3000 people have died every year for the last four. (McCarthy, 2018)
On Friday volunteers from Just Shelter were asked to help serve food alongside a French charity, Emmaus (set up by a priest called Abbé Pierre in 1949 because he was so horrified by the lack of compassion in society towards people who require help). When we were greeted by the centre director she explained how the organisation aims to demonstrate that is possible for people from all over the world to live and work together peacefully.
The area which Just Shelter had been visiting for several months has been cleared (as discussed previously) and people have been moved to a different site, not far away but very far from ideal. You can read more about the day on Just Shelter’s Facebook page, including a report about how the police stopped Emmaus from driving its van into the camp, so that all the food along with trestle tables and other paraphernalia had to be carried much further.
Here are a series of images from Friday; but before I go I will mention one final article which asks us to consider our own culpability in all of this. Kenan Malik, author of The Quest for a Moral Compass, 2014 writes, “This is the reality of Fortress Europe: politicians and officials so blinded by their obsession with illegal immigration that they have lost the ability to recognise their most basic of obligations to others. The fear of allowing illegal immigrants into Europe seems to weigh heavier than the guilt of allowing fellow human beings (who just happen to be African [or anyone else outside the narrow confines of the West]) to die. So when the far-right identitarian movement harass MSF and other NGO rescue boats or when they attack migrant camps, we ought to remember that they are not the first to do so. They are following European officialdom.” (2018)
Last week I travelled to Dunkirk with Just Shelter as they delivered donations to various charities based in Northern France. One of the things Just Shelter aims to do is bring some light relief to refugees, whatever their age. On this recent visit, they were joined by Wandsworth-based musician Jake Rodrigues and artist/art teacher Emily Gopaul as well as another teacher, Rosie Gowers. Children temporarily living in a sports hall during the winter months (after pressure was put on on authorities due to extremely low temperatures) had so much fun and then afterwards Jake refereed a football match as only he could. The sports hall, albeit far from ideal, at least keeps people dry and warm but is due to close very soon. As always, thanks to all the people who shared their stories with us.
Click on the 4-minute video below to get a sense of the sort of activities Just Shelter organises or view the photo-essay below. If anyone local to Just Shelter feels they have something practical and positive to offer do get in touch with them for more information or follow them on Facebook.
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.”
Yesterday at 6am I set off with Wandsworth based organisation Just Shelter heading for Dunkirk to deliver donations to families living in and around the area. Since the demolition of the Calais camp (the Jungle) last year and the burning of the official Dunkirk camp, there is nowhere for people to be. People are still arriving nevertheless, or being ejected from one country and sent back to another only to be rejected by them too. So, as predicted by charities and media, there are now smaller unofficial camps springing up and life is unimaginably hard for anyone living there. Just Shelter have published a moving and informative account of our time in Dunkirk, which describes very well some of the challenges people face as well as the woefully inadequate provision just about being allowed in.
Here are a selection of images from yesterday. As always I have avoided revealing any individual identities due to potential risks to people escaping terror.
After we had been in the camp for a couple of hours we went to the nearby supermarket with two truly amazing young women, who have been supporting people. There we bought some additional provisions with money donated by residents of Wandsworth.
After our visit to the supermarket we return to the camp and hand out parcels as well provide activities for the children.
It’s hard to know how to begin this blog. In the last year so much has happened in and away from the UK, and that moment in 2015 when Alan Kurdi’s body triggered a wave of empathy followed by supportive action in the west seems a long time ago. Today we are bombarded by news telling us the UK is intolerant of non-British born people; the only way we can move forward is in a state of isolation. And that our nation is split between those who want closed borders and those who prefer for them to remain open. I think we should be wary of what our own politicians tell us about who we think we might be.
Last year the well-publicised Calais refugee camp, the Jungle, was razed and just a few months ago the official camp in Dunkirk was burned and destroyed. Yet people have been traveling from all over the world to Northern France in the hope of coming to the UK for more 20 years and despite state sponsored efforts to stop the trend, people continue to arrive. Knowing that I travel to the area with Earlsfield based organisation, Just Shelter, people constantly ask me what is happening over there. Some say, “but what has it got to do with us? Why should it be our responsibility?” There are arguments to suggest it has a great deal to do with us and our imperial history has much to answer for. Nevertheless, human beings are living in fields, right next to motorways and hidden behind shopping centres in Northern France, with virtually nothing. Existing as if in the Middle Ages long before there was anything like a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Simply hoping the issue is going to go away isn’t working. Bombs continue to fall in far away places. Temperatures keep rising making some countries uninhabitable. People continue to drown in the Mediterranean as they flee towards a better life. The figure for drownings just this year is 1,650 people. (June, 2017)
Many do want to help. But this issue is almost off the news radar for now. And so charities based in France are struggling to find volunteers and funds to feed people. Just Shelter continues to raise awareness and money and you can find out how you can help by visiting their Facebook page.
Here are some of my impressions from my time there as I travelled with Just Shelter last Sunday.
Images (c)SJField 2017
The rest of the images are taken in an odd no-man’s land just off a motorway slip road where a number of people, including children, are living; some in tents, some without any cover. It is one of several spots in Calais where people can be found living without any of the most basic requirements most of us take for granted. One of Just Shelter’s partners, Help Refugees Children took arts and crafts for the children but adults also enjoyed some of the activities. Ways to alleviate endless boredom is always welcome.
Townsend, M 2017. Mediterranean death rate doubles as migrant crossings fall. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/03/mediterranean-refugees-migrants-deaths (Accessed 28/06/2017)
Yesterday I visited what was the Jungle in Calais. It was chilling to see. Here are just a few images from our short time there. After we left the demolished camp we visited another camp, founded with a greater degree of state-empathy than was evident in The Jungle. We met an amazing school teacher who has devoted her time for the past several months to taking care of extremely traumatised children in Dunkirk. She works under truly difficult conditions fulfilling a crucial full-time voluntary role. She was an inspirational human being. Just Shelter, the organisation I accompanied, will be aiming to raise funds in the next few weeks to support her and the charity she heads up, Dunkirk Refugee Children’s Centre. As well as documenting we also delivered food needed for the Dunkirk site and learned about plans to feed people who are now living on the streets in and around Calais as well as in Paris. The Jungle may have been bulldozed. The issues have by no means disappeared. Look out for updates from Just Shelter in the coming weeks.
I have documented the area in Calais which was known as the Jungle periodically for a year and you can see more images here.
Recently I was asked to accompany an Earlsfield based association to document their trip to The Jungle in Calais. In the near future Just Shelter aim to raise funds for charities, Calais Kitchen and Jungle Canopy, who feed and help people living in the camp. Please follow Just Shelter to find out more about upcoming fundraising events. There are no NGOs operating properly in Calais and so the volunteers working there are doing so under extremely difficult conditions and really need any help they can get, as do the people living in the camp. With so much going on in the world the media have moved away from The Jungle and donations are less forthcoming. It is becoming harder to maintain the support that is required.
Here are a handful of the images from my previous trip. Please see my site for other images showing some of the conditions people are living under. You can also visit Just Shelter or Calaid-ipedia for further information about what is needed and how you can help. Just Shelter is planning another trip very soon and will welcome donations of money or goods, but please check with Just Shelter about what is required.
It’s the end of half term, which with three boys can be more than a little demanding. I mustn’t complain too much though because we have spent the week relaxing after a very busy few weeks moving house. And how lucky we are to have found a really lovely, spacious home near to everything we need; most importantly for all of us, we are still within the community that I love so much. Of course, most rooms still have a final cardboard box waiting patiently for me to decide whether the things inside are ever going to have a place, or else be ditched like so much other junk I managed to get rid of when I was packing up the old place. I’ve promised myself to be rid of these boxes very soon one way or another because it’s really rather nice having a home where I can put everything away in its proper place, probably for the first time in my entire adult life. Now all I have to do is pay for it. Which means my discomfort around marketing myself is going to have to be pushed aside – I really have no choice about it anymore. Probably a good thing!
However, all of that that pales into insignificance when I am reminded of people travelling the world, having been forced to escape from villages and towns that have been bombed to smithereens. Or where they fear for their lives for any number of impossible to imagine reasons. It might be constant bombing, the threat of starvation, brutality from governing states and other groups, in the form of senseless executions, gender based violence or mindless, heavy-handed coercive measures.
When I see footage and still photographs of people fleeing, and consider the risks and lengths people will go to to reach safety, it makes me feel incredibly grateful to have been born at a time and in a part of the world that is relatively stable. Perhaps the fact that we haven’t had bombs dropped on us for over 70 years is what prompts some to be extraordinarily unflinching and lacking in compassion.
I am prompted to express this after reading some comments on social media, and beneath news articles yesterday, which were really quite distressing. Are people really that wrapped up in their own lives? So hardened to other people’s suffering that they simply cannot imagine what it must be like for a child or teen to be living without adult care in a tent for months. Even with adult care. And I wonder what it must be like to have had no choice but to put your children though that kind of journey. To leave everything you know behind, and exist in transit for months on end, and to top it off, then be faced with so much enmity from people in the countries you travel to.
I was, as I always am, gobsmacked and appalled by the words “them” and “they” – the connotations of “Other”, a people separate and different in some fundamental way from the writers of these comments. “They have places to go….” was one such comment. Really?
As people who read this blog will know I visited the camp in Calais just before Christmas. As we drove towards France my companions and I discussed the shipping containers that have been put in place to house refugees and I thought to myself, well surely that must be better than the cheap nylon tents that are so woefully inadequate. And then I saw the crates. The reality. And I discovered that the authorities were planning to bulldoze the high street, churches, mosques and school that had sprung up in the shanty-town that the Jungle has become. At that time it had been promised that the school and religious buildings would not be bulldozed, but some of them disappeared a couple of weeks ago. More of the Jungle is scheduled to be demolished on Tuesday, although a census indicating that there are many more vulnerable children living there than previously thought has delayed further destruction until a judge has seen it for himself. Whether or not it goes ahead on Wednesday morning, the physical signs of humanity’s resourcefulness are deemed a threat; and so the innate need and ability to create a community, even under the most awful circumstances, is under attack from people who have the resources to do far, far better.
The crates, where a limited number of Jungle refugees may stay, look hard, cold and soulless. They are packed on top of each other and surrounded by a tall metal fence. In effect, a prison has been built for desperate people who have escaped the brutality of their own lands, and everyone wonders why some are reluctant to sign up for it. We shouldn’t be surprised since the UK also has a long record of holding people in ‘detention centres’, including children, where adverse effects on mental wellbeing is well documented. Just this afternoon, I read about someone recently committing suicide in an immigration detention centre in the UK .
Us humans have a long history of being extraordinarily cruel to people from other groups, especially when we fear that they are after our most precious resource – space in which to exist. Sociobiologist, Edward O Wilson, has coined the term ‘groupishness’. Groups are very good at dehumanising different peoples that they fear might be a threat. We are genetically primed for it.
However, when I went to Calais, I saw human beings, who despite having suffered a great deal, greeted me with kindness, generosity, and gratitude for my interest.
We have to do better. Leading economists and international officials wrote an open letter to our prime minister at the beginning of this month critisising the UK’s response so far, calling it ‘woefully inadequate, morally unacceptable and economically wrong”. And last week another letter from celebrities and business leaders*, which can be signed by everyone, implores the UK government to consider the children and families who are being forced out of their makeshift shelters, and ensure they are taken care of properly.
No-one wants a shanty town on the shores of the English Channel. But had the area been declared an emergency zone, making it possible for proper refugee camps to be set up, we might not now be sitting by while people are put inside packing crates.
My oldest son just came downstairs and said to me, without knowing what I was writing about, “Mum, I’ve been thinking… we are so lucky to have been born in the time and place where we are now…”
Yes, my little boy, we really are.
*Add your name to the letter urging our government to act positively for children who need to be taken care of properly and fairly.
 An extract below from an article about a detainee’s suicide, and a review into detention centres, from Politics.co.uk 17th February 2016
“The death comes a month after the long-awaited Shaw review into detention centres concluded that numbers should be reduced “for reasons of welfare”.
It found that the process of indefinite detention with heavily-restricted access to a lawyer was mentally traumatic for many detainees and that there should be a “presumption against detention” for victims of rape and sexual violence, people with learning difficulties, and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
[Shaw] also found that the academic literature “demonstrates incontrovertibly that detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability”.”
Yesterday I went to the refugee camp in Calais, known to most of us nowadays as The Jungle. I have spent the last weeks and months watching the story unfold in the media and found it increasingly difficult to understand how we can allow people to exist in such conditions. As a developing photographer I felt compelled to go and see what was going on for myself; I’m not sure why but I knew I had to.
I won’t lie; I was very worried and nervous about it. I’m not a journalist and have never been anywhere like that before. I didn’t know if I’d have the strength. I was also afraid of feeling out of my depth.
As time went on though I felt more and more frustrated by my fear and thanks to encouragement and support from various people I eventually found the nerve to book a ferry crossing, which I did a couple of weeks ago now. I know journalists are telling the story for the newspapers but I wanted to see if there was a story I could tell from a different point of view. From the point of view of a mother since there so many very young people there, and also as someone who just finds the situation shocking, extraordinary and really difficult to understand.
Any trepidation I felt vanished very quickly once we arrived. And not only because I was lucky enough to have an extremely kind hearted friend, Jane, accompany me. We were very quickly invited by two sisters, young women from Eritrea, for a cup of tea. They told us they had arrived in Calais after a three-month journey and that their dream was to get to the UK. Their tent was filled with dolls and soft toys. The welcome we had was the first of many kind gestures throughout the afternoon. After our short visit we hugged the sisters goodbye and then moved on, spending the afternoon meeting people from Eritrea, Syria, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. Most had harrowing stories to tell about why they had left their homes, and about what it was like living in The Jungle.
I could write for hours about who we met but I want this to be read to so I will keep it brief for now.
I will say everyone without fail is extremely cold and damp. The temporary structures that some people live in are not watertight and the damp can be seen and wiped off the walls. People try to insulate them with sleeping bags. It isn’t very effective. Goodness knows how the tents compare.
There is very little to do, so people are bored as they wait for months and months to find out if the UK will take them, or if they might go elsewhere. Grassroots charities have been doing what they can to help alleviate that but that has led to criticism in some corners of the press and gross misrepresentation.
I would love to show you some of the people I met, but having been told by several charities as well as the people living there that portraits can potentially jeopordise asylum applications, I cannot publish them at the moment. I hope the time will come when it is appropriate to reveal those portraits. You will see eyes that are kind and generous, faces that look lost, or in some cases hopeful and even filled with joyful spirit. Often there is a harrowed, desperately sad look too, as you might imagine. And fear, of course. But mostly you will just see people; fellow human beings who have been abandoned by the world at a time when they need the world’s support more than ever.
For now the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) is not in place helping to process people. And although I met an independent charity worker there who was assessing the situation to see how it could be improved, I find it shocking that there is so little in place to ensure vulnerable people are being taken care of. I saw and met people who were doing what they could, but other than a few Medicin San Frontiers’ coats, everyone else I noticed helping out was a volunteer attached to a grass roots movement. I don’t understand why other larger organisations aren’t in place. It’s truly baffling. I suppose the policy is to leave it so people might be put off coming but they are still fleeing situations we can only imagine, and it cannot be ignored. It will not go away. It has to be addressed. I wonder how long it will take for the people in power to stop waiting for it to simply go away.
I do not yet know how or even if my own photographic work will develop in relation to the people of Calais. But I will return in the new year if it is possible, if only to give prints to the people I photographed. Of course, I hope very much to do more than that. I could say so much more here but I think I should just leave you with some images that express what I saw. As a photographer I have taken a big step. I know it is possible to go into places that at first seem daunting; in this case however, I was only shown kindness and generosity, and I was able to record some of the impressions that I thought were worth seeing.
I will say, before I go, I met people who were kind, intelligent, articulate and welcoming. I was offered tea, someone’s last cigarette and then a chocolate bar by people who had virtually nothing. We were invited by a group of boys not much older than my 11 year old son to warm our hands above the small fire they had built. Jane and I were guided by several people who were happy to share their stories with us, and who made us feel extremely warm, despite the dropping temperature. We, however, were able to leave and to drive home through the rain in a heated car, knowing that where we were headed was safe and secure. The people we left behind have nothing like that; none of the very basics that human beings should able to expect.