It’s a humanitarian crisis that’s become one of the biggest political talking points of our generation.
The Jungle in Calais divides opinion like no other topic. We shouldn’t even be calling it ‘The Jungle’ according to Joseph Harker of the Guardian who says the phrase dehumanises the people living there and trivialises the situation, despite the migrants themselves creating the moniker in 2002 to refer to the squalid conditions they live in.
On the other side of the coin, the man-made shanty town has been a favourite in the argument against global immigration and an uncomfortable image in the campaign to withdraw from the European Union. The Independent reports that the camp’s first ever quantitative survey shows that approximately 4,800 of its refugees (82 per cent) are trying to reach Britain.
There is a lot of fear surrounding The Jungle; people feel they can justify that fear on a personal level because of the images they’ve seen and the stories they’ve heard, while at state-level there are serious concerns about bodies of migrants washing up lifeless on British shores.
At its heart though The Jungle is – and always has been – a humanitarian crisis; a problem that’s almost the perfect spotlight to shine on the very best of human nature and, sadly, the very worst.
We’re at the John Masefield in New Ferry with John Hunt and David Fearn who are on their way to The Jungle to show the world that, when it comes to looking after our fellow man, actions speak louder than words.
55-year-old John and Dave (who insists he’s a spring chicken at 36) have set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to join the nationwide Convoy to Calais. Leaving London in a rented van full of supplies on 18 June, the duo are fed up of the politicking surrounding the crisis and are spending four days within the heart of the struggle in France to help in any way they can.
John’s doing the driving. “We get the van on the Friday morning and head down to London to pick some stuff up and join the rest of the official convoy at Whitehall.
“We don’t think for one minute we’re going to solve the problem, but we may be able to make somebody’s life a bit more bearable in the short-term. If we can do that it’ll be worth it. The problem’s not going anywhere in a hurry…
“A friend of mine from Leeds phoned me up and said he and another friend from London were joining a convoy. It’s run by the People’s Assembly which encompasses a lot of trade unions and Say No to Racism and Refugees Welcome. It’s part of the Stop the War Coalition and mainly left-wing organisations.
“I said yeah, I’d love to do it. Then he rang a couple of days later and said the van would be packed, and it’d be a long way to travel with three of us in the front. I was a bit deflated and Dave offered to come, talk to me and help keep me awake. It’s all snowballed from there.”
Dave tells us that he’s still in shock at the support the pair have received in such as short space of time. “We’ve only been going for about three weeks. Initially there was huge support. Within the first week or so we’d managed to raise about £400 from family and friends within four days.”
The current total at the time of writing is £650. Looking to raise £1,000 overall, the money will be going on travel expenses and food for the refugees when the pair get to France. John and Dave are taking a huge amount of supplies with them to give to migrants that people have been kindly donating at the local Money Matters on Bebington Road
“We thought we’d get our expenses covered first and any overrun we could spend on fresh food and veg for people when we got there,” John says. “On the official convoy website there’s a list of things that they’re specifically after such as fresh UHT milk, clothes and toiletries.
“Some local chemists have also donated dressings and bandages. Things they don’t need are children’s clothes and toys, they have mountains of them. They need clothes and food more than anything.
“We’ve shied away from food mainly because of the weight of it all. My friend from Leeds worked out that 300 tins of beans, for instance, would totally overload the van. We thought we‘d be best buying food for people locally over there and that it’ll, hopefully, be cheaper in France, too.
“We’ll get there, drop off the clothes and other supplies we’ve gathered for them, and go and do some shopping for them.”
The road to nowhere
John and Dave are good friends, and easy to talk to. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and have a lot to say about the camp and the conditions that have led to its creation, its current state and its position in the political realm.
“My girlfriend was saying we’ll probably have a really good laugh on the way down, we’ll see some harrowing things and it’ll be really quiet on the way home,” John says. “I can imagine that’ll be the case, because I can’t think of the kind of hell these people are living in.
“There are something like 400 unaccompanied children. It’s orphans, people separated from their parents, and kids who don’t even know they’re orphans yet, they don’t know what’s happened to their parents. It’s tragic.”
John’s not far off. According to a Help Refugees report there are 294 unaccompanied children in The Jungle while another 129 have gone missing after sections of the camp were demolished in March. An estimated 95,000 unaccompanied minors have also applied for asylum in Europe.
Dave believes he knows the reason why. “You get a lot of people saying they should stay and fight for their country, but what chance do they have? They have to fight on several fronts too; with Syria it’s a lot of countries involved in bombing and there’s a lot of internal fighting, too. They’ve got nowhere else to go, nobody else is on their side.”
John agrees. “Their homes have been reduced to rubble in a lot of cases, too. They’ve got nowhere else to stay, their country’s been destroyed. Throughout history refugees tend to go home to the country they’ve come from.” A claim supported by the United Nations.
Dave adds: “They’re coming here to flee a war. People that have been interviewed in the refugee camps say if Syria was a stable country again they’d want to go back. But it’s not at the moment, we need to protect and help them.
“Likewise, if it were the same over here, I’d like to think we’d get the same treatment if we were having trouble and Syria was a safe country. Luckily we’re not in that situation and are in a position to help people.”
War and strife
One of the most poignant stories about The Jungle is an eye-witness account from an unaccompanied child in the camp called Omar, hosted on the CBBC website.
He describes conditions in Syria were children could tell the difference between fighter jet types and of ‘barrel bombs’; large oil barrels stuffed with explosives that could be dropped to cause as much shrapnel damage as possible.
It’s stories like this that are the motivation behind John and Dave’s journey. “We are very lucky to live in such a stable country where most of our wars are away fixtures,” John explains. “It doesn’t really affect us when we’re at war, we take the fight to them. We have our share of trouble but we’re not getting bombs dropped on us on a daily basis.
“You’ll never hear a chancellor saying “We’ve overspent our bombing budget this year, we can’t afford to do it anymore”. There’ll always be a bottomless pit when it comes to wars.”
Dave goes further. “If we spent the money on these people to help rebuild their society instead of another shell to drop on them, I really think the war would have been over by now. Every time 10 grand has been spent on bombings, it could have gone toward resolving things. The money would be better spent on helping people rather than killing them.”
We move on to how The Jungle is now essentially a mobile camp. In pictures published on the Daily Mail website in March, the majority of the original camp has now been demolished, only to recently crop up again by the Eurostar hub in Paris with the site reporting that the ‘Jardins d’Eole have already turned into a lawless, rubbish-strewn mess’.
Violence is also apparently breaking out between rival gangs and differing cultures. John’s girlfriend may prove to be spot-on in her grim assessment. “I don’t know what to expect,” John admits. “We’ve seen the pictures; it looks like Glastonbury in some of them (only Adele isn’t on) and in others you can see on people’s faces the worry that they haven’t got a clue where they’re going to be next month.”
“It has to be constantly moved because the tents keep getting burned down and the people are being pushed back. It’s not just mosques there; there are churches and synagogues, all makeshift. The Jungle is people coming from all over the world, not just Syria. Instead of them walking into open arms they’re constantly getting moved,” adds Dave.
The kindness of strangers
Despite the uncertainty, John is adamant it’s still the right thing for the two to do. “We hear a lot of ‘we should be looking after our own first’ and I always say to people ‘well, what are you doing?’. It’s the same kind of person that would walk past someone homeless and tell them to get a job.
“They’re being referred to as ‘swarms’ of people. Nothing good comes in swarms, they’re not; they’re human beings. I can’t wait for the day when the civilised world is run for the benefit of the people living in it instead of big business.”
Dave feels the media adds a lot to the uncertainty, too. “Sadly there appears to be a dominance in the media against the camp and people trying to sweep it under the rug. I think when we go down to the Jungle and see it for ourselves we’ll see the reality of it. They’re desperate; they’re not burglars trying to break into the country.”
“No matter how bad we’ve had it in this country we’ve never had to climb into the wheel arch of a truck to get somewhere,” adds John, a line of thought he’s expressed in the Wirral2Calais fundraising video. “The boats they’re taking to try and cross oceans; it’s terrible and shows just how desperate they are. How bad is the place you’re coming from if you’ve got to do that?”
John and Dave reserve a lot of praise for those close to them and local businesses around the area who have supported them so far. “We’ve been lucky with our support,” says John, “Our friends have helped us make a video and build a website, they’ve come up trumps for us.”
Dave adds “The generosity of local people has been great. People who know us and what we’re like have been extremely generous.
“Money Matters in New Ferry is our charity drop-off point and West Wallasey Van Hire has undercut everyone else by well over £100, they’ve been brilliant. Local businesses have been fantastic with their backing and have been happy to help.
“Local chemists in the area have been great and have given us wholesale stock they can’t sell to take. The shop over the road (Go Local) has helped with the shopping list and Risa Spice (opposite the John Masefield) gave us some vouchers to raffle to help raise funds. Baxter Meats and the Ex-Civil Defence Club have also offered help, too.
“I’m not very good at negotiating things on a personal level but have done so for the cause to try and help others out.”