Playing Cricket in Calais with Screwed Migrants and UKIP-Trolling Activists
As the election approaches, nobody's talking about the humanitarian crisis on our doorstep.
One of the many problems for migrants stuck in Calais trying to get the UK is boredom. The people struggling to survive there are stuck in an incredibly boring purgatory.
But on Saturday when I visited the Calais "Jungle" – the former squat-home of many of those migrants – that wasn't the case. The soon to be pulled down camp was a hive of activity. Music blared out of rigged up speakers and a cricket match spread across a football pitch. Cricket whites were pulled over grubby clothes as migrants shacks formed the backdrop of a game that was somehow both heartening and bleak.
"I can't imagine how I've managed to play cricket for the best part of 40 years without Afghan folk songs coming out of the sound system," remarked Christopher Douglas, a "Sunday cricketer", and a comedy writer and actor the rest of the time. "It's just brilliant – adds to the atmosphere so much".
Christopher and his mates had come to recreate the England-Afghanistan Cricket World Cup, between English activists and Afghan migrants, as part of – UKHIP – the "UK Humanitarian Intervention Party". Other than the cricketers were three cars and a van full of tents, sleeping bags and boots, brought over to Calais to distribute donations to the thousands of migrants who live there. Scattered around the city, some sleep rough in doorways, most live in camps like The Jungle, and a few – mostly women and children – are put up in charity-run hostels.
UKHIP is the brainchild of a group of activists including Beth Granville, David Charles and Strike! magazine. Back in January and again in February, they used a Daily Mail £1-ferry ticket-deal to get to Calais, taking over backpacks and a car full of supplies. When they got back, Granville and Charles wrote a piss-taking letter to the immigrant-hating Mail, saying, "Some freeloading scroungers might have cynically used your festive promotional offer with P&O Ferries to go over and stock up on cheap continental booze and fags. But we know you meant to launch a D-Day-style flotilla of solidarity with Fellow Human Beings who have fled the blood and torture and killing and more blood and bombs."
This time, with the Daily Mail offer over, they were crowdfunding their way there. With the election in sight, UKHIP has targeted the scapegoating of migrants carried out by their almost namesakes, that they think is preventing the UK from tackling a massive humanitarian crisis on its doorstep. With the election on its way, politicians seem to be using immigrants to get votes, rather than offering them help.
"Nobody will touch Calais because of the prevailing attitude towards immigration – none of the mainstream political parties," said Vyvian (not his real name), part of the Strike! magazine contingent. He said that because resources are pumped into securing the border rather than improving the camps, many migrants in Calais would be materially better off in a UN or NGO run refugee camp in a war-zone.
"I think the main aim is to raise awareness of the real situation here," explained Granville. "People have no running water, people live with the constant threat of police violence, they have very little food – the situation here's just really hard. People are fleeing from countries where there's oppressive regimes... and just want to make a better life for themselves."
I soon saw what UKHIP were getting at. While the cricket provided some light relief, the Jungle was simultaneously in upheaval, ahead of an eviction order which came into effect this week.
A new, official camp, "Jules Ferry", has been set up by two French charities at the behest of the French government, it will be finished at the beginning of April and can accommodate women and children overnight, and men during the day. Nobody is happy about the new camp, which the activist group Calais Migrant Solidarity (CMS) describe as part of, "a new security agenda agreed with the UK to strengthen the border and prevent people from crossing". The centre, which CMS believe is more about policing than protection, is isolated from the town, and will take away much of the occupants' freedom. Despite not having asked any of the migrants what they want, the French authorities are using the new camp as grounds to justify destroying the Jungle.
Some people want to resist the eviction and are planning to stay in the Jungle for the time being, but many fear repercussions. They have decided to move, taking pallets, plastic sheets, chunks of metal and wood with them and trying to hastily assemble a new, independent camp further up the road. This meant that much of UKHIP's flotilla was deployed to drive people backwards and forwards, many hanging off the back of the laden van.
They helped ferry Danny, a small, thin Eritrean refugee, to the new camp, lugging a pile of blankets that probably weighed more than him. A strong wind seemed to be blowing down tents, quicker than the migrants could put them up. Later, another migrant told me that Danny was only 13 years old.
Back at the Jungle, I spoke to Yarid who had been living at the camp for three weeks and wanted to go to the UK to get an education, although at 21 he was worried it was too late. Yarid had fled compulsory military service in Eritrea. He feared it would be impossible to get to the UK, but "I never give up, I always try".
Outside, England technically won the cricket, but the English team acknowledged that their victory was largely down to the Afghans who had helped make up the numbers in their team. The Afghans didn't seem to care too much anyway, seeming briefly content.
"It's quite affecting, really, seeing what it's like here," remarked Douglas, who said he had known very little about the situation beforehand.
After the match, I got chatting to Norwoz, who told me that he had travelled to Calais from Kandahar, nine or ten months ago. He said he had enjoyed the cricket, but that otherwise life in the camp was difficult. "Conditions are very bad" he said.
"I left Afghanistan because I translated for American and UK soldiers," he explained. "Afterwards I get problem with the Taliban."
As we gathered to leave, people were still dragging their belongings out on to the road, hoping someone would help them move. UKHIP had brightened the place a little, but now they were leaving and it was hard to imagine a much bleaker scene. In the car on the way back I asked Clare Shortall, a doctor who recently spent two weeks in Calais working with Doctors of the World, what she thought of the situation. "A humanitarian crisis trumps whatever you think about immigration," said Shortall, adding that Doctors of the World want the UK government to divert some money from securing the port to humanitarian aid.
Back in the UK the election campaign kicked off, and it became increasingly clear that very few political parties think it's in their interests to stick up for migrants. UKIP picture Farage literally sweeping away Calais in their most recent letterbox campaign, and instead of challenging this, Labour have responded by releasing an anti-immigrant mug. The Green Party, meanwhile, have described what everyone else is doing as a "race to the bottom" on immigration rhetoric."
While grassroots groups like CMS, a handful of NGOs like Médecins du Monde, and activist groups like UKHIP try their best to help, there's really very little they can do beyond handing out tents, boots and blankets. The British government, on the other hand, could solve the problem, but unfortunately they treat immigrants as a problem to be dealt with, rather than people experiencing a humanitarian crisis.
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