Human rights activist Bairbre Flood, from Cork, is just back from the refugee camp in Calais, France.
The French are out walking their dogs every evening. We see them on the streets minding their dogs while, some miles down the road, people are living and dying in the camp. Will they say they didn’t know what was going on when their children ask them? Will we say we didn’t know what was going on when our children ask?
Driving through Calais on the first night, groups of men walked through the shuttered town on their desperate mission to jump the train and find refuge in England. Ghost-like, from another world, their faces exhausted and determined. Many of these people will fall off the trains, sucked up into the tunnel and forgotten by all but their friends and family who see this happening and still have to go on. Why would someone risk life and limb to get to England?
A man from Afghanistan showed me a scar from his wrist to his elbow which he’d gotten trying to jump the train. ‘I’m not trying anymore. I will stay here for now. I’m here 6 months, but I can’t go home. The Taliban will kill me, it’s too dangerous to go home.’
He was clearing an area to set up a café on the camp. Whenever we passed that day he was clearing rubbish, filling in soil. He told us the Irish could eat there anytime, for helping him clean up the space. ‘I have to do something or I’ll go crazy.’ He had soft eyes, a warm face. His friend started talking to us.
‘When I was 12 my father sold our land so we could escape. When he was coming back he was robbed and murdered. Since then I’ve been wandering. I got to England and worked there, but they arrested me one day and deported me back to Afghanistan.
‘I came all the way back here, walking for months. In Hungary they beat me and put me in jail, but I know how to get around.’
He took a drag from his cigarette and grimaced. He must have had some creativity and strength to survive even this long. I thought back to when I was 12 and what I would have done. I don’t think I’d have lasted a year with all that’s stacked against ‘migrants’ in this Dickensian parallel universe.
We heard many stories of horrendous boat journeys, months walking across Europe – detained in each country, sometimes jailed or beaten by police. And then arriving in Calais to absolute neglect.
Apart from citizen aid, they would have nothing at all. As it is, there are few toilets (overflowing), E.coli in the couple of water taps, rubbish piling up and sporadic food/clothes distributions. There’s also incredible people who’ve built a library, a church/community centre, cafés, shops and restaurants – again, the creativity and strength of the people living here is mind blowing.
Suzanne’s café is a little oasis.
‘I want it to be somewhere people feel safe and can relax,’ Suzanne’s husband tells us. ‘We came by boat from Libya. It cost thousands for the boat trip, but we had to do it. We couldn’t stay.’
They brought out sweet coffee and tea while we were talking. Everywhere we went, people offered us water, tea, coffee, food, whatever they had – which was often almost nothing.
This generosity and welcome is in stark contrast to how the French authorities treat them. On the first day there, some of our team came across the police pepper-spraying women crossing a bridge. They leaned out of the squad car and sprayed right into their faces, just as these women were walking. You can see in the video, above, it was a completely unprovoked attack.
We also heard first-hand stories of beatings by the police, dogs being set upon them and detention and torture in cells.
‘We’re in the 21st century, but David Cameron is in another age.’ one Sudanese man said to us, ‘Why does he do what he does? He’s a donkey. Every night I go to the train. They took the muzzle off the dog, they beat us. Our sisters fall, they’re electrocuted, we are being killed.’
His friends stand around and shake their heads, they all ask us why we don’t want them.
We came back to Ireland after just four days on camp. None of us wanted to leave. It’s hard to describe the feeling of leaving people to this existence, of knowing what’s going on right in the heart of our so-called democratic continent. The trucks continue their journeys safely and people are trapped or attempting dangerous escapes.
‘We don’t even want human rights at this stage,’ one guy told us, ‘We’d settle for animal rights. The way you treat your dogs, we’d be happy with that.’
Meanwhile, free Thursday night?
You can buy tickets online for €10 here
Thanks Sarah Peters