Welcome to the jungle...Mansfield vicar’s mercy mission to Calais

The Calais 'jungle'
The Calais 'jungle'

Never one to shy away from the big issues, Mansfield vicar Keith Hebden has made a name for himself over the years for his extreme eye-catching protests and single-minded pursuit against injustice.

He fasted for 40 days to highlight food poverty across the UK, was arrested at RAF Waddington for protesting against the use of drones, and laid down in the middle of a petrol garage forecourt in Mansfield over Government oppression in Burma.

Rev Keith Hebden

Rev Keith Hebden

But the reverend, who works out of St Mark’s Church on Nottingham Road, has now switched his attention to the migrant crisis in the northern French town of Calais, where thousands of refugees have fled their own war-torn countries in the Middle East in search of a safe and secure life in Britain.

Recently I was invited by a network of refugees living in the UK to join a small delegation visiting a camp in Calais.

Camp is a rubbish word for it. Locally it is known as ‘The Jungle’.

“It’s a jungle out there!” was a phrase we often heard when meeting with people in the makeshift camps.

Physically it feels more like a desert - cold winds blow sand and dust into your face and eyes throughout the day, picking up even more in the evening.

The shacks, tents, piles of rubbish, and debris had a feel a somewhere between a Bombay slum and an abandoned seaside resort.

As well as the 5,000 refugees dumped here by the UK and French governments there are many charities and volunteers camping or visiting daily. Medics, builders, therapists, camera crews, politicians, donations and more make such a constant stream of visitors ‘doing to’ the refugees that they are a part of the landscape of the camp. 

Many of the refugees we spoke to have an odd sort of relationship with the people who came day by day.

They hate the endless ‘poverty tourism’ of people with cameras, looking for an opportunity to look good at a refugee camp.

They feel ‘left out’ of any conversation about their own solutions to their own problems.

They need help but every time they take help a little bit of their self-worth dies within them. 

I spoke with a man who had been a GP in Syria, another had left university before completing his degree because his home was just a pile of rubble.

There others with plenty of ideas and practical skills to offer.

A chef, an engineer, a police officer and so on. These are the people with the skills and cash to make it across Europe and so don’t get stuck in the camps on the Syrian borders.

But luck and money eventually runs out for these people too.

They find themselves in a country that doesn’t want them, and has a policy of brutality and starvation against people who just want to be safe.

There are Iraqis, Iranians, Ethiopians, Sudanese, Egyptians, Syrians, Eritreans and others besides. 

People who are lucky if they eat twice a day offered us food and drink. People with little furniture offered us a place to sit. People who have no money to buy new clothes lent us there coats when the wind picked up.

A Muslim gentleman sang for us a Christian song about Mary and told us the story of how he sings in churches as well as mosques. That’s back home, a home which is now rubble.

International Mafia are powerful and ruthless and visit the camp night and day. They demand protection money and punish people by driving over their tents while they sleep in them. They make them sign contracts that force them into slave labour in exchange for being smuggled to the UK.

France is an incredibly dangerous place to be an unwanted refugee when the state offers more violence than protection and the Mafia do the same.

As one person put it: “We don’t want your £35 a week - keep it - we just want to be safe.”

People often ask why refugees in France want to come to the UK and why not just stop in France.

A met an Iraqi family - the father had been a police officer, trained by British troops but he is also a Kurd one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world since their land was carved up by European masters. He has a two year old son who lives in a tent. He and I squatted together in the dirt and played catchy with a small, plastic red ball – his only toy. He has no children to play with.

“We want to be somewhere we can have a future,” said his mum. I want that for him too and I can’t imagine anyone who knows and loves any child would argue with her.

It’s a jungle out there, no question. The bears and tigers turn up in cars and carry slavery contracts and sticks. No one should live like this.