The Calais refugee camp is now nothing but flattened earth, charred here and there by fire, and with only a few shipping containers left standing. In these containers, children are processed and - where they are lucky, and if 'luck' could ever be the right word - will have onwards passage organised for themselves. That the children are being processed and that this processing is being done in a shipping container, could not be a crueller or clearer indication that human lives are being treated as if only a commodity, and a commodity that nobody really wants. Within the scattered debris and broken shelters of Calais there were, noticed only by some to whom they had very recently been dear, also the colourful remains of paint brushes and acrylic paint.
In among the chaos and the dismal conditions of Calais, there were glimmers of a better version of Europe than these Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans and other nationalities were treated to behind the razor wire fencing. One such instance came as a partnership between Hummingbird Project and Articulate, the latter an arts charity of which I am a trustee.
Articulate have, for over 10 years, been developing and delivering expertise that use the arts and creative practice to help young people deal with traumatic situations. The charity began its work with street-involved youths in Ecuador and Brazil, and have been partnering with The Hummingbird Project in the Calais refugee camp for the last year.
In the camp, our work showed us the same human, tender results we have seen it produce elsewhere. It wasn't just that an opportunity for creativity could offer a little bit of joy in the all too hard reality of many refugee lives - though that was partly true; it was more the relief of a safe space where an adult could present a child (and these, it can't be repeated enough, are only children) with nothing more problematic than materials for some drawing and painting. It was the opportunity those children had to process a little of what they'd seen by making masks, creating pictures or making other artistic responses to trauma.
Art can too easily be dismissed as only 'play', but in a year when the idea of taking back control has been badly abused, it genuinely did offer some of the young people of Calais, for a while, the opportunity to tell a story on their own terms, and with agency for that which they created. There were positive, functional consequences that followed from this - having built a relationship based on trust, Articulate and Hummingbird were able to help refugees with communication and administration when dealing with other agencies in the camp. Even this though, seemed somehow less significant next to the human value gained by stories reproduced through art. As one volunteer put it simply, "some children stay all day." It was, they added, "a place where children can be children again." People made powerless by this world gained a power to create something. Emotions and experiences internalised deep inside could be externalised onto a blank piece of paper that, for once, did not offer the confrontation of a dictator's goons or a European private security border guard.
These projects are now over and we are left again to put our faith in the politicians, hoping that they can see the human stories in those who are now disappeared from Calais but not disappeared altogether. We can hope that lawyers are able to rescue some of these lives from what shreds of legislation they have been afforded. In the artwork we saw created in the camp, those stories were always so apparent, whereas in other media they are always so faithfully ignored.
A final note on those who are now gone from Calais, who came to Europe seeking only safety, not prosperity. They are people who have seen and escaped much worse than the closed minds of European border politics, and they deserved and needed our help much more than our pity. Once again, in the hurried closing of Calais, with no humane alternatives thought through, we have denied them both.
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