The Blog

The Kids Who Call 'The Jungle' Home - The Shocking Refugee Camps on Our Doorstep

Men, women and children in shanty town refugees camps on the border between two of Europe's wealthiest nations! It should not be normal and certainly not permanent - it should shock us all.

On the final morning of our Easter visit to witness the refugee camps in northern France our group of MPs, academics, health professional and campaigners gathered to review our visit. But first there was tragic news. Olivier - one of the Doctors from MSF - joined us again. His eyes evidence he has hardly slept. During the night a group of young Afghans had tried to board lorries amid slow moving traffic. One young lad, just 22, was crushed to death. The police responded - for reasons unknown - by launching 500 rounds of teargas into the Calais camp. Olivier's expression showed not just fatigue but disbelief.

Immediately we cast our minds back to our two days in the camps- the young Afghans milling about one of the makeshift restaurants in the shanty town, biding their time before risking life and limb once again in the hope of reaching the UK. The same fate could await any of them, or the Kurds and Iranians we met at Grande Synthe.

We urgently need safe legal routes to the UK. Or safe and civilised alternatives in France.

In Grande Synthe, I spoke to a young Kurdish geologist - able to reel off a list of major oil companies he had worked for - who said he had tried 20 times to board lorries. As he spoke he pointed to the motorway bordering the camp, and the small groups of people marching off along the side of the road, sleeping bags on their backs. This was them embarking on the 5 hour walk to where they thought they could find a truck to board. Colleagues met a man who had tried over 100 times.


Most reasons are pretty straight forward. Family, friends, community or other ties to the UK. Or the historic and cultural links between the UK and other countries. Language, of course. Occasionally there is a perception - whether right or wrong - that the chances of refugee status for a particular nationality are higher here.

These are also precisely the same reasons that other refugees also do not want to come to the UK! That's why in Calais in Grande Synthe so many nationalities are missing - for example many West African or Arab countries - their natural place of refuge is often elsewhere.

In Grande Synthe, a groups of Kurds - including a man who had worked as an interpreter for UK forces in Iraq - presented us with a hastily handwritten letter: a final desperate attempt to explain and help us understand. Only it's not us that need to be persuaded to take action.

Lived experiences in the French camps will only confirm people in their determination to get to the UK. If your experience of France is police violence, tear gas, disease and mental ill health amid the indignity of a shanty town; and meanwhile the scores of incredible volunteers there to try to make life a little more bearable turn out to be overwhelmingly British; then there is hardly an incentive to put yourself hands in the French authorities. So stark is the contrast these desperate people repeatedly chose instead to put their lives in grave danger.

In some ways the degree of resilience, basic organisation and humanity that you see around the camps in the face of such misery is striking. But any notion that this is other than a disastrous existence is underlined in each and every conversation.

Trying not to focus totally on the negative I asked one young and unaccompanied Syrian teenager not just what was the worst thing about "the jungle", but "the best thing" - expecting the little school or youth centre. But "everything here is bad" was young Mohammed's devastating response. He said he doesn't think or dream about the future.

Two volunteers at the youth centre - a recent graduate in international development, and an NHS worker giving up his holidays - earlier told us that they try to encourage the kids to think about life beyond the jungle. To dare to dream. But they have their work cut out. The experienced psychologist traveling with us noted that when asked where they were from, some of the kids now replied "from the jungle" as if it were a new normality and state of permanent identity.

Men, women and children in shanty town refugees camps on the border between two of Europe's wealthiest nations! It should not be normal and certainly not permanent - it should shock us all.

The UK government repeatedly talks of the need to follow procedures under the Dublin convention. But these procedures are not working, as the courts have made clear. With political will and provision of legal advice, they can work so much better and hundreds, if not thousands of people with close ties to the UK can have their cases rightly processed here. And the French government must simply start treating these people with some dignity and offer genuine alternatives.

In short, all we ask is that the French and British governments live up to their moral and legal responsibilities. We hope passing Lord Dub's amendment is a small step in the right direction.