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Calais refugees: the good, the bad and the ugly

The population of the refugee camp in Calais known as "the Jungle" shows no sign of decreasing. One human rights activist talks about the situation there.

Refugees from "the Jungle" in Calais. Photo provided by author. All rights reserved.Away from the busy scenes on Calais's ports and motorways, the refugee camp known as “the Jungle” is growing fast and showing signs of becoming a permanent fixture. On 17 September 2015, a 28 man delegation from Scotland spent one day following the lives of some of the camp’s 6,000 residents.

The delegation provides rare, in-depth access that reveals the growing human cost of the crisis and the challenges facing refugees and migrants trying to reach Britain. The Scottish delegation joined a larger UK group to travel to Calais made up of at least 50 vehicles and 500 UK volunteers. More than £12,000 was also gifted to organisations working with refugees in the camp.

Hakem, a Sudanese nurse with an admiration for Florence Nightingale and "the Scottish culture", had spent four days trying to repair up a tent in windswept scrubland on the site of a rubbish dump in Calais, using bits of old clothing, plastic sheeting, a few stones and a wooden pallet.

“This has to be the most gruesome place I’ve ever seen – it’s not even fit for animals,” he said. After heavy rain poured into his tent at night, at 4am he got up and walked, soaking, the three miles back to his old tent in the centre of Calais, pelted with apples from a truck whose driver slowed down and shouted racist abuse.

His old squat, in an abandoned metal-processing plant, was a putrid place but at least it had a roof, a rusty kettle and blankets. Unfortunately, French police in riot gear had threatened to demolish it and told him and thousands of others that they now had no choice but to go to site of the old rubbish dump and to fend for themselves.

“I paid $4,000 (£2,600) to leave Sudan, risked my life on a boat to Lampedusa, spending weeks at sea,” Hakem said. “I don’t want British taxpayers’ money; I just want a decent life. But what really kills me is this dreadful bit of land where I’ve had to build a tent”.

A few steps away, more than 1,500 men have been forced to sleep rough on wasteland nearby. Scabies, diarrhoea, skin diseases and post-traumatic stress are already present. A study by Doctors of the World reveals the shocking reality inside one of Europe’s largest shanty-towns, where about 6,000 residents, including an increasing number of women and children, are living in conditions “far below any minimum standards for refugee camps”.

Humanitarian charities warn that pushing refugees to sleep on the wasteland, exposed to the elements, risks the same problem that plagued Sangatte: too high a concentration of different nationalities led to fights, desperation, tension and targeting by traffickers.

Fuad Alakbarov, human rights activist, said: “This must be one of the worst refugee camps in the world. It’s just a wasteland. There are more people and they are becoming more desperate and are taking more risks.

“As human beings it is our job to help people who are fighting a harder battle. Winter is coming and I’m really worried about people’s survival.”

Emily Burns, human rights activist, said: “Refugees were so kind and welcoming though, towards me and the other people on the convoy”.

Europe should be ashamed of situations such as the one in Calais. British politicians should realise that the Calais crisis is, first and foremost, a humanitarian emergency.

Even now, David Cameron is planning to use the suffering of Syrians to justify bombing Syria and killing more Alan Kurdis. If we don’t take action and begin to stop our elites doing the things that cause migration, we betray the millions of people who aren’t refugees yet, but assuredly will be.

The refugees’ names have been changed.

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About the author

Fuad Alakbarov is an Azerbaijani - Scottish political activist, human rights defender and photojournalist. He is known mainly for human rights advocacy for refugees, anti-racism, anti-poverty and humanitarian campaigns. You can follow him on twitter @DrAlakbarov.

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