Abdul left Iran after his Father tried to make him join the army. He had no interest in killing other people so he ran away, slowly making his way across Europe before arriving at the camp two days before we did. He doesn’t know anyone in the UK, but he can’t imagine anywhere else offering him a better chance of re-establishing his life. He also knows that the UK doesn’t deport to Iran, which for him is crucial: if Abdul ever went back to Iran, he would be killed. As we stand and chat we’re joined by Abdul’s Syrian friend whose English is broken but whose story is familiar: he fled for life and now has nowhere to go. His brother lives in Harrow – it’s North West London or bust…
David is Ethiopian; he fled the country overnight after the government discovered he was a member of an opposition party and gradually made his way to Calais. He plans on staying in the camp till he’s successful, because what other choice does he have? The Ethiopian government would kill him if he returned. Every night for the last three months he’s attempted to get across the tunnel. The day I met David was a rest day for him. Trying to cross the Channel is hard work, so once a week he gives himself a night off. His friend sitting next to us won’t be trying that night either: he’s on crutches after a failed attempt the night before.
Mustafa has an infectious, broad laugh and a beaming grin. He speaks brilliant English in a weird Brummie accent, despite never having been to Birmingham. His brother lives in the ‘second city’ and he’s picked up all his English from chatting to him, hence the Brummie accent (and typically dry English sense of humour). He fled Afghanistan a year or so ago and has been at the camp for a few months. When we meet he’s helping his neighbour, Abdul, sort his tent out, because that’s what life in the camp is like – if something needs doing, people muck in and get it done.
Another Abdul’s English is poor but his welcome is huge. As I walked past his tent he chucked me a shovel and told me to come and help. Mustafa looked on, laughing that English people’s brains are bigger than their biceps and that I’d be no good. Unfortunately, Mustafa was closer to the truth. I did my part, clearing off a few plants and flattening some ground to give Abdul somewhere to pitch a new tent to live in. Not many people on the site put this much effort into flattening ground, but Abdul’s neighbourhood made this essential: living next door to the camp’s nightclub means you need a flat ground to get anything like a good night’s sleep. Abdul is from Sudan, he left because of the war, saying there was no life for him there.
So many of the people in the camp share a similar story for Abdul, many of them are from Sudan, but even those from elsewhere share a similar story. They’ve fled a war-torn country where their life was in risk either in a general sense or, in cases such as David or the Iranian Abdul, specific threats on their life. These people aren’t economic migrants – they’re refugees, asylum seekers. If you ask why they want to come to the UK, no one mentions our benefit system, instead they talk about jobs, they talk about family members over there. They don’t see the UK as a ‘soft touch’ they see it as a place to build a home.
There’s a need to re-humanise those in the camp. When the news calls them ‘migrants’ in a pejorative sense, we must call them people; even refugees would be more reflective of their situation. While David Cameron talks about a swarm I’ll talk about Mustafa and his Brummie accent and Abdul’s laugh. When we put it in those terms we don’t need see a political story, we see a humanitarian crisis.
For more from Jamie, read 'Why we went to Calais' on PremierYouthwork.com.