It’s been the focus of much coverage this summer, but beyond the headlines what’s life like for those living in the Calais “jungle,” a makeshift migrant camp near the French coastal city?
And is there anything those moved by the unfolding humanitarian situation a few miles from the United Kingdom’s shores can do to help?
In an attempt to understand the situation a little more, a small group of volunteers with a bus load of supplies travelled to Calais last week.
The trip was, in part, organized by Jamie Cutteridge, deputy editor of Premier Youthwork magazine, and included two Baptist ministers and a number of young people in Baptist churches.
Gemma Dunning, who is the children, youth and families pastor at West Cliff Baptist Church in Bournemouth, initially wasn’t planning to go when she shared Cutteridge’s Facebook post requesting items to take to those living in the camp.
“I was just trying to find things for Jamie, who’s a friend of mine,” Dunning said. “But another friend (fellow Baptist minister Juliet Kilpin) saw the post and said she had been thinking about going.”
“When [Baptist Union General Secretary Lynn Green’s] statement came out … it just felt right to go,” she said. “Part of Jamie’s goal was to find the truth as well as what could be useful longer-term. At our church we have this expression ‘not just charity, but solidarity,’ and the visit seemed to fit with that.”
Dunning booked a ticket for herself and her 17-year-old son on Aug. 14. They were in Calais on her day off the following Tuesday, Aug. 18. The reality was both “heartbreaking … and beautiful,” she said.
There are 4,000 people living in the camp, with just three taps for water. Four hundred meager food parcels are handed out twice a week (on Tuesdays and Saturdays), on a first come, first served basis.
A food delivery took place while the group was there, which they supplemented with biscuits from a nearby supermarket.
More general supplies such as clothing, blankets and toiletries are less of a problem, but their distribution is, Dunning said. There are simply not enough people on the ground to sort through what has been sent to the camp.
Cutteridge captured the situation in a short clip he subsequently posted on YouTube.
The distribution center of the “jungle” is based in an old Catholic church run by the Secours Catholique charity and opens once every three weeks for 500 people.
The fact that no major aid agencies are currently operating in the camp contributes to the lack of food and distribution issues.
“The charities on the ground are local and small,” Dunning said. “The distribution center is run by a remarkable man called Pascal, but there is only so much he can do. I couldn’t believe there was no major agency there but the feedback I’ve had off the record is that it’s too political.”
“Whatever your view on immigration, this constitutes a humanitarian crisis. It’s a refugee camp, and these people are going nowhere fast,” she added.
But amid the desperate conditions, Dunning also experienced something else. “Since I’ve returned and reflected on the visit, I’ve described it as ‘beautiful, heartbreaking, joyful and worship-filled.'”
She explained, “We met some amazing people. I was struck by their resilience, strength – people from countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Afghanistan. Many were fleeing political situations. They had spoken out about something, and it was made clear they couldn’t go back home. There were beautiful creations of homes; some were wonderfully creative structures. Life was happening.”
The group was able to visit St Michael’s, the temporary church in the camp, the scene of that weekend’s much-debated edition of Songs of Praise – a BBC One series focused on Christian hymnody.
Group members spoke with Mima, an Ethiopian with a theology degree who helps lead the migrant church. Mima told them that while he originally wanted to reach England, he now feels a call to stay.
“The church has such a presence God,” Dunning said. “It is giving people such hope.”
“Because a number of English people had travelled to the camp with the BBC that day, the church collection bag was fuller than usual. They decided to buy a speaker – so more people could hear the gospel,” she said.
Through their various contacts, the group has been trying to raise awareness of what they saw and lobby for greater help by making contact with a number of larger aid agencies.
Matt Dominey, a teenager from Leigh Road Baptist Church in Essex, penned a reflection that has been picked up by both his local newspaper and The Baptist Times.
In the piece, he explains why he has created a petition lobbying the U.K. government to take in its fair share of refugees.
Another young Baptist, Grace Claydon, wrote a blog about his experience in the “jungle.”
“All of us, in our own ways, have some influence in getting the truth out there,” Dunning said. “We want to use those positions to influence and educate people and work out what’s useful and sustainable for the long-term.”
Paul Hobson is editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain – the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. A version of this news article first appeared in The Baptist Times and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @PaulHobson10, The Baptist Times @BaptistTimes and the Baptist Union @BaptistUnionGB.