This is why you’re not supposed to get into cars with strangers

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Someone does pick me up, a Belgian couple obsessed with street art who have driven down to photograph Banksy. I feel a bit guilty getting into their posh car with the mud caked all up my legs, but they don’t seem to mind. We chat a bit about the artwork, and then, revealing that he didn’t quite get Banksy’s message, the man says, ‘I just don’t understand why they have to come here’.

Oh no.

This is why you’re not supposed to get into cars with strangers.

‘Why don’t they stay in Turkey? Or go to India? Where they are safe?’ I relay some of the stories I’ve heard about how refugees are treated in Turkey, how some have spent years in a camp there, how India hasn’t signed the Refugee Convention so they have no rights, not even recognition as a person before the law. He nods thoughtfully and then goes on to agree that some people need help, but doesn’t understand why a doctor and his family in Kabul or Damascus would leave. I say that I think the Taliban, ISIS and co don’t distinguish between middle class professionals and otherwise. That often in these situations it’s the educated who are most targeted. The woman agrees with me and says that we must help them, though she doesn’t particularly want more in Belgium because the government gives them money and some of them don’t have jobs after ten years.

I really don’t know why the universe is doing this to me when I voluntarily returned to the jungle. Surely it should have been Angelina Jolie or Justin Trudeu who stopped to give me a lift.

‘I just don’t think that’s true’ I say. Every refugee I met is so eager to study and work and expresses disdain at the idea of charity. They were all willing to do anything to start an independent life. Not like so many Europeans I meet who would rather live off their parents than work in a restaurant because they believe they’re above that. And considering so many people here think such labor is beneath them, I’m not sure who else they’d get to serve them if they kick out immigrants.

The guy admits he doesn’t know much about it, and contends that Syria is obviously at war, but questions why people in Afghanistan are coming now. I can hear the resignation in my voice when I talk about the Taliban strengthening since 2014 and relay the stories of how many Afghan’s told me they would rather be shot than sent back. That the war in Afghanistan has stretched well beyond a decade.

The woman, who I had concluded was the smart one, then says that she hasn’t made up her mind yet whether she is ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ refugee, as if it were an issue like raising the VAT. The guy then adds that we shouldn’t help the ‘economic migrants’. I’m having flashbacks to painful moments in South Africa when I accepted rides from people who turned out to be raging racists and then ended up with a choice between being stuck or abandoned alone on a hwy. Thankfully, we are almost in Calais and if I’m thrown out now and have to walk I’ll still probably make my train.

‘You don’t need to be ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ refugee’ I say, ‘…they’re just people’.

This couple is not mean. They express real regret that Le Pen has gathered so much support in France and bemoan the right wing in Belgium. They feel bad that there are people living in the Jungle. And they do think we should do something to help. But the ignorance is astounding. The suggestion of sending people to the rich Gulf States is brought up. I can’t hide my disdain when I say I don’t think it would be fair to send an educated professional woman from Damascus to Saudi Arabia. Or a secular young man from Iraq for that matter. I can hear the condescension in my voice when I point out that all Muslims are not the same, but I just don’t care anymore.

They cheerily drop me off, wish me well and joke about how nice it will be to go back to their warm apartment after seeing the Jungle. Even though all they did was stand at the entrance and photograph Banksy.

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‘You explain me, here is not the worst’

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photo 3 (1)I’ve had enough of the Jungle and head to the exit. The last man I speak to is an Afghan who runs one of the restaurants on ‘main street’. He’s trying to convince me to come in on my way out, but I have to get back to Calais to catch my train to Paris. ‘You are too smiley to be French’ he teases, and when I say I’m from Australia he begins chattering away excitedly. He knows someone on Manus Island, and he has a lot of questions of the non-rhetorical kind.

My heart sinks to my feet and I want to run and hide and vomit. I thought about the possibility of this happening when I left for Athens, but assured myself the numbers were so large the chance of it occurring was miniscule. There are over a million refugees entering Europe this year alone, and only a few thousand that have tried to get to Australia, what are the chances? Yet here I am, literally about to escape the jungle myself when it happens. It’s all very well and good to have long debates about this with volunteers and workers in cafes after a shit day, but I don’t want to stand here and explain my country’s wicked policy to this man who has nothing and knows someone who is directly suffering from it. Why didn’t I say I was a Kiwi. I seriously consider feigning ignorance and just telling him about my neighbour who came from Afghanistan in the 80s and loves Australia and says he’s never had any problems. But I’ve clearly stood there like a mute idiot for too long because he can tell I know what he’s asking about.

IMG_2381Yes, it’s true they can’t leave I say. Yes, it’s true that PNG is not processing their claims even though they’ve been submitted. Yes, it’s true that the Australian government funds the whole thing. Yes, the navy does physically tow them out to sea. Yes, it’s true that people have died, some because they were denied medical care. He tells me his friend said the food was inedible and the guards beat them, then gestures to his restaurant and laughs, ‘at least we make good food!’. Thankfully there are some questions I genuinely don’t have a firm answer to, like if it’s as dirty as the Jungle, or if people have access to better services. Though all reports would suggest the answers to those questions are yes and no, I’m not lying when I say I haven’t seen it. Thank Christ. I’ve been struggling enough with the Jungle in France, I don’t think my soul could handle Australian supported gulags.

The man thanks me earnestly and I’m very confused as to why. ‘You explain me, here is not the worst’ he says. And I realise I’ve given him a gift. The gift that somewhere on a pacific island in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by real jungle, there are people who are treated even more poorly than him. People who are worse off and less human. People who also live in the mud and swamp but are imprisoned. This man, at least, has his agency. He can walk out the door if he wants. What a way to help someone. Maybe I’ll go and find Mimi and tell her about the Somali woman we allowed to be raped, denied immediate emergency health care to, and then flew around the pacific like a ping pong ball so she couldn’t access the courts.

IMG_2407When I get to the exit near the Banksy the mood in the camp has quickly turned and suddenly 7 police vans screech around the corner, riot police pour out and sprint to the other side of the Jungle. There are yells and the police have their batons raised as they run. People shrink into their restaurants and tents and huts and everything goes weirdly quiet. I try and find out what’s going on, but the response I get seems to suggest that this is a relatively regular occurrence; it could be something as simple as an argument that triggers such a reaction.

I can’t wait to get away from this place. A cop stops me and asks if I’ve been taking photos and I lie and say I don’t have a camera. I don’t know why I lie; there are no photos of police on my phone or anything that is controversial. I just don’t want to do what he wants. It’s the only ‘piss off’ I can give them. As I walk onto the freeway to hitch a ride back to Calais I pull down my hoodie even though it’s raining and cold. I’m scared that unless people see my blonde hair and white skin, no one will stop to help me.

I did not want to go back to the Jungle

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photo 4 (1)Since I began my blog in Athens there has not been one day where I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was absolutely exhausted for those 9 days, but not once did I consider piking. On Sunday morning I did not want to go back to the Jungle. I did not want to see it, hear it, smell it or feel it. I selfishly did not want to absorb its unhappiness. It took a lot of internal self-reproach to get me into the taxi and tell the driver where I wanted to go.

It rained constantly over night and the mud is worse, more like a dirty river or one big puddle that seeps into every corner of every ‘street’. It’s impossible to stay clean. And I’ve made my peace that my boots will not see Paris again. There were also more people than yesterday. Many ‘tourists’ showed up to look at the new Banksy and take photos. And on my way in there were more cops decked out in riot gear.

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Inside my tent we use candles, as we have no generators, it is very dangerous. The camp gets set on fire all the time.

A volunteer I met organised a meeting with a British MEP scheduled to speak about opening the border. I spent a good portion of Saturday handing out fliers with her and encouraging people to show up. And they have. Everyone is packed into Cafe Kabul until it becomes clear that there is nowhere near enough room. To my great claustrophobic relief we move to a bigger venue, the only venue here really, ‘the dome’. The Daily Mail article I mentioned tried to make it out as if the Dome was a nightclub. In reality, it’s the only enclosed space that will host more than a few dozen people in the Jungle where they can meet.

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This represents the long time I spent in prison in my country. I feel like I’ve gone from one prison to another.

Art is posted on the walls inside giving refugees a chance to express themselves. And some of the quotes that are attached about freedom and living like animals make me squirm. The purpose of the meeting is for everyone to share stories and people who know what they’re talking about to talk about human rights. But it’s all a bit of a mess and ends up in a hopeful chant of ‘UK, UK, UK, UK!’ The British delegation in particular seems a bit overwhelmed, though after everyone sounds their support there are a lot of cheers and applause. It seems cruel that this has given them false hope.

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Sometimes I come here and I stand for a few minutes, imagining that this is what England looks like.

After I step outside for some air, 24 year old Ali comes over. He left Afghanistan in August. His uncle is in the Taliban and was trying to recruit him four years ago, but he managed to run away to Kabul. There he found a good job with the municipality and he proudly shows me his id card. He said he had a good life and earned a good salary, until the Taliban started strengthening again and his uncle came for him. ‘I love Afghanistan’ he tells me, ‘the mountains are so beautiful and I would go back to my good life in Kabul if I could… but the Taliban is very, very bad.’ I almost want to laugh at the persuasive tone in his voice, as if he needs to convince me that the Taliban is evil. His uncle first came looking for him last year, and his mother told him to run. He tells me that he couldn’t stay and just say no, they would find him and kill him. ‘I do not want to fight for them’ he says, ‘they do very bad things’. So he left, he travelled through Iran, Turkey, Greece and along the usual route until he ended up in the Jungle two months ago.

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Tear gas, why?

He has tried daily to get into England, one time being beaten up so badly by the police his eye socket was broken. Two weeks ago they arrested him and shipped him to a gaol in Metz, near the border with Germany. After telling the judge what he’d been through, that he wanted to get to the UK and if they were going to send him back to Afghanistan ‘could they please shoot him?’ the case was dismissed and he came back to this hell hole. Again I start listing the reasons to claim asylum in France. He shakes his head and tells me he has been through too much to start with a new culture. ‘I know English, and I have friends in UK, people who will help me, it will be quicker to start a life and work.’ While he is open to considering a new country he tells me he is too depressed and there are ‘things wrong with his brain now… I will have problems to learn’.

‘Some days’, he says, ‘I wish they would just come in and shoot us’. It’s not even fear of going back to Kabul, he just has no thirst for life. I try and wonder what that would be like, to have no fear of death, and in a weird way even welcome it. To almost be indifferent as to whether you live or die. Ali shares a minuscule blue ten with 3 other men from Afghanistan. Today it is sunken and the mud has run in. He tells me he is good with clothes and could be a tailor, but would do any kind of job. ‘I just want to work… when you can work, life is good’. What a luxury I have to be irritated at my job for not being everything I want it to be.
IMG_2395-0Throughout his story he repeatedly shrugs his shoulders and says ‘what can I do?’ and I nod dumbly and understandingly. But he repeats it when we say goodbye, and I realise it’s not a rhetorical question. ‘What would you do?’ he asks, pleading for some kind of guidance or advice. I don’t know what to tell him. I can’t tell him his situation is hopeless or that he’s done anything wrong. And I can’t judge any one decision he’s made. ‘I would have left as well…’ I say, ‘but I wouldn’t stay here’. He nods sadly, ‘I just didn’t want to fight for the Taliban’ he says again before he walks away.

Another man who’s been listening to our conversation walks over. His English is much better, almost unaccented, and he clearly wants to talk. ‘Why do they not want us?’ Again I’m hoping this is a rhetorical question, but again he seems to want an answer. I try to explain why people are nervous and the fears people have about differences and the chance of terrorism. I try to be very delicate in how I pick my words but the pain on his face tells me I’ve clearly failed. ‘There is no Daesh here’ he says. Though I couldn’t say for sure I would tend to agree, purely because I cannot imagine anyone voluntarily choosing to live in the jungle. He then urges me to look up some survey online that shows people from Afghanistan are the most peaceful in Europe. I promise to type that into google, though I’m doubtful about the existence of such a study.

photo 2 (1)He asks where I’m from, expresses amazement that I have come so far, and I do the usual living in Paris spiel. Recognition flashes over his face and he asks if I was ok when the attacks happened last month. I don’t know why after all the people I’ve met his concern still takes me aback, but it does. I assure him everyone I know was ok. He nods his head, ‘that is good…. but what happens in Paris, it happens every day in Afghanistan.’ He nods goodbye and walks away, but not before delivering the most common line I’ve heard from refugees from Eritrea to Kuwait, ‘we just want a life’.

A place to call their own

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There are teenage boys everywhere. I’m told a story of 13 and 14 yr old brothers who travelled from Kurdistan. They were with their 21 year old brother who managed to get to England two months ago. Now they have no one and have attached themselves to a male volunteer who doesn’t look much older than 21 himself. A child’s right to education is in the International Bill of Human Rights, the Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s also French and British national law. But the children here do not go to school.  Instead they sit here every day in the dirt, sometimes kicking a football around, dreaming of England. If they weren’t traumatised and destroyed before they got here, they certainly will be once they leave.

calaisTo counter this, l’auberge des migrants has set up a women’s centre and safe space for kids and their mums to come. Because the teenage boys kept drifting in they also set up a caravan across the road for adolescent males where they can hang out, talk to other guys, and when I see them, breakdance. I meet one British woman called Alice who has started a community centre with her own money and serves 400 hot meals a day. She recently burned through her savings and had to start a crowd funding page. I can’t hide my horror when she tells me she sleeps here. I would not be in this place alone after dark. Every week she allows a Narcotics Anonymous meeting to take place in what is essentially her bedroom. She tells me that opium and heroin are big problems here, and they are trying to give people some support. I guess it’s no surprise that in such a place people turn to drugs, but it’s incredible the amount that is smuggled in here. I’m told that most of it comes from England. More people profiting from refugees misery.

photo 2There are several pregnant women. Mimi from Eritrea is 8.5 months along. She lives in one of the huts built by l’auberge des migrants, a small shack where thin wooden boards are nailed together, but better than a flimsy tent. It’s amazing how tidy she keeps it, all shoes are left outside and inside feels very comfortable, kind of like a blanket fort you’d make as a kid. Thanks to l’auberge des migrants there are no longer any women with kids living in tents, they have all been built one of these makeshift cabins that have pitiful looking padlocks on the door. It’s not much, but it’s a space to call their own. Mimi invites us in and offers us tea and food, and tells me how two and a half months ago her husband left and is now in England. She is desperate to get there. I cannot hide the outrage on my face as she tells us they don’t talk on the phone because it is too hard for him to hear about the Jungle. We sit in her tiny room in the dark and the helplessness in her face as she pleads with us to find her a way to Britain is painful. I try and convince her to stay in France and claim asylum here, but she is not interested. Many refugees tell me they fear the French will be unwelcoming and are more likely to be racist than the British. I am not so sure about this. They also worry about how long it will take to learn the language, though considering some have been in the Jungle for a year this seems misguided. Mimi tells me she is expecting to give birth here. On the floor of her shack, unless of course she goes into labour outside in the mud. I open my mouth to reassure her that there’s no way the authorities would let her have a baby here and someone will get her to a hospital, but I stop. I’m not so sure about anything anymore.

I meet two more of Mimi’s friends, also alone and from Eritrea, one of them is also 7.5 months pregnant. I am so surprised by how strongly they are opposed to seeking asylum in France. They treat me with suspicion for even suggesting it and one of them shuts down and just doesn’t want to talk anymore. It’s amazing to me that they have such a rose coloured view of how life will be in England. I don’t get how they can think that having to learn French or go through the asylum process here would be worse than living in this breeding ground of misery. Another thing I’m noticing is that people are less open. In Greece and the Balkans everyone wanted to talk, but in the Jungle residents are so used to journalists coming and asking about their history. At first people were hopeful that telling their stories would result in governments actually doing something, but it has been so long now that they see no point in sharing their pain. They’ve lost all faith that anyone will help.

IMG_2400I say goodbye to Mimi and her friends. Though her little home did offer some shelter from the hideous weather outside, it was beginning to get a bit awkward with me sitting there and no one talking. Almost immediately I regret the decision. There is depression and horror everywhere. Anytime a car pulls up refugees crowd around asking for food or clothes or blankets and are yelled at to keep in line. It resembles cattle being herded. Sometimes the nervousness becomes aggressive, though I don’t see anyone get physical. People are much more desperate here than further south. It’s also a lot colder and no one seems to be looking forward to the future. One man pulls me over and asks where I’m from. He then gets excited and pulls out his phone to tell me his nephew is in Melbourne, and have I met him? And can I help him to get there? I wouldn’t have thought I’d be telling anyone the better option to anything was to stay in the Jungle, but if Manus is anything like this and people are locked in…. Maybe there’s always a worse place, I just wish it wasn’t run by my government.

photo 5There is a huge police presence. Saturday was pretty calm, but I’m told that the cops regularly come in here with tear gas, even using it on women and children. Police brutality seems to be a big problem and adds to everyone’s anxiety; the refugees, workers and volunteers. I know it’s naive to think of police as protectors, but here they are regarded by everyone as the aggressors. Complaints have been made to the local station but are dismissed; one guy tells me he was laughed out when he went in to protest about them using tear gas on children. Around the corner from the jungle are a dozen vans full of riot police, just in case. Just in case of what I’m not sure. Certainly not what police are supposed to do. I hear of three different murders that have taken place, and a few cases of sexual assault, none of which have been thoroughly investigated by the police. Why bother, these people aren’t really human and resources are obviously better spent gassing them into submissive terror.

IMG_2378When I got back into town I was in a bit of a daze. I went and got a hot chocolate to fix everything and the very cheery woman who made me the most amazing one ever asked me if I was ok. But I didn’t want to tell her what was wrong in case she turned out to be a racist Front National loon and I’d be obligated to hate her and couldn’t come back for another chocolat tomorrow. There are posters everywhere of the candidates for the Sunday election, and I am pleased to see that most of the Le Pen ones have been defaced. Calais has a weird feel to it. When you’re in the centre you would have no idea that the Jungle was only 4kms away. There are Christmas decorations and music everywhere, and I wonder how many locals have actually visited the camp and know what it’s really like. When you mention the place to anyone you get a mixture of sympathetic tuts and distasteful expressions. The owner of my hotel was not impressed when I asked him for directions. Certainly people did not on the whole react in a similar manner to what I heard in Greece or the Balkans, though given the sheer scope of the Jungle situation perhaps that’s an unfair comparison.

‘Do you think they will open the border and let us in?’

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I don’t think I’m going to write very well tonight because I am in a bit of shock. It’s very rare that I’m lost for words, but the Jungle is the worst place I’ve ever been. I thought long and hard before committing to that statement, because it’s a big call- and it seems sensationalist. I thought about Soweto and Kibera townships in South Africa and Kenya, the slums I saw in Cambodia, the poor village where I lived in Tanzania, the dire conditions in some of the camps on Lesbos, the chaos in Presevo, the poverty in Addis Ababa, the desperation in Palestine. But I can’t think of anywhere I’ve seen that is worse for the human spirit than the Jungle in Calais. I can’t think of anywhere else I’ve been that was so on edge and sad and without any joy. It is a home you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. A place devoid of hope.

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And it’s in France. An hour and a half train ride from where I live. A G7 country, one of the richest in the world, one that prides itself on its observance of human rights, it’s amazing health care and social system, one whose motto is liberte, egalite, fraternite. This makes the place seem even more brutal. It’s more shocking to see babies living in tents in the mud when you know that the resources are there to fix the problem, there’s just not the political will. Civil action forced the government to put in some portable toilets and fund the Jules Ferry Centre where women and children are able to sleep and everyone gets at least one hot meal a day. There are showers, but the queue is 4 hours long, and after nightfall men are locked out. This means that several women and children sleep in the Jungle because they don’t want to leave their husbands and fathers.

calais8Unquestionably, one of the reasons this place is so dreadful is the fact that people here are stuck. While 10 000 could pass through Macedonia in a day, everyone was on the move, heading to somewhere better, a new life and brighter horizons.  People were tired and hungry and stressed and dirty and anxious, but they were hopeful, they believed that in a few days or weeks things would be better. In the Jungle, everyone is in a limbo that resembles hell. Each night men still try and jump vehicles to the UK, even though it has become virtually impossible. As long as one person occasionally makes it, people here will not stop trying. The odds are so stacked against them it’s incredible they don’t give up and try to find another path, but the majority of them have friends and family in Britain, communities where they will feel like they belong to something again. So they keep waiting and trying while the months and the years go by and they languish.

calais5And the numbers continue to rise and the sense of misery increases. There are people here from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Libya, Palestine, Sudan, Kurdistan, Nigeria and others. Putting that many different languages, cultures, religions and nationalities on top of each other in such a small space, with no infrastructure or resources is bound to be problematic. Violence between and within groups often occurs, there is competition over handouts, and tent cities are segregated. All things considered it’s actually amazing that there aren’t more problems. When you walk down the Jungle’s ‘main street’ there is an abundance of pop up restaurants, such as Cafe Kabul which appears to be the best stocked establishment. There are churches and mosques. There are grocery shops and businesses. There is a book store. One thing that would make a huge difference to everyone is internet access, but organising that seems to be difficult. This seems incredulous to me. If Greece, Macedonia and Serbia can arrange for refugees to charge their phones and go online surely France can.

IMG_2375A few days ago the Daily Mail, Britain’s answer to the Tele, published an article that made it look like refugees were living it up and quite comfortable in this ‘tent city’. I really doubt that any regular reader of the Mail would walk in here. The first thing that struck me about the camp was its sheer size, in space and numbers. At the moment estimates have the population at around 4500, but a few months ago I’m told it was closer to 7000. Tents sprawl in every direction and have sunk into the wet ground. The temperature is not that low, but the rain and the wind cut through my jacket and jumper. There is mud everywhere.  And not just wet dirt, the kind of mud that you sink into and traps your feet and cakes on all the way up to your knees. Disease is rampant.  One volunteer told me that 80% of the population has scabies, and because they don’t have easy access to showers, hygiene standards are appalling.

IMG_2380There are fences and barbed wire everywhere. On the train from Paris I felt like shrinking in my seat at the site of how many steel walls cordoned off the Eurotunnel. On the hill next to the camp high fences block the roads so refugees cannot get to the trucks that board the ferry. All I can think of when I see these barriers is Israel and the Occupied West Bank and how horrible a feeling it was to be behind similar walls in Bethlehem. Even though in Calais the fence isn’t technically trapping them, it’s a constant reminder that these people are not really free to move. The increasing number of walls being built on this continent has been touted by many as evidence of Europe’s failure. I think its evidence more of humanity’s failure.

On my way in I chat to an elderly French volunteer who comes to the jungle and knits with the women and children three times a week. She loves the children she tells me, and laughs while recounting how the police have searched her many times and only ever found wool and knitting needles. She is horrified that conditions like this exist in France, and when I ask about the election tomorrow she is distraught at the idea of Le Pen, but admits she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Sarcozy now that the socialists have pulled out. She then hangs her head in shame while telling me it was the left who allowed the Jungle to descend into its current state and she has lost all faith with the government.
IMG_2376We come across a group of men from Iraq who are leaving the camp as we go in and she embraces them and asks about their families. They call her Mama and one tells her he has just been granted asylum and is going to Lot. She cannot contain her joy that his family will be somewhere safe and hugs him fiercely. When the men find out I’m Australian they all want to know about the island detention centres, and if it’s true that there people are not even allowed to walk out of ‘their jungles’ . Amazingly, I’d never made this direct comparison. I shudder to think what a jungle would look like where people are not allowed to leave. These guys may have nowhere to go, but at least they are not locked in.

I meet a Sudanese guy as I sludge through the mud. He tells me how he fled Sudan in September and has been in the Jungle for three months. He travelled through Egypt and Libya, took a boat to Sicily and then came through Italy and France. His English is soft and polite and near perfect. He has a wife and two children in a province near Darfur and he is hoping to bring them to the UK ‘once he gets there’. He has tried every night for 10 weeks and been caught, beaten and sent back over and over. ‘Do you think it will get easier?’ he asks me hopefully, ‘Do you think that maybe they will open the border and let us in?’
I’m asked this question at least a dozen times through the course of the day by people who are hoping I will tell them what they want to hear. After what some of them have been through it’s incredible to me that they have any belief left at all. The man looks devastated when I tell him I only think the UK is going to get harder and harder to get into, and I feel as though I’ve personally let him down. But despite his crestfallen face he still shakes my hand and thanks me earnestly before walking off with his friends.

Welcome to the Jungle

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franceukI generally don’t tend to head north at this time of year, at most times of year for that matter, and thankfully for my vitamin d levels in less than two weeks I’ll be on a beach in Sydney and temperatures in single digits will seem like a distant memory. But right now I’m on a train heading to northern France, where the forecast is predicted to be rain, cold and wind, three things that I hate. And I’m heading to a place that is so unappealing its been nicknamed ‘La Jungle’.

calais2The Jungle actually refers to several squatter camps that have sprung up around the northern French town of Calais, where the Eurostar tunnel takes travellers across the channel to England. While refugees have gathered here for years trying to jump trucks, trains, cars or ferries to get to the UK, in the past year numbers have substantially increased and there are now thousands of people. Some have lost their lives in attempts to get to Britain, many have been injured by trying or from police brutality, one man managed to walk the length of the Eurotunnel before being apprehended by police at the other end. Many do not speak French, some have family in Britain, and others simply think they have a better chance at a life there than in Europe, but generally refugees stay here for a long time. While some have managed to get to England, most languish in tents in the mud. Conditions are atrocious, and by all accounts the camps resemble townships. In what appears to be a pattern I’ve seen everywhere from Lesvos to Skopje, governments do not want to acknowledge the full extent of this problem and provide the infrastructure and humanitarian services so desperately needed through fear of giving the situation any element of permanency and losing votes.

calais6Such an approach has failed. Coinciding with my weekend is the second round of the French regional elections, where Marine Le Pen, France’s terrifying duplicate of Pauline Hanson or Donald Trump, is poised to win the first region ever for her far right-wing party the Front National. What is amazing to me is how many people in the previously socialist north seem to be voting for Le Pen as a protest vote. Though as someone who comes from a country that elected a buffoon because a politician changed her mind about a carbon price that the majority of the world is now advocating, this probably shouldn’t be such a surprise. I guess I had more faith in the intelligence of the French, and hopefully they end up proving that faith justified. If not however, and Le Pen wins and takes control of a region, she has promised to do whatever it takes to get the ‘migrants’ out of Calais, and one can only fear to what extent that means she is willing to go.

calais3I’ve spent a lot of time since starting this project obsessing over how governments and people can be so dismissive of refugee’s human rights. Rights that we are all internationally recognised to possess for no other reason than the fact that we are human. You’re not entitled to them because you’re white, rich, male, Christian, straight or born in the west. You’re entitled to them because you are a human being. And it’s dawned on me that the reason some can be comfortable with this is because for many these people are not considered human. While it’s easy to argue that refugees are different, the ‘other’, or even a threat, such arguments don’t justify denying them human rights. It’s harder to get your head around the fact that for so many they are just not people, and this allows us to treat them accordingly. It’s the type of thinking that allows Israel to dismiss war crime accusations for the indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian civilians. It’s the type of thinking that allows the majority of the Australian population to not even blink while the government locks up desperate innocent people on remote pacific islands and denies them the most basic of fundamental freedoms. And it’s this type of thinking that allows France to treat the people in the jungle as an inconvenience rather than people screaming out for help and dignity.

But, however much we may choose to ignore it, these people are human beings. Believing otherwise may make it easier for you, but it doesn’t make it any less of a fact. They are the same species as you and your children. They catch the same diseases. Their bodies function in the same way. They have the same physical, civil and social needs. They could be your kidney, blood or bone marrow donors. A brilliant Banksy that popped up today emphasised the reality that this could be any of us. If you believe that you are entitled to human rights, and most people do, you cannot simultaneously support the deprivation of them for someone else because they are poorer, darker or less fortunate than you.banksy_calais__02_2015_0

It’s now been almost a month since I left Serbia and in some ways the world is a different place, particularly my world. There are more military personnel in Paris then I care to see in the city I live, I’ve been patted down before walking into a big store, it takes an absurd amount of time to get into the building at work, and for several weeks any noise on the metro made people jump. Travelling with the refugees through the Balkans gave me a unique perspective after the attacks happened. When Macedonia announced it wouldn’t let through anyone who wasn’t from Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, I was relieved that ‘my friends‘ had got through when they did. When US governors and a certain presidential candidate started calling for a halt on any humanitarian intake from Syria I was filled with a rage more violent than it would have been 6 weeks ago. And as each country along the way started to build a fence, I wanted to be there to see what it would look like and how it would feel now, with a very physical barrier to increase the terror, isolation and loneliness these people are already dealing with. To increase the sense that no one wants them.

calais7Many people asked me why I didn’t take more photos, or even video footage. It’s important to remember that these people are refugees, which by definition means that they are fleeing persecution, and most likely do not want their identity to be revealed to authorities back home before they have found safety and a durable solution. In Syria there have even been stories of Assad’s government identifying individuals on social media and raiding their property, or worse, punishing loved ones they have left behind. To add to this, many journalists operating in the field have acted unethically in the taking of photos, particularly of children. I witnessed myself on Lesvos questionable media practices. It goes without saying that permission should always be sought before a photo is taken, and from parents if the subject is a minor. But even in these cases a personal judgement must be made as to whether this is the right thing to do. While photos have played a powerful role in this crisis, they can do so without the exploitation of grief, the invasion of privacy or putting refugees and their families at risk.

Thank you all again for your support, so many people responded to my call for clothes and put me in contact with people they knew who have helped at the Jungle. Many have asked me about visiting themselves. The following pages contain very useful information on the situation in Calais and how you can help;
http://www.calaidipedia.co.uk/
https://calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com

Please think twice before you make a move, as there is a chance good intentions can compound pre-existing problems.

Peace, Kate x

‘Get up Daddy, and take me to clever kids school’

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I have footage almost identical to this of my brother and I, without the request for protection from ‘strikes of fire’.

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http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2015/dec/04/raghat-a-five-year-old-who-died-in-a-russian-airstrike-on-syria-video

This video is 1.37 long.
Watch it and tell me at what point she’s any different from your daughter/little sister/niece/ cousin/child of your friend?

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Is it somewhere in between dancing for the camera or spinning in her pink tutu?

Is it before or after kissing her baby sister or asking her dad to take her to ‘clever kids’ school?

Does the purple jumper and butterfly headband make you feel uncomfortable? Did you see the same on a child in the park the other day?

Watch it and tell me how she’s any different to what you were at 5, except that you weren’t having bombs dropped on your house.

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And then tell me how we don’t have room/ can’t afford to help children like her and her parents. While we spend 55 million sending 4 people to Cambodia.
And millions more on offshore concentration camps on remote pacific islands.

Tell me how Australia is in trouble with people struggling to afford second cars and two story house mortgages and designer shoes.

Assure me that somehow this little girl really is different and maybe her parents will threaten us and our way of life.

Tell me how it’s not our responsibility to make sure she gets an education or proper health care, or a childhood.

Or better yet, look in the mirror and tell yourself that, and decide if you like what you see looking back at you.

It doesn’t matter anyway, she’s dead now.

même pas peur

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It seemed like no one on my bus to Belgrade spoke English, but I picked up that the word refugee is not used much by the Serbians, ‘they’ are all ‘immigrants’,*said in an angry voice*, showing the power of language in labeling someone as undeserving. And it’s clear that as in Australia, many Europeans don’t believe refugees have a right to be here.

IMG_2355I am an immigrant. I left my wealthy, stable, safe country to live and work in another because I wanted to experience something different. I had no well-founded fear of persecution, I could have found a better paid and more secure job in Australia than I found here. But no one in Europe has ever questioned my right to be here. No one has ever accused me of taking someone else’s job. And as far as I know, no one has ever worried that I might be a threat to national security.

Every single refugee I spoke to loved their home. Every single one of them spoke of the beauty of their country and said they would go back if they had a future there. We are wired to want to return to where we are from. Every Christmas I go home, because it gets to November and I’m itching to be where I’m from again. For these people, going home is not an option.

I was sitting in my hotel in Belgrade when news of the terrorist attacks in Paris came through, and like everyone who calls that city home I felt sick to my stomach, and wracked with nerves until one by one everyone there who I loved turned out to be ok. There’s really nothing more terrifying than the thought of not feeling safe where you live, and the French have had a taste of that in the last few days. The difference is that for the majority of refugees, they do not have a government who will act to protect them, who will do whatever it takes to ensure their future safety. For some of them, it is the government targeting them. They are not running from an attack on a stadium, or a nightclub, or a restaurant, or a bar. Their villages, cities, and in some cases their countries, are on fire.

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We all empathise with the images coming out of France that show people terrified and fleeing. We can all understand that when you hear gun shots and comprehend the threat, you grab the people you love and you run. You run away from the danger, and you keep running until you find protection and feel secure. Refugees don’t get to just run out of the restaurant; they have to run further and faster and for longer until they feel safe. Why is it that we don’t look at the images of people running from war and make that correlation? There was not one story of someone slamming their door in the face of Parisians who ran on Friday. Why can we not now?

While I’ll acknowledge that I met some who weren’t running from obvious persecution, the idea that these people are to be feared is something that I understand less now than I did two weeks ago. That the man or woman who comes from a different background is someone you are justified in being afraid of because they are different to you makes no sense. We make these people the other because it allows us to feel safe in our bigotry and more comfortable in our ignorance. Obviously I didn’t talk to every refugee, but these people don’t want to blow up your homes and change your way of life. They don’t want to convert Europe or threaten your children. They don’t want to impose some deranged form of Sharia law. What they want is the same things you do. They want to send their kids to school, finish their own education, get a job, and be able to feed their families. They want to be free and to live without fear.

IMG_2356Almost immediately following the attacks in Paris, Poland announced that it would no longer be adhering to its commitment to accept a mediocre number of Syrian refugees under a previously negotiated EU deal. Hungary is likely to follow. Calls in the US and Australia to halt any intake were loud. As if the two issues were automatically linked. Despite the fact that the vast majority of these perpetrators were European citizens, born and bred here, in our schools, our suburbs and our communities.

What I’m afraid of now is what’s to come. How we will react as a community. If Paris will permanently feel like a city under military protection. If France will feel like a country at war. I’m afraid that people will become more racist. I’m afraid that Marine Le Pen will win the next election. I’m afraid Muslims will no longer feel safe on the streets. I’m afraid that hate speech will become something we accept, stand by and allow to happen.

But when it comes to the refugees, I am not afraid of them. I’ve helped these people out of leaky boats. I’ve comforted them while they’ve howled violently. I’ve walked to border crossings with them in the pitch black. I’ve sat in the dirt and talked with them in their camps. I’ve travelled across a country with them. I’ve shaken their hands and heard their stories and shared their food. I’ve been alone with them in the dark.

And if I’m not afraid of them after that than you don’t get to be either.

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Everyone, including the police, started singing

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IMG_2348I take the official and ordered crossing from FYROM into Serbia at Miratovac and reach the processing centre at Presevo. This camp is the most chaotic that I’ve witnessed. There are people everywhere yelling, and a heavier police and military presence than I’ve seen before. As this is an entry point, people here are registered and fingerprinted and this takes time. On an average day- 8 hours, on a bad day- 24. After arriving from the border groups are barricaded and held back behind metal rails in numbers of 50 or so. It really looks like something out of a war film. From here they move up the line group by group until they enter the UNHCR tents where they are processed, finger printed, and then board a train or bus to Sid at the Croatian border.

Adis from the United Presevo Volunteers comes out to meet me at the entrance where I’ve had another encounter with a displeased policeman. I’m not going to be allowed into the official tents. I hopefully and helpfully tell the cop that I’m Australian, but this one doesn’t seem to care.
Adis has been in Presevo for a month now. There are about 25 volunteers living in a house, literally crammed into the rafters sleeping on top of each other. These people are phenomenal. Unlike on Lesbos, there is no glamour and prestige in Presevo, there are no pretty beaches and waterside restaurants, and these guys are doing it tough. They work 18 hours days, and from what I can tell, they’re the only reason the situation hasn’t completely spiraled out of control. Before entering the camp it is this group who are handing out water and food and clothes and basic medical care to the refugees who may be here for hours and hours before they are processed. MSF also have a tent to deal with the most serious cases, but policemen often refuse to let people out of the line, even to use the toilet. As a result children defecate in their pants. When groups move forward to be registered people are anxious, and there’s a high risk of babies and children being trampled. I see for myself Adis throw himself into one such movement and act as a human shield to stop a little girl being flattened. The Presevo volunteers work entirely off donations and are desperately in need, with funding left for only a few more days, so if you can spare it- $50 goes a very long way in Serbia.

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Volunteers also provide essential information to people who often have no idea what’s going on. Some refugees think that they are in Slovenia and not far from ‘Mama Merkel’. Others arrive having no idea which country they’re in. Something that makes a huge difference is basic communication, so the volunteers have made info sheets explaining where they are and what happens next. It seems incredulous that this hasn’t been done by the state or large NGOs. It’s such a basic and obvious thing to keep people informed, and the times I’ve seen refugees stress is when they don’t understand what’s going on. It would be a simple gesture, as well as an act of basic decency and a sign of respect to acknowledge these people as humans who deserve the courtesy of knowing what’s going to happen to them. It’s also pragmatic and would make everyone’s lives a lot easier.

IMG_2350The volunteers are all young, I don’t see anyone who looks over 40, many are in-between studies or jobs, some have left work to come here. All of them look exhausted and stressed. I ask them about their biggest problems, which seems a stupid question when the whole place is chaos. They tell me how the medic tent is only able to handle priorities, and there are so many problems that priority has come to mean being 8.5 months pregnant and having contractions. If you don’t fit that description, you’re waiting a while. Young men show up with injuries sustained from the boat trip from Turkey, having walked through Greece with serious wounds, but single males are never the priority.

Another huge issue is psychological care. Children often have panic attacks, particularly when they are separated from their parents. I hear one story of a 16 year old diabetic who was refusing to take insulin and effectively killing herself slowly. Another of two teenage girls who fled Syria and had all their belongings stolen in Hungary, one had started cutting herself. A woman died in a hotel room because they switched off the water and she couldn’t take her heart medication. They found her reaching for the pills. A bottle of water is all that would have made the difference. When stocks are low, water is only distributed to ‘special cases’- drinking water– a decision actually has to be made for who stays dehydrated.

IMG_2352The volunteer house is set less than 50m back from the street where the refugees are barricaded. The background noise of people in distress is loud and constant, and I don’t understand how they are getting any sleep at all. One tells me that she sleeps with a walkie talkie next to her ear in case of an emergency, meaning she never sleeps at all. Everyone has nightmares about the screams that sometimes come from the street and mean that something is really very wrong. I am so humbled by these people and their dedication. I could not live how they are living and the difference that they are making is enormous. Recently, Adis started cooking for everyone, but some days there is only enough money for them to have one hot meal. Because they want to be clear that general donations go to the refugees, you can donate specifically to their kitchen.

Something I’ve heard consistently since leaving Greece is stories of the authority’s brutality. While the military generally have a better understanding, policemen are not trained to deal with these kinds of situations. There is no understanding of cross-cultural communication, and it shows. People are shouted at like animals and pointed at like criminals. I see one man pushed to the ground and others dealt with very roughly for daring to take a step forward. But I’m also told stories of compassion, that the cops here are protective of the volunteers, and very, very concerned about the babies. But still there is no order in Presevo. Attempts to separate women and children from men to protect them in the crowds don’t work because wives obviously want to stay with their husbands. And when the crowd surges it’s the most vulnerable who are at risk of being trampled. The power of a group of people of this size heaving with exasperation and aggravation is quite frightening.

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As with everything I’ve seen in the last week, there are many stories of humanity at its best. Some of the refugees have helped with crowd control, a Syrian social worker intervened in one tense situation and told Adis, ‘I got your back’. At one particularly busy point a group of kids aged 7-10 helped with running the food distribution tent, excited to be given a role and responsibility, and just something to do other than wait. A Spanish NGO called Clowns Without Borders showed up one day and started entertaining the children, but it ended up having just as positive an effect on the state of mind of the police. One story that gives me chills is of a day where supplies ran out and there was nothing left to give. People were getting anxious when Adis, feeling powerless, started playing music on a whim, and almost immediately the situation calmed. Everyone, including the police, started singing. A moment of normalcy in an otherwise appalling situation prevented disaster. On another occasion when they were linking arms to try and hold a crowd back, a group of Moroccan guys started singing ‘We are the world’. Sometimes all it takes is a song, an act that reminds everyone we are all the same, and a part of something bigger than ourselves.

We do what we can

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IMG_2319-1I was warned that getting into the Macedonian camps would be impossible, but I managed to walk into Tabanovste with no problems. A dirty train has just pulled up and people empty off it for the usual routine of collecting clothes and food before they walk along the tracks to cross. Eventually, despite my best efforts, some genius figures out that I am not a real refugee and I’m quickly ushered out. The camp director is not impressed that I have infiltrated his kingdom. They are terrified of journalists getting in and don’t believe that I’m not with an organisation. Arbnor asks for my passport, and as soon as he sees the coat of arms his attitude does a complete 180, ‘Kangaroo!’. Suddenly it’s very important that we become Facebook friends because he wants to come to Australia, and it’s very hard to get in he tells me. Oh what sweet irony.

IMG_2322-0I’m offered tea and an interview. ‘I’m so sorry, I thought you were British or American.’ he chuckles, as if this explains everything. It’s not the first time that my nationality has worked in my favor like this and I take full advantage, though I’m not sure what I’m going to do when he finds me on facebook and asks for an Australian visa. The camp is calm he says because the refugees do not stay very long. FYROM has managed to implement systems to funnel people through the country as quickly as possible and refugees rarely stop. Serbia is only 500 metres away, and 3-5000 people cross here daily. Maximum capacity for overnight is 1000, though it is very difficult to imagine that many people in this space and in reality they end up sleeping outside in the dirt. Arbnor seems proud of his camp, as if it is a competition with others to see who can provide the best service. But he admits that if something happens and people were to stay longer, they would be in trouble.

Everything is fine as long as the borders stay open and people can move on. It is easy to see how quickly this could turn into a full sale disaster if that changes though; basic infrastructure is lacking, and the only thing that allows the system to do anything resembling work is the constant onward movement. Many commentators have predicted that border closures further north could have catastrophic effects on the region which already suffers from its own ethnic and religious tensions.

IMG_2304The taxi drivers of Macedonia seem like a bit of a mafia, and it’s amazing how much money is being made. Refugees have injected millions into the economy through transport, small goods, and even accommodation for the wealthier ones. Crossing the state is at least 100 euro per car, and drivers make the trip three times a day, in a country where the average income is not much more than 300Eu a month. All the drivers I interact with are incredibly sympathetic. ‘We do what we can’ I see them buy water and coffee for the refugees. They hide children in their cars from the police and get angry when discussing how the authorities are corrupt and take money from these poor people. As Vladmir who drove me into Skopje and used to serve In the Yugoslav army points out, Europe’s last refuge crisis was a result of war in the Balkans, and people genuinely seem to want to help. ‘You are 18, 19, still really a child, and you wake up and your life is gone… things you can see, you can never unsee.’ They set up their phones as hot spots so the refugees can contact home, and they provide hugely important information on where they are going and what to expect that I haven’t seen given anywhere else so far. Perhaps most significantly, they treat the refugees as equals and talk to them about their families and their stories. There is no class structure in these cars.

Until June this year Macedonian law actually imprisoned taxis for taking irregular entrants to the Serbian border. Several are currently serving gaol terms for this offence. I hear one story of a driver who picked up a German girl and her black boyfriend, and felt sick about it but asked to see their papers. Vladmir looks ashamed to be telling me this, but says he couldn’t risk a gaol sentence and felt he didn’t have any choice. Understandably the couple were furious and walked away.

He encourages one group to seek asylum in Macedonia. Proving that a huge problem in this situation is a lack of communication, the refugees reveal that they don’t know about procedures here and are heading to countries where they believe they will get papers easily. They are also concerned with being in large countries where there are Arab-speaking communities. A fact that would have the far right screaming with cries of ghetto, it is really just a desire to feel a part of a community. To speak your mother tongue, to laugh and talk with those who share your history. It is no different from Chinatown or Little Italy. It is no different from me being drawn to an Aussie in Paris. None of them want to accept charity. When those who are used to money find out how much people in Macedonia earn they are quickly turned off, and encourage the taxi driver to come with them to Germany.

IMG_2327-0It is true that a small number of these people are not only running from bombs, one group crossed through the other day from Puerto Rico, another from the Dominican Republic, which seems amazing to me because surely there is an easier way to get to Europe from the Americas than via Greece by Turkish smugglers. My Yugoslav army friend says that there are those taking advantage of the situation. He doesn’t hold it against them though, and seems very wise in his comments that it is human nature to always search for a better life. As long as the refuges keep moving and injecting millions into the FYROM economy I really don’t think that anyone here minds. However, I am given the distinct impression though that benevolence would quickly disappear if all these people stopped moving and decided to settle in Skopje.