Embarking on a journey across Europe – meeting refugees in Calais

By Mary Allan.

Like many people who felt European and believed in the EU as the best option for our times, I was devastated at the result of the 2016 referendum. However, the unfolding of the politics over the next 3 years proved even more mind-bendingly awful and coupled with being made redundant at the end of 2018, prompted me to make the decision to embark on a journey across Europe.

In July 2019 I started out in my motorhome to see if I could live well on the road. I still have a home in Bath and come back on a regular basis. But I have found a new way of living, visiting friends, volunteering and camping out on camping sites and in any place that looks good for a night. It is likely to become more onerous after December 2020, depending on the outcome of the trade talks with the EU, but in the meantime, I am finding it a great way to deal with the disappointment and fear of what the UK is becoming. This blog is a reflection on some of the conversations I have had on the road.

My first stop was at the home of an ex-colleague of mine who is French and up until January 2018 had lived for over 35 years in the UK. She had made the decision to return to France even though she is politically very active and has returned to the UK to join the marches. But for her, the writing was on the wall and the thought of becoming a second class citizen and all that might go along with that, prompted her to sell up and get out. Looking out from her beautiful house over acres of wood and fields, bought for a fraction of the cost of a UK equivalent, it seemed like a really sensible decision to make. She now works as an estate agent sourcing properties and marketing them to customers, a significant number of whom are British.

As part of my journey, I wanted to feel some real connections and as my last job had been with unaccompanied young asylum seekers in the UK, I was naturally drawn towards a refugee organisation in Calais. I spent a month there in the summer, meeting and talking with refugees from the major trouble spots in the world as well as some lesser known areas of conflict and extreme poverty. While it is true that most refugees in Calais want to come to the UK, the numbers in Calais are actually a tiny fraction of refugees on the move globally. There are about 600 refugees living in fenced off areas around the more industrial parts of Calais. They live in tents and sleeping bags and are supported by a small number of organisations who provide food, clothing and tent replacements whenever the CRS (a section of the French police) raid the camps and take all the refugees’ belongings. This happens fairly regularly. The majority of refugees come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, South Sudan and increasingly from Iran, and the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Iran. They have trekked for many hundreds of miles over hostile territories, in some cases been trafficked and sailed in unsafe craft across dangerous seas with a dream of having a better life in the UK. Given that endeavour it is very hard for them to hear that their dream is likely to be more of a nightmare than a dream.

On a return visit to Calais this month just prior to my crossing the channel, I spoke with a refugee from Sudan who believed that it would become easier for them after Brexit as ‘all the Europeans were being kicked out’ and that the UK would need their labour. More in hope than in expectation, I tried to explain that it wasn’t that straightforward and that attitudes towards refugees were as variable as they are anywhere. But it’s clear that the message will not hit home, after all they have endured such a deprivation of human needs on their journeys that they have to hold on to some of their hope.

An even more surprising example was in the South of France where there were a number of long term British migrants. I stayed with a British couple (with French citizenship). My host, a very passionate Remainer, told me about a member of that community who had argued that the UK leaving the EU was a good move which they wholeheartedly supported. It is hard to imagine what the individual could be thinking the possible benefit to them would be, and increasingly so in the ensuing months and years which are heralding ever more hostile and isolationist policies.

I hope to report back from time to time as I continue on my journey, trying to make some sense of this major disruption to all our lives and speaking to people on the other side of the channel to find out what they are thinking. But l leave you with this snippet of a conversation with a Dutch café barista- when he asked me what I was doing in the Netherlands and I told him escaping the politics of Brexit; he said “ I can’t see that any good will come of it”. I’m afraid I agree.

Below – Mary at the warehouse in Calais where she helped sort the donations and prepared them for the refugees