The camp has started changing significantly this week. A letter has been issued announcing that the camp is not a ‘long term’ camp. The camp is now to be considered a short term camp for those seeking asylum in France. Anyone else in the camp, especially those who are here for a long time now face the prospect of a ban from the camp. At the same time, the ‘welcome refugees’ sign at the main entrance has been taken down, and work has started on dismantling some of the shelters in the camp. This is now very much a camp in decline. We even see it in the way that it is becoming dirtier and more scruffy as each day goes by.
There is quite a lot of concern amongst the people in the camp. Some have been in the area for more than a year and they just do not know what to do. They are now being told that they should seek asylum in France. Unfortunately, we recently had an influx of people back into the camp, who had previously sought asylum in France. We do not know what exactly has gone wrong, but the people seem to have lost confidence in France as an asylum destination. So we have a very undesirable situation unfolding. At the same time as the authorities are very strongly recommending France as an asylum destination, we have families going around saying ‘we tried France. It doesn’t work. Don’t’ seek asylum in France.’ In the middle of these mixed messages we have families hearing that they cannot stay very long and must make a decision about what to do and where to go.
Generally the people who stay in the camp the longest are the poorest. It is often said in jest that the whole camp situation in Northern France is a clever UK means-testing immigration system. The people who can get out of the camps and get themselves smuggled are those who are wealthy enough to be able to afford the fees charged by the smugglers. At about £8000 per person, it costs around £30,000 for a family of 4 to get themselves smuggled. We understand that they have to pay half the amount up front, a sum which they lose even if the smuggling attempt is unsuccessful. Many of the families make several failed attempts before they get themselves smuggled. So it is not unusual for a family to be paying out up to £60,000, or more, before they can get themselves smuggled across the channel. This is why the poor remain in the camps, whilst the wealthy have the means to get themselves out of the camps quickly.
Educationally we have had a very disrupted week. We still have transition work going on with the French schools, so we are teaching less and less now. We still welcome children but we are telling them that their education is now provided by the French schools. We are very keen that they shouldn’t see a two-school system and feel that they can choose between the two. Mainstream French state education is the best way forward, as there is no way to provide the facilities of a modern school in the camp. We can’t even secure a reliable internet or electricity source in the camp.
We meet with the children before and after they go to the French schools, but it is more and more to chat to them and to check that everything is going well with transition and to listen to any worries or concerns that they have. It is becoming clearer and clearer to us that we are very quickly approaching the point where we can and should disengage from the camp. We have agreed in writing with the local mayor that we will leave the camp by August 31st and leave educational provision in the hands of the French authorities at that point. In the run up to that date we are steadily reducing educational work and just maintaining relationships with the children, so that they always have someone to talk to about concerns or problems.
We had the Eid celebrations, this week, for the end of Ramadan. We were very fortunate to have a group of staff and students from a UK school come and organise Eid celebrations for us and the day was certainly a day of excitement and exuberance. Although our main focus has been, and remains, the camp children, we are steadily doing more work with UK schools. Some schools are finding our work is of interest to their pupils as it is showing a healthy and constructive way of engaging with the problems in the middle east. Where UK schools have got concerns about radicalisation we are talking to students and showing them that there is a way to “do something” about the problems in the middle east, without resorting to violence. Here in the camps we have a lot of victims of violence and radicalisation, many of whom have suffered and lost family members. We are therefore able to show UK students in a very simple and clear way, that violence and radicalisation is the problem, not the solution.