She has been likened to the Pied Piper, such is the trail of desperate people who follow Elaine Mernagh on her rounds through the illegal camp of migrants and refugees known as the “Jungle” in Calais. It’s a far cry from her home town of Thurles where until recently she was an IT instructor. The 37 year old mother of three now splits her time between Ireland and Calais delivering outreach to the thousands of people trapped in this no man’s land.
In the summer of 2015, Elaine’s childhood friend, Tracey Ryan, decided to travel to Calais to deliver aid to refugees and migrants seeking entry to the UK. After roping in a few of her friends to join her, Tracey posted the plan on Facebook and gained an immediate uptake of likeminded followers. The Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity community was borne and the group was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from across Ireland. By October they had amassed a convoy of articulated lorries stuffed with goods and building materials. The collective has so far raised over €100,000 and has repeatedly returned to the Jungle to build a women and childrens centre, a vaccination clinic, a large family shelter and a children’s library (which is now deployed as a school) along with a youth centre, which is used by the many unaccompanied minors, some as young as 10.
Last week, Brian Rutter, photographer for Independent Witness travelled to France with Elaine and volunteer Isolda Heavey to document the conditions within the Grand Synthe camp outside Dunkirk and the Jungle in Calais. Refugees and migrants have long flocked to Calais in hope of entry to the UK, ever since the Sangatte camp was opened in 1999. Sarkozy, the then Interior Minister closed the camps in 2001 and 2002, leading to riots and the emergence of informal settlements near the port. It is estimated that the real number of residents is now between 7,000 – 8,000 – far higher than the registered number of 3,000.
In a joint effort to stem the flow of illegals, the UK Border Force and French authorities have coordinated their efforts and the port is now equipped with cameras, infra-red detectors, armed guards, dogs and a 16ft fence topped with CCTV and razor wire.
The number of people successfully crossing to the UK is unknown, whilst asylum applications totalled over 25,000 in the year to March 2015, the number entering through Dover is not disclosed by the British Home Office. The UK of course is not the only country perceived to be rich in housing, medical care and education, but an un-united EU seems incapable of collaborating and sharing resources to find a solution. Enter stage left the grass roots organisations. Like many other refugee pressure points the greatest efforts are being made by independent volunteers and their networks.
On the 12th February it was announced that the southern half of the Jungle would be cleared imminently. The proposed pushing back of the camp by 50 metres comes after a 100 metre zone was recently bulldozed, including a church and a mosque by the French authorities. The eviction notice is expected to be served on Friday 19th February and will impact approximately 3,000 men, women and children. The basic shelters which exist today, including those recently constructed by the Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity will be no longer, rendering these people homeless and without the very basic support they have come to rely upon.
The installation of the new container camp (seen below) does little to improve the situation, given that the refugees and migrants must register to avail of the accommodation. Registration leaves a footprint of their presence in France and as such rules out any chance of claiming asylum in the UK. Many of those trapped in the Jungle have family ties already in the UK and are holding out for legitimate access by way of family reunification.
With xenophobia rampant throughout Europe, it is easy for the people of the Jungle to all be tarnished with the same brush. Yes some are economic migrants, but if they had a choice they wouldn’t be in the Jungle. The refugees are from far and wide, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, Somalia to name but a few.
Brian interviewed a couple from Eritrea who had been in the Jungle for 6 months, they are just 21 years old and expecting their first child in three months time. The young man spoke of his journey being very difficult, over a number of months they travelled from Eritrea to Ethiopia to Turkey, across the sea to Greece to Serbia through Austria and eventually they reached Paris. On route to Greece they were at sea for hours, they survived when their boat capsized but their friends drowned, they were not wearing life jackets. Nobody could help them as nobody could swim. Since arriving to the Jungle they have tried more than ten times to be smuggled to the UK but each time they have been caught, sniffed out by the dogs or caught by the French police. Now with a baby on the way they have given up and without family or resources are trapped.
Elaine sent me a text tonight from the couple – even though they are miles apart, their desire to remain connected to her is palpable. Such is the faith of these people, their willingness to trust is of course one of the greatest risks, especially given the volume of unaccompanied and now unaccounted for minors lost throughout Europe.
Despite the impossibility of it all Elaine will return to Calais this week to witness the demolition. “While I do want the camp to go, I don’t want to it to go like this” she said to me via text, “They are pulling the last bit of heart right out of people’s chests and they’ve no resources in place to replace what their ripping down”.
I can feel the tension through the phone as she desperately reaches out to everyone and anyone in advance of this weeks demolition. When asked what the people in the Jungle need – she replied “Hope”. The hope that something will change, the hope that they will be reunited with their families, the hope that they do not have to retrace their footsteps and return to their broken lives. The hope that one day they will secure the basic human rights each and every one of us is entitled to.
To support the Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity Group you can contact them through Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/IrelandCalaisRefugeeSolidarity.