‘The devastating moment when French Police raided a makeshift camp’ – Philli on the ground in Calais

When I woke up and looked out the window on Monday, I could see police were blocking the road. I realised immediately that it was because they were in the process of ‘removing’ the Syrians who had set up their camp on a small piece of grass, just around the corner. There were 150 of Syrians in tents, on a piece of land which must have been smaller than a tennis court. We had heard rumours this was going to happen soon, but hoped it was another false alarm.

The Syrian people were woken by the police forcing them out, shaking their tents and spraying them, half asleep, with tear gas. By the time they were dressed and standing beside the now unoccupied tents, the Syrians (including women and children of all ages) were being herded like animals by at least a hundred policemen who were wearing full riot gear, towards the main camp. The camp which we now, somewhat uncomfortably, refer to as ‘the jungle’. It’s about 6km away.

The police wouldn’t let us past to help anyone with their belongings, or to give lifts to those less able to walk. The road was blocked so we just looked on in tears watching them marching away in front of us, dehumanised after their dawn raid.

With a handful of Syrians who had been away from their tents when the police came, about 10 of us took down all the tents and cleared everyone’s things into bags. The policemen and rubbish collectors just watched. They gave us an hour to take all we could. The Syrians had managed to carry with them the absolute essentials, things like papers, money, phones etc. Tents, beddings, clothes, shoes, food and toiletries remained. Unfortunately, later, the Eritreans would be less fortunate. Their camp was cleared while most of them were out, early in the afternoon. People lost everything. Men were wandering around where the tents had been an hour before looking totally dumbstruck. All their belongings, and many of their hopes for asylum, had been swept away as if they didn’t matter. The good thing is we knew we had a warehouse full of amazing generously donated clothes, blankets, tents and sleeping bags, but we felt had to show solidarity and respect for the make-shift homes that the Syrians had created for themselves. Everyone was so focused on the task. We worked silently. Except to ask each other for scissors or bin bags. I worked with an older Syrian man who took so much care in dismantling each tent, helping me when I couldn’t manage a knot. Occasionally I wondered what was going through his mind. I couldn’t even begin to imagine. Mostly, I just got on with the task in hand, grateful that we were working as a team even though one person could have done it alone.  So we took almost every tent down (about 40). Afterwards, when we were loading the van up, one of the other guys who had been involved in the process thanked me for helping the Syrian people. It had been such a tiny gesture in the scheme of what they must have been through. I almost felt ashamed. We are so much luckier than we realise.

In the end we took everything to a place where the Syrians could come to collect them, close to the entrance of the camp. Once the police had finished clearing the space the Eritreans had occupied we were able to get into the camp to find the new Syrian arrivals, and get them to follow us to retrieve their belongings. Some found a few of their possessions, but there was an enormous pile to sort through so many just collected a new sleeping bag, tent, mat and tarpaulin from the truck. Other refugees were crowding around the pile of rescued stuff too, seeing the opportunity to find some useful things. It was hard to tell who was looking for their own things, and who was trying their luck. There were some scuffles. You can’t blame anyone for that.

Just as all this was going on the rain began to pour, soaking those waiting in the queue at the truck, as well as those heading off into the camp to find a spot to pitch their new ‘home’ in the ‘jungle’. The camp which they have deliberately, and  actively, avoided by staying in the town.  One man refused to get his tent, he said he couldn’t handle any more of this. He was ashamed of his situation. So far from being his fault or his doing, in my guilty British eyes. We cried together for a while sitting on the pavement in the rain. He must have been in his 30s,  he spoke almost no English. He used to be a policeman in Syria. He had inhaled tear gas in the morning, so he was struggling to breathe. His 17 year old brother had been arrested during the raid in the morning and he didn’t know where he was. He was begging me to help him contact him. These are just the most recent devastations for him. And for the Syrian people. Every so often I remember that, in the midst of all the action. What these people have been through before they even got there.

The police arrived to clear the area where we had deposited all the Syrian’s possessions – having blocked their route into the camp until just 15 minutes before. While waiting, some had put up pop up tents to stay dry while they waited for their friends and for the road to clear. The police dragged these away, wielding their batons, a harsh contrast to the resigned demeanours of the Syrians. A few minutes later I spotted the former policemen again, he was already smiling. Then, just as I started to walk towards him, his brother appeared out of nowhere (probably a police van).  I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt as happy about anything, as I felt seeing their reunion.

A group of Afghan women and children who arrived in the melee of the displaced, the rain and greyness, were quickly sent to a hotel in Calais for the night by L’Auberge des Migrants. They are the  incredible, Calais-based grass roots charity who we have teamed up with on the ground. There were 5 children between the ages of 11 months. This kind of day is shockingly commonplace for the l’Auberge des Migrants and the other French organisations who have been working with refugees in Calais for many years.

As things were quietening down, two lovely Afghan chaps insisted we sit with them (on plastic chairs, which had appeared out of nowhere on the roadside) and demanded a selfie; cue groans from Nico and I when our exhausted faces popped up on the screen. It had been quite a long day. A cheeky photo-bomber popped up, with his pallet. He was happy with his work. We all laughed, and that felt so good.