I guess it was the same for a lot of people at some point in 2016. I’d find myself scrolling through articles whilst I was stood in train vestibules; or catching a snippet on the news when I was back at my parents’; or seeing the odd report on Twitter of another boat capsizing. We knew about the refugee crisis and had heard of this mysterious Calais camp known as “The Jungle”.
As a social and political activist, something in me wanted to visit the camp and help-out. I wanted to see it for myself; I couldn’t quite believe that things had reached such a level in 2016. But it seemed a million miles away. As far as I could see it, I had no immediate reason to visit and no feasible way of organising it for myself. So, like most of us, I was consigned to bitesize snapshots on a screen.
And then in April 2016, I received a call from a fellow activist in Wakefield. She’s part of an organisation called We Are Wakefield, which still does regular trips to and from the Calais and Dunkirk camps. The NUT (National Union of Teachers) were sending a group over and were happy to pay for me to join them – on the simple basis that I’d shout about what I saw.
Within 24 hours of that phone call, I was in the Calais Jungle. The way that I found myself describing it after that first visit was “the best of humanity and the worst of humanity, side-by-side”. Pretty much everything worth reporting on was precisely what the mainstream media wasn’t reporting on. It quickly became apparent to me that the authorities were systematically making the place a living hell.
Now that might seem extreme. But for a start, no charities were allowed a presence in the camp. Any provisions for food, water, medicine and clothing were entirely volunteer driven and relied on sporadic donations. There were regular attacks from the National Guard, often in the early hours; involving CS Gas, truncheons, tear gas in sleeping faces and water cannons – all for no apparent reason.
When people were found on lorries, their shoes were confiscated; leaving them to walk back barefoot over rough terrain. At the time of my first visit, there were nearly a thousand kids in the camp, and 78% of them were alone. Yet they weren’t immune to the attacks either. And they were surrounded by barbed-wire fences, walls specifically built for them, and officers with huge machine guns.
But amidst all this, there were book shops, barber shops, theatres, classrooms, a school, restaurants, cafes, bars and a boxing gym – all literally handmade by people in the camps. Within minutes I’d been offered a cup of tea and a fresh Afghan naan bread. There were people playing drums on cardboard boxes and teaching each other songs, languages, skills and stories.
The atmosphere, at least in the busy sections of the camp, was upbeat, friendly, cooperative and generous. I’m not naïve enough to believe that there weren’t much bleaker parts, tucked away from the main pathways. And that refugees weren’t guilty of abusing each other in various ways. But without absolutely anything else in the world, they had hope. It was bizarrely uplifting.
And yet, it’s not rare that I’m having a political conversation back in the UK – be it in person or on social media – when everything can be going well until the subject of refugees comes up. The level of anti-refugee sentiment in the UK right now is alarming. And it’s not just a lack of sympathy; it’s a vitriolic loathing. I’ve been absolutely mortified by some of the things at people have said to me.
Now at this point, I’m branded a “snowflake”. To be honest, I couldn’t care less. I blame several things, but above all else, it’s the systematic dehumanisation and then demonization of refugees by the mainstream media. Do a quick search for front pages and you’ll see “animals”, “aliens”, “tribes”, “invasions”, “illegals” and “swarms”. You won’t see “people”, “humans” or “victims”.
So that’s why I’ve written about my time in Calais in the ‘Two Little Ducks’ show. Much as I shouldn’t, I need to challenge people’s preconceptions about refugees. I need to tell them the stories that they won’t see on Channel 4 News. I need to try and remind them that these are human beings in the most desperate and traumatic situations imaginable, and that Britain is entirely complicit.
It’s no mistake that this strand is twinned with the Brexit strand in ‘Two Little Ducks’. This explores the core reasons behind the working-class Leave vote, because as somebody that grew up in a city that voted 66% Leave, I can fully understand why so many working-class communities support Brexit. I find the sweeping generalisation of “hot-head ignorant racist Brexiteer” very unfair.
But unfortunately, in my experience, there is a cross-over when it comes to a lot of these communities and anti-refugee sentiment. You can’t tar everybody with the same brush and branding every Leave voter as being the same will only increase what I perceive to be a dangerous and corrosive social divide over Brexit. But at the same time, racism in any form can never be accepted.
I only had a relatively miniscule experience of The Jungle. And I acknowledge that I’m a white cis male who has always had food on the table and a roof over my head. I’m not trying to speak on behalf of refugees. I just want people to know what I know. They gave me an S.O.S. from the camp, and I promised that I’d pass it on.
Two Little Ducks is part of our No Place Like Home Season and plays at the Albany on Wednesday 17 & Thursday 18 October. Visit the web page to book tickets. Matt will also be running FREE Poetry Workshops at Deptford Lounge on the same days. Visit our Get Involved section to book your place.