Anna Rowlands is Deputy Director of the Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Durham. She was part of a British-French delegation to the refugee camp in Calais, France.
The ground was frozen solid. Frosted sleeping bags lay discarded along the rough edges of the dirt track leading into the camp.
It was breakfast time as we wandered into the main "street," lined with small shacks set up as cafes and selling small amounts of food and other provisions.
As we arrived a group of around fifty military police swept past us, taking with them a number of camp residents, apparently arrested after disturbances.
Evidence of the previous evening's tensions lay in the battered tear gas canisters strewn around in the frozen dust, and the young men - Afghan, Sudanese and Iraqi Kurds in the main - watching carefully in groups as the police passed by.
The purpose of our visit was to enable a joint, cross-party British-French delegation of parliamentarians to meet residents of "the Jungle" and hear their stories. The visit had been organised by the French and British Catholic Caritas agencies, Secours Catholique and Caritas Social Action Network.
Secours Catholique operates from a small prefab building in the heart of the camp, where food, pastoral support and advice is offered to residents. They had chosen two individuals to share their stories with the group: a young Iraqi Kurd with British residency rights, living with his Iraqi wife and two small children, aged 5 and 7, in a caravan in the Jungle; and an Afghan English teacher, a single mother living in the camp with four children under 15.
"It makes me more determined"
The young Iraqi talks softly, not confident speaking to such a group. He had been resident as a child in the UK but sent back to Iraq to be "straightened out" by his extended family, and his passport and travel papers confiscated and later sold by family members. There are murmurs among the French contingent; this story confirms a sense of Calais as a British as much as a French problem: a young father with British residency living with children who have yet to be schooled in diabolical conditions in Northern France.
As a Kurd, he spoke of the pressure he faces from the mafia operation inside the camp. He described a situation in which it is hard for him to survive without threats of intimidation and violence, and without being drawn into the violence caused by rivalry between others.
But his story is far from dystopian: he is a volunteer in the camp and helps new arrivals; he is known to all of the volunteers and agencies providing support. They greet him warmly, and we pause often as he is asked about his children and wife as he guides us round his home turf.
We talk about the mafia. He explains that when the huge fences were erected in the autumn it became extremely difficult to cross without the aid of the mafia. Overnight the prices rose. He tells me that Calais is less controlled than Dunkirk, and that the operation is run along ethnic lines. The Sudanese don't face the same problems: the ethnic diversity of Calais lessens mafia control; a lack of diversity in Dunkirk intensifies it.
We are told different stories about the exact amount it costs to cross. My Iraqi guide tells me that a 1,000 Euro crossing went up to 8,000 Euros virtually overnight. The fence had merely increased the monopoly of the mafia and made it harder for people like him to resist them. He has successfully boarded lorries a number of times with his family, but each time they have been discovered at the French port and sent back to the Jungle, and it is getting harder.
He has wondered about moving on several times. I ask him what his children say to him about this experience. "Oh, they tease me. They say you must be a really important person because you lived in England when you were young and you have a British voice" - his English is spoken with a Wolverhampton accent. "Why can't you be clever like the others who have already gone to England?" He tells me that they presume everyone who disappears has gone to England. "I feel a little bit ashamed when they say this. It makes me more determined."
For a moment I cannot think what I should say to my guide. He looks to the ground and we stand quietly. What should I say? Should I say, "Don't go out tonight and climb into the back of a lorry," and "Don't risk your life and the lives of your children?" Should I, with my passport in my back pocket, say this to a man who exists in a limbo, without papers to which he is entitled, without effective means of redress: a man who sees himself as claiming what is rightly his but feels he has so few options?
"You tell me, what should I do?"
The small Afghan woman sits with her arms crossed, scanning the room and taking us all in as she is introduced to the group. Unlike our Iraqi guide who did not speak easily of his story to such a formal group, this woman speaks with confidence and authority. She describes her journey by horse, bus, train and boat over the course of a month from Afghanistan to Calais. "Perhaps your journey was a little easier?" she quips with a smile.
She was a trainer of English teachers back home and she tells us proudly that this is why she knows how to address us. With pride she tells us "all four children speak fluent English." Her eldest child is adopted, following the death of her relatives in a bombing raid; the youngest three are her own children with the Indonesian father who has long since gone. Her only close relative is a brother who is a British Citizen, having fled over a decade ago.
She does not want to stay in France. She wants to be in Britain where she has language skills and can work quickly, where it will not take time for her children to settle in school and where she has the protection and paternal care for her children from her brother.
She speaks of her shame at being an "illegal" presence in France (her phrase) and explains that she is grateful that France tolerates her existence. She tells of the impact of her life in the camp: "I have aged a decade in the few weeks I have been here. See, my hair falls out," as she pulls at the whisps of hair beneath her scarf. "My skin is grey. I am on old woman at 40."
She says that today she is dirty, the gas canister was frozen and she could not heat water to wash. She feels ashamed to talk to people when not clean. She weeps for a moment. I, too, am 40, a teacher, and a mother. It's hard to keep her gaze as she looks at us searchingly, each in turn. "You tell me, what should I do?" There is silence in the room.
Eventually a French parliamentarian asks her, "Are your children in school? They can attend a school here, even without status." She replies that her children help in the Jungle. They fetch and carry for others, translate where they can and attend the Jungle school. She explains that she too teaches each day. It is how she preserves what is left of her dignity.
The politician seems to misunderstand her: "So you've put your children to work?" "No," she responds with rising anger. "They are volunteers, like me."
The womb of the "Jungle"
In the evening we visit St. Michael's Church, with its icon of Christ knocking on the door of the soul at the entrance, and its plastic and wood clad interior peaceful and womblike - a world away from what lies on its doorstep. It is covered in beautiful Marian images; this Church speaks of the absence and presence of mothers.
The Ethiopian pastor tells us of the artist who painted the images - himself an Eritrean refugee. "How did you choose what to paint?" I asked. "We read the Bible passages that spoke to us of our experience and we painted them."
I look over to the only other image that really stands out in this space: three different depictions of the Book of Revelation's Archangel Michael, patron of this Church, doing battle with the devil. Sword in one hand, driving the blade towards the devil, and the scales of justice held in the other. This is a startling image. But it is a disturbing image too: a white, European Michael drives his sword into a black devil.
What must be done?
When the parliamentary group is alone and able to speak of their reflections, the conclusions are remarkably clear and not driven by narrow partisan concerns:
- There must be an acknowledgement by the British government that Calais is a shared responsibility, and that legal routes to the UK must be opened to Afghans, Syrians and those with direct family connections.
- There must be a priority for minors.
- The discretionary powers under the Dublin III Regulation must be interpreted with generosity.
- There must be political will to recognise an element of migrant choice about destination: people will move where they have kin, language and skills to deploy. And people will move to preserve life and to thrive with a fierce determination. Law must work with these most natural of instincts, for they cannot be fundamentally frustrated.
A cross-parliamentary, cross-party task group could work on such solutions. But where is the political will and courage?
The force of law
This visit took place a month ago, before the decision to demolish the second church in the camp, the mosque and the little school, and before the decision to clear the southern section of the camp with its shops and cafes and dwellings.
It is hard not to see the tragedy of this as a parallel to the conversation between the Afghan teacher and the French politician. It is difficult for those from outside to see the intricate patterns of solidarity and complex interdependence woven within the camp, nor the ways that the fragile institutions of civil society are reinvented, co-created out of the dust and dunes - church, school, mosque, theatre, shops and cafes. Each stands for something much greater than its fragile frame, demolished in moments.
The fierce independence and interdependence of those living in this place is hard to capture adequately. To tear these fragile dwellings and structures down is a particular kind of reforming iconoclasm: law as violence, and therefore no law at all.
Seeing the news headlines, I write anxiously to try to find news of both families. Things are getting worse for the Afghan children and their dignified mother, the conditions in which they are living are increasingly desperate.
And what of my Iraqi guide? It seems he has gone. There is no news of what has happened - only that it is presumed that he, his wife and children have slipped away into some other future.
Anna Rowlands is Deputy Director of the Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Durham.