Over the last thirty years, Europe has experienced wave after wave of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants. There are many factors which have contributed to this influx of people and, depending on any particular perspective, these factors all have their advocates and detractors. They all also have varying degrees of relevance.

To me, the most significant event which triggered this mass migration of human souls was the fall of the USSR at the end of 1991. Ancestral conflicts were reignited, and thousands were displaced by the civil wars that ensued. Kosovans and Albanians sought asylum throughout Western Europe. As a consequence, individuals who had no prior experience in providing residential accommodation, suddenly became landlords and received enormous subsidies from governments such as that of the UK. A lot of people got very rich, very quickly.

Hot on the heels of the asylum seekers were economic migrants from all of the former Soviet Union satellite states. And again, many Western Europeans became rich as a consequence. It wasn’t just the influx of cheap labour, there were also new consumers to stimulate growth and expansion and wealth in every facet of commerce.

But, in the last twenty years, we’ve had something else. Something which we haven’t always viewed from the benefits that migration naturally brings. From the so-called War on Terror in Afghanistan in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Arab Spring Protests of 2011 (which triggered the Syrian Civil War, a civil war which has been stoked by all manner of interested players), to the rise of Daish in 2014; we’ve seen human displacements on a scale not experienced since WW2. But why have we in Western Europe struggled to come to terms with this migration? I’m not talking about the racists and nationalists. People of that ilk will always be afraid of, and against, the other. I’m talking about governments who have done little to alleviate the suffering. I’m talking about ordinary people who simply can’t seem to fathom the scale of this humanitarian disaster. I’m talking about people like myself, a first generation immigrant who, if such a thing had existed in 1962, could have been considered as an asylum seeker.

On the morning of 3rd September 2015, I woke up to the headline (and the harrowing image that accompanied it) that a young boy had drowned on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey. Three year old Aylun Shenu (aka Aylun Kurdi) was trying to escape Kobani in Northern Syria. He and his family were among the thousands upon thousands who have desperately tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey into Greece and hence into the succour that they dream Europe will give them.

At the time, I was both enraged and disgusted that this could have happened. My ire was directed at anybody and everybody. Particularly at the oil-rich Arab states that seemingly did next to nothing to help the Syrian people. At the internecine conflict between the Shia Muslims of Iran and Sunni Muslims of Saudi Arabia who were fuelling yet another proxy war in their fight for dominance of the Islamic world. I remember seeing a cartoon (a wholly inappropriate name for the image) posted by Muslim Mamas on fb, and picked up by Maajid Nawaz, which basically said it all for me.

The 6 Gulf countries: Qatar, UAE, S.Arabia, Kuwait, Oman & Bahrain have offered 0 places to Syrian refugees. Shame on you.

https://www.facebook.com/Maajid-Nawaz-135775283156412/

But, like many people, that’s as far as my anger went. Because I did nothing.

There are others however who refuse to do nothing. People who channel the rage that I felt into doing something. They raise money and they volunteer their time and energy and they go to places like Calais and Dunkerque to help the refugees who have made it that far. People like Geoff (with a G or a Ge off).

I met Geoff at the Family Pub on the Rue Royale in Calais. I was trying to find a place where I could sit with my laptop and write. Somewhere with free Wi-Fi and was warm and comfortable. Somewhere unlike my dingy little hotel room. He heard me talking to the waitress and simply introduced himself. It was only my second day in France, and it was great to meet a fellow Brit. We got talking. I told him about my project. He told me about his work as a volunteer helping refugees. Our conversation evolved and I found myself with a kindred spirit, but one who was putting his feelings into practice and was actually helping.

The days passed and I saw Geoff one more time. It was just before Christmas and he was heading back to the UK for a few days. I gave him my number and invited him to call me when he got back.

“Maybe we can have a bite to eat together to celebrate Christmas.”

He said that he would.

On Christmas Day I was again (that should be “yet again”) at the Family Pub when I met another volunteer. Nick is a young student who, instead of spending Christmas with his family, came to Calais to do what he could. He was currently chopping wood which was to be delivered to the various refugee “jungles” in Calais and Dunkerque.

A week would pass before I saw Geoff again. He invited me to go with him to Dunkerque where he was going to do a litter pick-up at one of the refugee jungles. On the way there, I tried to understand what motivated him. Why did he do what he did? How did he survive? Where did he live? His replies were honest and frank. And the overriding message was as simple as it was profound.

“I do this because I can. I do this because what is happening is not OK!”

As we neared Grande-Synthe, the area in Dunkerque where refugees seem to congregate, Geoff pointed out the derelict remains of what was once La Liniere refugee camp. This was built in 2016 as an improvement to its predecessor, the Basroch refugee camp. The driving force for its construction was the then mayor of Dunkerque, Damien Careme. Careme went against the policies of the National French Government who were keen to move refugees away from coastal areas. The government refused to contribute any funds towards its construction. The bulk of the money, some €2.6 million, came from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) who were chief amongst the various charities which were active in the camp. The camp closed following a devastating fire which occurred after fighting between Afghan and Kurdish residents of the camp in April 2017.

We’re almost at the end of the motorway and I can see that some of the concrete barriers have been removed, giving me a clear view into what was once La Liniere. As first, I see two or three adult males generally milling about. Then, just as we are about to drive past, I see a group of children running around and playing in the rubble of broken glass and the other detritus of what was once meant to be a haven. Their average age is no more than five or six. I think of my grandchildren. The scene is both charming in its innocence and obscene in its reality. I think of my own childhood, spent playing amongst the rubble of the bombed-out buildings from WW2 in Tollington Park, North London. But that was 55 years ago. This is now. This is today. This is in one of the most developed countries in Western Europe where, just as in the UK, the remains of a devastating war are long gone.

We continue our drive into the Grand-Synthe Nature Reserve. We park the van and I see a sign that is familiar to any visitor of any park in Europe.

However, there is nothing familiar about what I am about to see.

Geoff takes a large plastic sack, litter tongs and a pair of gloves from the back of his van and we head into the woods. He collects garbage as we go. He acknowledges that his efforts are a drop in the ocean of what is needed but, it’s something. And that’s his attitude in everything that he does. He knows that it’s not enough. But it’s better than doing nothing at all.

We reach a make-shift campsite occupied by about eight or nine men. They are huddled around a fire cooking some kind of soup. It seems to be little more than weeds in boiling water. All around is a muddy mess of, I really don’t know what. I can’t begin to describe the conditions that these people are living in. I want to photograph it all. Geoff has already told me to be careful about taking photos, so we approach them together and ask permission. I assure them that I will not show any faces and that all I will shoot will be a scene of the campsite with Geoff collecting rubbish. After a little conversation among themselves, the elder of the group gives me permission. He looks to be about my age but could be at least ten years younger.

Some of the more wary guys come and stand behind me as I compose my photos. They don’t want their faces shown because, asylum laws state that a refugee must apply for asylum in the first safe nation that they reach. Therefore, should any of these guys reach their desired destination of the UK, and their faces are seen online showing them clearly in France, asylum will be refused and they will be deported back to France. Back to the refugee jungles of Calais and Dunkerque.

In one corner there are pots and pans which the men try to wash in dirty water. Water which they have carried from the nearest standpipe well over a kilometre away. Over here there is a large cardboard box of green, unripe bananas which somebody thought would be good eating for the refugees. I can just hear this person saying that they would ripen. The average temperature is two to four degrees Celsius. How will these bananas ripen in such temperatures? Not only that, these people are from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bananas are not part of their ethnic diet so they don’t even know that they could perhaps cook them.

Geoff talks to the guys and confirms that they have no use for them. The box goes into his plastic sack.

Somewhere else I see a carrier bag containing a pair of Adidas trainers.

Shoes have to be one of the most valuable commodities for a refugee. So why were these fairly new looking trainers discarded? The answer is that it is unlikely that they were discarded.

The owner of this pair of Adidas trainers would have kept them clean and safely away from the muddy conditions of the campsite. He would have done this so that he would have something to wear when trying to hitchhike or otherwise get transport across the English Channel. Why go to this trouble? Because nothing marks out a refugee than a pair of muddy shoes or boots. But this doesn’t answer why this particular pair of trainers are as we found them.

Geoff talks to the refugees and promises that he will be back with whatever he can lay his hands on which will give them some kind physical comfort. One guy thanks him and offers us both a cup of chai. They have nothing. Absolutely nothing. They are eating weed soup. But they have the decency and the generosity to offer us tea.

Another guy thanks Geoff for his help and for his promise to bring more provisions (he seems to know that Geoff will keep this promise) but says:

“Thank you, thank you. We need food and water and wood to burn. But we don’t WANT these things. We want UK.”

And there it is, the question that has been driving me mad for so long that I can’t even remember when it occurred to me.

Why do they want to come to the UK? Is it our welfare system? Do they still believe that the streets of England are paved with gold?

We leave this campsite and Geoff takes me to another. Here the conundrum of the Adidas trainers is finally answered. A few nights previously, the CRS raided the campsites and destroyed everything that they could lay their hands on. And no doubt beat up a few refugees in the process.

A tent donated to the refugees and delivered by volunteers. Slashed and destroyed by the CRS.
Did the owner of these trousers hang them up to dry? But was then forced to leave them behind as the camp got raided by the CRS?
In the background of the frame can be seen two areas of wood chips. The refugees use these wood chips as a base for their tents in the hope that they will have something warmer to sleep on.

That’s probably why whoever owned those trainers left them behind. Because he was escaping the carnage being inflicted by the CRS.

The Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) are a civilian corps trained in anti-insurrection and anti-riot techniques. The task for which they are best known is crowd and riot control. Why they are used against refugees is yet another question which baffles and bewilders me. And they are continuously used against refugees. We’ve seen a number of their white vans today. We will see more of them as the day progresses. They are everywhere.

From the Grand-Synthe Nature Reserve, we go to a distribution point at Parking Puythouck. It’s basically a carpark by a lake in the nature reserve. It’s easy to imagine it as a popular picnic spot during the summer months. Today, on one side of the carpark, a few local Kurds (pretty much all of the refugees in this part of Grand-Synthe are Iraqi Kurds) have set up little stalls selling cigarettes and other “luxury goods”. On the other side is the Refugee Info Bus. Shortly after we get there, the RCK (Refugee Community Kitchen) van pulls up. They prepare culturally appropriate hot meals, which they then deliver to distribution points like this one, and hand out to the refugees.

As Geoff is explaining all of this to me, Eli comes and asks Geoff for help. She points to young Kurdish kid, he can’t be more that 17 years old, who has hurt his foot. She asks Geoff to take him to the nearest hospital. From the ankle down, his foot is swollen to the size of a small melon. He told her that he woke up with it like that four days ago. I go to take a look. There are scabbed-over wounds on the other foot so he could have cut himself somehow and, because of the ridiculously unhygienic conditions that they live in, his foot could have become septic. One of his friends tells him to stretch his leg out and he pulls on the swollen foot by the toes. The kid is in agony. No, this isn’t a septic wound. He must have sprained or dislocated his ankle or perhaps torn a ligament or tendon. Probably while trying to board a moving lorry. This is why he doesn’t want to say how he got injured. He’s afraid that he will be reported somehow.

Geoff goes off to get his van. We parked some distance away, near a standpipe, the only source of clean water for the refugees. The injured kid has taken this opportunity to eat a hot meal. One of his friends talks to Eli and I and tells us that he wants to go with him to the hospital. There’s no room in the van for all of us so I decide to stay behind. It’s better that the kid has a friend with him. Who knows how long he will be in A&E and how he’ll get back once discharged.

I wait with Eli and Emma. They are working the Info Bus. It’s a small white van which they take to various distribution points every day. They have a generator which provides power to charge multiple mobile phones and a broadband router. The boosted Wi-Fi signal gives the refugees an opportunity to contact loved ones back home. Wherever and whatever home is. The girls also hand out information leaflets telling the refugees of their rights and what they should do if picked up by police, immigration officials and the CRS. The leaflets are printed in various languages and Eli and Emma are careful to ensure that they give out this information in the right language for each recipient.

While I’m with them, I ask Eli why all of these refugees want to go to the UK. I ask the question that every anti-immigration pundit spews out at any given opportunity. Is it because of our welfare system?

Eli assures me that it is not.

“Welfare is not even on their radar. They want to go to the UK because they understand English (the few that can speak French have picked it up since being here), because they have friends and family already there, because they want to work, because they want to study. They want to go to the UK because they believe that we are fairer and kinder. They want to go to the UK for very many reasons. Welfare isn’t one of them.”

All too soon it’s 05:00pm and Eli and Emma have to pack up the van. There are some good humoured moans from the refugees but, before I can even think about helping to load the generator, the wooden bench seats, the camping table used to display the leaflets, all of the charging paraphernalia, the refugees have got the job done.

I call Geoff, he’s still about twenty minutes away. He has left the injured guy and his friend under the care of the hospital and is about to head back. We agree that it’s best that I go back to Calais with Eli and Emma. So, the three of us squeeze into the front of the van and head for the L’Auberge des Migrants operations base aka the Calais warehouse.

Eli and Emma have volunteered to be here for six months. Six months of living in a mobile home and being out in all conditions. Six months of trying to make a difference.

Geoff arrives at the Calais warehouse soon after we do. I say goodbye to Eli and Emma and we head back to Rue Royale.

I’m struggling to gather my thoughts and my feelings about what I’ve seen and experienced. I know that today was just a tiny glimpse into something that has been going on for years and years. I know that there is far worse out there. I know these things but, I still struggle with what today was. I need a beer, or something stronger. Geoff and I go to La Crypte, a goth bar just up the road from my usual haunt, the Family Pub. Somehow, La Crypte feels more appropriate tonight.