A Facebook feed memory stopped me in my tracks.
Normally these things are innocuous — posts about meeting friends, delivering a talk, something funny heard on the bus — but this cast me back six years to a wintry afternoon in the so-called “Calais jungle,” listening to stories of displacement and exile.
And this one popped into my timeline the morning after 27 exiles drowned on the last leg of their journey to safety, barely 10 miles from the shores of my country, 60 miles from my front door, because no one had responded to their cries for help.
That afternoon in November 2015, I had been listening to a suave French official from the Prefect’s office assuring his audience that they had nothing to be afraid of.
Six years on, fear still stalks the lives of these displaced people as they shelter from another northern European winter in flimsy, makeshift encampments along the French coastline.
The jungle is long gone, but every week, little jungles pop up on pieces of waste ground, scrubland and wooded tracts between motorway slip roads.
The jungle had been home to 10,000 people when it was finally cleansed away in October 2016. But there are still more than 2,000 exiles in and around Calais and Dunkirk.
And six years on, I am more convinced than ever that the exiles, trying to avoid heavily armed police and people traffickers, aren’t the only people who are afraid of what is happening.
As I think back to the French official, and as I ponder the posturing of my own home secretary, I realize that fear drives the response to these displaced people at our borders every bit as much as fear drove them from their homes in the first place.
All through this time, Peaceful Borders, the organization that I helped to establish in the jungle in early 2016, has helped to run a safe house for the most vulnerable exiles — women with infants, some newborn, the sick and the injured — in a Calais suburb.
It’s a hand-to-mouth haven of calm and welcome, security and even laughter in streets awash with fear. More than that, we have been able to employ three men we met in the jungle who are now refugees in London in a project that welcomes new arrivals, signposts where assistance can be found, helps to allay fears and offers friendship.
It’s a drop in an ocean of need, but it offers essential support to exiles adrift on the callous indifference of government policy and sometimes hostile public opinion.
When I blogged about the meeting with a French official and a subsequent one in January 2016, I noted the multiple layers of fear among the audience:
“All had been driven from their homes and families by fear, the fear of death from indiscriminate bombing and street-to-street fighting, the fear of a knock on the door in the dead of night that would result in torture, imprisonment, being paraded before a kangaroo court. On the journey from Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia or Egypt, fear had kept them awake at night — would they make it across the next border, would they be beaten up in the road, robbed of what little they can carry, would they fall ill, be separated from family and friends, would they drown in the flimsy boats that carry them and their hopes across the angry Mediterranean, would they be denied help because of their nationality, religion, colour, clothes, language, tone of voice, haunted wariness?”
“For months fear has kept them alive, driven them on in their quest for somewhere warm and safe, somewhere where they are not afraid to sleep, take their eyes off their possessions, relax their guard. And they have found that place in the jungle. For all its chill wind and glutinous mud, for all its primitive sanitation, bad shelter, food and clothes shortages and occasional friction with a neighbour, it feels safer than anywhere they’ve been in the past seemingly endless months of traveling, and before that of being blasted and hunted, shot at, starved and denied any human rights in what used to be home. Now, in short, the jungle feels like home.”
But the jungle provoked fear in the French and British governments; their policy response has been aimed at preventing anything like it from emerging again.
Hence the daily assaults by French paramilitary police — funded by the UK government —removing tents, sleeping bags, clothes (especially warm shoes) and trying to ship the exiles deep into France in the hope that they will claim asylum there. But they don’t.
A few days later, they are back in the Pas de Calais, being helped by the volunteer associations (of which we are one), to acquire what they need to survive the onset of another winter, while they try to cross the English Channel to claim asylum in England.
And our government, driven by fear, offers nothing but an endless ratcheting up of security responses, threatening to turn flimsy boats crossing the channel back to France, threatening to make it illegal to claim asylum in Britain if you haven’t arrived by a route established by the government (there aren’t any), threatening those who assist exiles with fines and jail time.
Fearful of how their voters will react if they don’t do this, they pile on the misery and fail to stem the tide of arrivals.
Christians around the world just celebrated Christmas, and I’m reminded of the angels who told those caught up in the story not to be afraid; what is happening looks scary, unsettling, impossible, but God is at work in it all.
As we journey through Christmas tide, let’s remember the holy family, fleeing persecution at home, so that we come to see that refugees are not a threat or something to fear, but are the coming of God in the stranger, the poor and the suffering, offering us the opportunity to welcome him and the blessing that accompanies that.
As I remember the Calais jungle and the work that has flowed from it, I find my fears dissolving into the expectation that I will meet God in this mystery — and I thank God for it.
A writer and Baptist minister, Jones is about to step down from his role as Vice Principal of Spurgeon’s College in London to concentrate on working with Peaceful Borders, offering support to displaced people in Calais and London.