So I went to Calais as part of the Critical Mass to Calais bike ride last weekend.
A week later, I am no closer to having anything coherent to say about it, but I thought I would put down some of the disjointed ideas it sparked anyway.
As David Charles pointed out in his excellent piece about the bike ride, cycling is not the most efficient way to get bikes from London to Calais. But the process of travelling there under (to some extent) our own steam gave me plenty of time to think about what such journeys mean for people in different circumstances.
I spent some days thinking about what to take with me, trying to imagine what I would need and what would be unnecessary weight on my bike. Everyone planning a long journey must make decisions like this, especially if their journey is on foot or by bike.
It is quite a satisfying experience, to pack your bags well and efficiently, to know where to find the things you need along the way, to be pleased with what you have brought and what you have left behind. But I was haunted by the thought of people packing for a journey they could not imagine and could not prepare for. I thought about what that process would feel like if every decision brought with it a pang of sorrow.
Before I left, lots of people told me I was doing a great thing. My journey was admirable. I realised that for people like me, travel is always to be admired. Even if I had been heading off on a holiday, people would have been pleased with me, congratulated me on my spirit of adventure. Our culture celebrates exploration, exertion and discovery.
In Kent, our route incorporated paths and roads now marked as the Pilgrim’s Way, a reminder of an older tradition of journeys made for the sake of journeying, and in the hope of hospitality along the way.
But for the people we met in Calais, and those trapped in Greece and Hungary, hospitality and admiration have been much harder to find.
Refugees and migrants
Nearly all the people we saw at the camp in Calais were young men. 90% of those stuck there are men, though I did see a young child in the brief time I spent there.
When I say young men, I mean very young. I spoke with one young man who was probably no older than my daughter, about to set off on her own big adventure to university in a couple of weeks’ time. He told me he wanted to reach the UK, so that he could work and send money back to support his family in Sudan.
I think Paul Mason is right in this piece, when he says that the distinctions between people fleeing war and poverty are increasingly meaningless.
Why is getting on your bike to find work the right thing to do if you are unemployed in the north of England, but the wrong thing if you are in Sudan? (clue: racism)
Charity and solidarity
The spontaneous mass movement of people all across Europe wanting to welcome refugees and share their belongings, and even homes, with them has been astonishing.
Just as the political institutions of Europe are being swept away by the sheer numbers of people arriving, so the power of the media to determine public opinion is being undermined by the swifter and deeper communication of Facebook.
As this excellent piece by Plan C describes, there is not a clear distinction between charity on one hand and political pressure on the other. David Cameron has been forced to shift his position in just a couple of days. All four Labour leadership candidates declared themselves in support of offering sanctuary to more refugees in the Sky News debate on Thursday, in terms that would have been unutterable by most Labour candidates before the election.
The camp at Calais is hardly built at all. All the buildings are made of wood and tarpaulin, those that are not simply tents. There is a tap, but no sanitation to speak of. When it rained on Sunday night (after I had left), many structures were simply washed away.
And yet, there are systems. There are roads. There is a shop and a cafe. There is a church, a mosque, a library and a school. There are neighbourhoods, marked with signs showing the countries where people have come from – Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia. People make society, whatever their circumstances.
I didn’t take any photos on my trip. Here is a photo album taken on the same day by Natasha Quarmby, who was careful not to compromise anyone’s immigration claim or exploit their plight for sentimental or campaigning purposes.
I’m glad I went. I wish I had stayed longer in the camp (as it turned out, my ferry didn’t leave for another six hours, so I could have done). I hope we can keep up the pressure on the governments of Europe long enough to make a real change for everyone who needs a safe haven here.