The woman who invited us into her caravan was heavily pregnant, but she insisted we all sit down on the small couch first. Seada (not her real name) came from Eritrea, a small country crammed between Sudan, Ethiopia and the Red Sea, with one of the worst human rights records in the world. But we were meeting her in Calais, in the heart of a camp known best by its controversial nickname: “the Jungle”.
Sitting opposite her was Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow. Creasy listened as, through rough translation, our hostess told us she was pleased with the caravan, which indeed seemed strangely sturdy in this town of tents. But she had not given up on the idea of reaching the UK. The French system was already full. She turned to Creasy. Our translator explained what she was asking: “She wants you to take her with you back to the UK.”
Creasy tried to explain why this wasn’t possible. How, while she might be an MP, this didn’t mean smuggling someone into the UK wouldn’t get her immediately arrested. How she was raising cases like hers in Parliament. She told her: “I promise, we are not doing nothing.”
But Seada’s eyes were welling up. In the world of the camp, life is lived day-to-day, shower ticket to shower ticket. Either you can get someone to the UK, or you can’t.
With its disorder, undocumented people, and the need for co-operation with France, the Calais camp is a Little Englander’s nightmare. But it is increasingly difficult to wish away. French nationalists have seized on Brexit as an excuse to end the current border arrangement, which allows Britain to operate border controls on French soil.
The encroaching winter threatens to turn conditions in Calais from third-world slum to a disaster area. And, finally, a small but determined group of politicians are campaigning to protect human rights and child refugees.
Much earlier that day, I had met Creasy on a quiet Walthamstow street, as she hauled a big cardboard box to her car. It was Saturday morning and the small team of volunteers she had rallied were loading up their cars. We said quick hellos and then drove in convoy towards the Channel Tunnel.
Photos: Julia Rampen
Creasy, who organised the trip, has earned a reputation as an effective opposition politician. Elected in 2010, she succeeded in changing the law on payday loans from opposition, and led a successful campaign for more women on banknotes. By 2015, some commentators were tipping her as a future Labour leader.
“People don’t think politics makes a difference anymore,” she told me as we waited in the Folkestone terminal for our delayed train. “I speak to young activists and they treat it like a football game. It’s either the red team or the blue team.
“But when I was a kid, my mum and dad said: ‘Well what are you going to do about it?’”
In another world, where the 2015 election had obeyed the pollsters, Creasy could be a cabinet minister by now. Instead, she spent the summer of 2015 running for deputy leader of the party, but lost to Tom Watson. In December, she voted for airstrikes in Syria. Tensions in her constituency flared. Reports of a protest outside her house turned out to be exaggerated, but threats of deselection could be more real. A prominent social media user, Creasy also faces a daily barrage of abuse online.
Creasy is defiant. “I have never agreed with any leader of the Labour party entirely,” she said. “But I took part in the debate. And now I am told I can’t have my own mind. It is thought police. That is when it becomes a cult.”
She believes there is a gender issue in how MPs receive abuse: “A woman who knows her own mind is treated as threatening. I am really conscious that my colleagues who are women are getting twice the abuse.
“I am conscious of it. I can’t pretend. Ann Robinson said to me I shouldn’t worry about abuse because I wasn’t a wallflower, but everyone should be who they want to be. You shouldn’t just have to be strong.”
One woman Creasy did consider strong was the Labour MP and campaigner for refugee rights Jo Cox, who was killed in June. As a friend of Cox, she was interviewed as the news of the murder sank in. That late summer evening, Creasy had praised “one of the gutsiest, most principled, intelligent, brilliant women I’ve had the honour of my life to know”. She added: “All we care about tonight is how on earth we carry on without Jo by our side.”
Creasy was already asking questions about the government’s policy on refugees in early January, but this summer her work intensified.
Calais in 2016 has a single motif – a high, white grill-like fence topped with barbed wire. There are so many of these fences that sometimes the horizon is made up of layers and layers of these fences, illuminated occasionally by the flashing blue lights of a police car.
Our first stop was the warehouse. It was on a quiet backwater, behind various wine depots aimed at thirsty British tourists. At first glance, it had a folksy alternative feel, but I soon learned it was run with military precision. The Walthamstow boxes were quickly unloaded. I wandered into the warehouse and discovered British volunteers in high-vis jackets sorting trousers (“Not the cream ones, they drag in the mud”). A vast kitchen echoed with the chopping of thousands of meals. The bags piled up for preparation was overwhelmingly familiar – Tesco rice, PG Tips tea. The UK government may wish to wash its hands of Calais, but this is a distinctly British operation – 80 per cent of volunteers here are British.
Our soft-spoken guide, Annie Gavrilescu, from Help Refugees, turned up in Calais in the summer of 2015 after finishing her studies in London, and stayed. A year on, she has become one of the lynchpins of the operation. Nevertheless, she is clear that volunteers were not the answer. “It should not be our job to safeguard children, to make sure pregnant women have a safe space,” she told us.
Indeed, the volunteers are starting to run out. Students who came for the summer have left as term time begins. Donations too, cannot always keep up with demand. When we visited, food in the camp was becoming scarce for the first time.
The French authorities plan to bulldoze the camp. But they already tried in March, and the camp is back. I asked Annie what her plans were for the future. “To stay,” she said. There was little more to pin a timetable to. “I could do with a holiday,” she added, with a shrug and smile.
To reach the camp, you drive out of the industrial estate and turn off onto a gritty track running through a field of long grass. On your right, 100 yards away, is a suburban street. A little French boy plays on his trike. On your left, a similar distance away, is a makeshift church made of boards and bin bags. It is surrounded by the silhouettes of young men, who crouch and stare at nothing in the sky. In front of you are the police, who want to check your boot. No building materials are allowed into camp – nothing that will protect the flimsy tents from winter, or allow a child to sleep alone at night. The camp is condemned. Officially, no one is living here.
But they are. We parked the cars and walked down into the main street, which is lined by shops constructed of planks and tarpaulins. There is a certain amount of ironic humour – we passed a “UK cafe” and a “Theresa May Street” as well as an Afghan restaurant, a newsagent and a youth centre. This is not a jungle, but a frontier town. Most of the residents were on the streets were young men, but there are women too, and children.
Alf Dubs, a Labour Lord, first came to the UK as a child refugee on the Kindertransport out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. In May, after a parliamentary tussle, he managed to see the Dubs Amendment passed, which offered unaccompanied children sanctuary in the UK. After Dubs gave a speech in Walthamstow, Creasy led a drive in her constituency to source caravans for the camp.
Now, as we walked through the camp, Creasy wanted to find the woman who had moved into one of them again: “That is, if she’s still here.” Annie led us through a maze of tent pegs and sand, where our every clumsy movement sent someone’s home quivering. At last we came to the caravan. It was decorated with stencils of twisting white roses, the same kind worn at Cox’s memorial. Creasy wanted me to make sure I’d noticed them: “For Jo.”
It was then that we all crowded into the caravan, and met Seada. Her baby was due any day, but we learnt she had only recently stopped joining the nightly attempts to reach the UK. She looked utterly lost. When we left we were all in a subdued mood, Creasy most of all.
Although many refugees activists focus on the principles of the issue, Creasy is more interested in practical mechanisms. “All these people have different rights and opportunities,” she had told me in the terminal. “What you need is a system to filter and process them.
“It is not all these people are going to come here – it is that they need a process.”
The Monday after our visit to Calais, she would raise Seada’s case with Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, telling her:
“I met a pregnant woman who said that she had tried to claim asylum in France, but the system is so broken that she was told it would be months before they would even begin to process her application. These people are living in hell because of a lack of bureaucracy.”
Rudd responded by repeating the French assurances that everyone would be rehoused, and chiding her to “have a care not to encourage unwittingly the traffickers”.
In fact, the asylum seekers that end up in Calais seem more likely to be desperate than aspirational – they either have family ties to Britain, or they have given up on France. The asylum process is so sluggish that even agreed transfers can mean months of purgatory in the camp. For all the children theoretically saved by the Dubs Amendment, the actual number who have so far reached Britain is precisely zero.
Alexandra Simmons, from Care4Calais, told me: “We don’t have the mechanisms [for Dubs]. It has been stagnant since the law was passed. So they need a different mechanism.”
Children with family in the UK can also apply for family reunification under Dublin Convention regulations, but Simmons told me successful applicants could still have to wait alone in the camp for six months. The volunteers recalled the 15-year-old Afghan Masoud, whose sister was in the UK and happy to support him. After he gave up on the transfer process, he went to Dunkirk, and died after stowing away in a refrigerated lorry.
This frustration was driven home to us by Dubs himself (pictured left, with Creasy), who was visiting the camp with the actress Vanessa Redgrave.
Dubs was there to hear from the children who were still surviving alone in Calais, despite his amendment (Creasy and Dubs are working together to propose changes to it in both the Commons and the Lords). A genial, energetic octogenerian, he told me: “I am disappointed and angry with the government.”
He is also lobbying French leaders. “There is no process,” he said of the bureaucracy. As for the children: “I feel desperately worried for them. There is no life for young people. There is no existence.”
We left the camp as evening was falling. The police did not stop us on the way out. We drove the empty cars back towards the Channel Tunnel train, and into a deadening queue. For hours we sat in convoy in the sluggish traffic, while night fell and Calais, camp, warehouse and all, disappeared into the dark. We did not see anyone try to jump the high fences, although when, late at night, we finally reached border control, a flashing sign informed us “increased border controls” had added to the delay.
Creasy, who was ahead in the queue, kept us informed with a rat-a-tat of text messages about what lay ahead (a one-hour detour into a carpark) and how she was hassling transport ministers about the delays. It was a night of stops and starts, never really slow enough for us to park and take some air, never fast enough to relieve the deadening boredom. Finally, at around 11.30pm, we drove onto a train. And suddenly we were speeding away from the trucks and the fences, away from the town of tents, where the waiting never stops.