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Standing under the shadow of a cement factory stands a man caught in a soft rain that dampens a grey scene. To the South-West lies the English-sounding village of Craywick; to the South-East, Steene. To the North is the man’s destination: the English Channel and, he hopes, the English shoreline.
His name is Mangal. He is a 42-year-old Afghan, older than the others who huddle from the rising rain under bin bags, and he seems more distanced, more reserved. A look on his face says he can’t quite believe he is here, in France, accepting aid from a British charity for those seeking to travel across the sea to claim asylum.
The charity’s volunteers bustle before him, handing out hygiene packs, placing out board games, laying a small area where men can cut each other’s hair. They are mainly English, mainly young, mainly women: all are busy and earnest.
A young Iraqi girl – perhaps 13 – wonders over to see if she can make a wrist braid from strands of coloured string. An English game begins to be played out with blocks of wood: “What is your name?” “What country do you come from?”, phrases written on little strips that are repeated and teased out.
Mangal turns his face from the busy scene.
“For me to return to Afghanistan,” he says, “It’s death.” He has an American accent.
He used to run a company that made force-protection walls for U.S. and NATO troops, and his phone is filled with accolades, citations and photographs of him working with Western troops.
“When the U.S. left,” he says, “we were taken into darkness.”
He once had 70 people working for him; he once had $700,000 in his account; he once had a brother. But the workers left his company. The Taliban froze his account when they took power, and he is penniless. And when they came to find him and, failing in that, on the third time took his brother instead, they tortured his sibling and left his body down at the river’s edge. He is without a brother.
When asked why he just doesn’t seek asylum through the routes demanded by the British government, he laughs with a short intake of breath.
“That procedure would be completed whilst I am in the grave,” he says. He had tried to get out via Kabul’s airport, but the crowds had pushed him back. He had tried to go to the British consulate in Islamabad, he claims, but found no help there. The Americans had not helped him, either.
“I speak good English,” he says, “I can get a job to support my family. The reason I am going to die in Afghanistan is that I worked with NATO troops. They have a moral responsibility for me.”
And in these words, backed up by the photographs and the documents and the corroborated evidence, he seems to reveal the true moral perplexity in the drama being played out here on the French coast.
Most notably, he feels he has no other choice. Britain, far more than France, had embroiled themselves in Afghanistan. “I do worry about Rwanda,” he says, talking about the threat to deport asylum seekers to the landlocked African nation. “But in Afghanistan, I face a death sentence. They know who I am and what I have done. The Taliban are angrier with me than with NATO soldiers.”
“If I had known of the danger, I wouldn’t have accepted the work. They said to me – ‘you would not be left behind.’ Well, I was.”
It is hard not to feel compassion. He stands, his hands clenched, having to accept the kindness of strangers under a pewter Northern European sky, and he looks lost.
In a sense, this is the purpose of Care4Calais, the British charity that is here handing out clothes and tents and food parcels for the lost. They are not facilitating the journeys – they do not seem, as some reporters would have it, to be ‘helping to perpetuate the Channel crossings organised by people-traffickers.’ Rather, they are offering a modicum of decency to those who find themselves caught between the shark’s mouth of their war-torn homes and the promise of sanctuary in the UK.
Most have no idea about the mood in some corridors of power for their ambition to seek asylum in Britain. Many have not heard of Rwanda, none spoken to had heard of the barges that the Home Secretary promises to house them in. Many have an almost childlike view of England. Far better than France, some say.
But not all are so naïve. Tharig, a 35 Afghan with a strange antiquated eloquence to his BBC-learnt English. “There are some people here who fall into strange categories,” he says when asked if he thinks everyone in the crowd of some 80 are legitimate asylum seekers. “They might not all be telling the truth. But you don’t execute everyone just because some are guilty.”
Care4Calais treats all, as would English law all the way back to Magna Carta, with the presumption of innocence. They offer humanity and dignity to an asylum-seeking surge whose openings appears to have been reduced largely to spaces for Ukrainians and Hong Kong Chinese. Some volunteers say that such a policy smacks of racism.
The charity spends almost £10,000 a month here on food, clothes, tents, sleeping bags, jumpers, tops, trousers… and every day donations arrive for the unending flood of bodies that arrive, exhausted after months, years, on the road to Normandy’s silvery coast.
Later that day, in the vast warehouse that houses these donations, Steve Smith is overseeing a new delivery of goods. The items, carefully arranged by order of size and quality, stretch in neat racks balanced on packing crates.
“In the end,” he says, a silver-haired, dignified man, “this is a humanitarian mission. We aren’t the ones to judge if this person or that person has a legitimate claim to asylum. We are just providing a basic service of food and shelter for a community that are neglected by governments and often castigated by the press. We have had Afghan Colonels here. People with visible scars from torture fleeing their oppressors. Babies. Some of the most vulnerable people in the world and they are being treated as if they are criminals.”
Smith, a retired British army colonel, understands war more than most. A former bomb disposal operator and decorated for his service in Northern Ireland, he saw the impact of violence on civilian populations there and in Kosovo and Iraq, and has dedicated his life since leaving the military to protecting the most vulnerable.
“Today, we met a journalist from Iraq who had been shot in the face by the police. Some have been kicked out of Germany by the authorities after their refugee status expired, and they have nowhere else to go.”
Despite attempting to offer a small hand of comfort for such people, Care4Calais stands vilified in the press. Some criticism has been valid – their ex-CEO, Clare Moseley, stands accused of having had affairs with asylum seekers and under her leadership the charity was recently castigated by the Charity Commission for systemic failings in its governance. But Smith, with his institutional credentials, is adamant the past is the past.
“We have new systems in place, new leadership and a new vision. And who else is really offering those who come here, looking for a safe space, any solace?”
On this, he is unquestionably right. There are some small efforts by NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières here, but the one persistent presence are the volunteers with their white tabards and red logos – Care4Calais.
They walk in the dawn mist, waking asylum seekers up from their depressed sleep, offering a parcel of food for the day. They offer small tokens of help to communities who have been through hard and brutal treatment at the hands of baton-wielding policemen. Their charity is simple. They hand out sanity products to women and baby formula for babies. They are not the bogeymen of the Daily Mail’s fevered imaginings.
Of course, witnessing the long lines of Sudanese men queuing to speak to boatmen who will – they hope – spirit them to Britain’s shores can be disconcerting. And to deny that there should be no debate about immigration to Britain would be a democratic failure in listening to the concerns of some British citizens.
But what appears to be happening here, in Calais, is not supporting a wave of seekers. These men would come whether the charity is here or not, and to say otherwise would be without evidence. As one volunteer said, “No one comes all the way from Eritrea, Iraq or Afghanistan just to get to France and say – no, I want to turn back.”
What the charity seeks, instead, is some order to the chaos. Proper and timely ways for asylum claims to be processed. The ability to buy a life vest from a local French store. The chance for seekers to use, even, a working toilet rather than having to squat in a ditch.
There is a well-worn phrase that states: “The measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members.” This is true. “But it might also be how a society treats those who risk their lives to be part of it too,” says Smith.
Care4Calais, in the end, seems to be filling a moral deficit created by a government that has run out of ideas on how to address the issue.
Not because there are no expert-led solutions. There are. But because – you strongly suspect – attacking these seekers on Britain’s shores is a very helpful way to distract attention from other, more systemic failings in the British state. Failures that have emerged under the Conservative party’s own governance.
Let, Care4Calais seems to say, our collective humanity not be another victim of such disregard.