The clearance of the Jungle refugee camp at Calais continues today, amid scenes of very real despair. To the politicians of London and Paris these actions make sense. To the families living in jerry-built shelters, with nothing but the open sky as an alternative, they do not.
One very sad aspect of this action is that so many of the structures being torn-down by wrecking crews have been built, over the past several months, by volunteers. Some 6000+ people have been involved in providing food, shelter and dignity to the thousands fleeing violence. These are European volunteers, many of them young adults, coming from France, the UK, Holland and beyond to offer a simple hand of friendship. They are the only people working day-in, day-out on the camp. No UNHCR. No official presence from either France or the UK, apart from the CRS riot police and an occasional touring politician. Just ordinary people spurred to show kindness. Their work has been extraordinary. “L’Auberge des Migrants” is a Calais-based association started in 2008 to offer help to the few hundred refugees then scattered across the city. More recently, they have co-ordinated a heroic effort harnessing the goodwill of a whole range of French and UK charities. Based in a warehouse a few hundred metres from the site they have cooked and distributed thousands of meals a day, provided clothing, built huts and enabled refugees to take advantage of every help avaialble to them. They are a smiling human army; the very face of a civilised Europe.
They, as much as the refugees they seek to help, have been betrayed by their own politicians.
Writing in 1996 in the groundbreaking “Exclusion and Embrace”, Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf suggested that we always have a choice beteeen these two actions. We can close ourselves to the stranger or open our hearts to the ‘other’ at our door. The irony is that in choosing exclusion we diminish our own world. Only by offering embrace can we discover the route to a fuller humanity. Those who are seeking to defend a European lifestlye by locking the garden gate are unwittingly undermining the very basis of that lifestyle. We are less human – ultimately less European – when we slam the door in the face of human need.
I don’t have an answer to the complex questions of immigration, trade, Franco-British relationships and a global escalation of conflict: but I do know that among the answers we find, those built on embrace make us stronger – they enlarge us – and those built on exclusion make us small.
The sledghammer is a tool of exclusion. Food; shelter; friendship are tools of embrace. We need to choose which we, as Europeans, will take up.