In one corner of the Jungle refugee encampment on the outskirts of Calais – just behind the Doctors of the World medical tent – live much of the camp’s Syrian population. This is where we found six Syrian Christians when we visited in in early September. They made the long journey across the Middle East and Europe only to find themselves stranded amongst the sand dunes, unable to get across the Chanel.
They travelled across Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Germany and Belgium before reaching France – a journey that took four months. Much of this journey was on foot. Smugglers put them in a “death boat” at Bodrum in Turkey to get them to Greece – one much the same as that in which little Aylan Kurdi was travelling on when he drowned.
Syria is dangerous for all of the many religious and ethnic groups that make up its population, but for the Christian community the situation is even more untenable. The country is being fought over by various different factions and some, such as Islamic State (IS), actively attack Christians as part of their ideology.
“Back home people would see me and say ‘He is Christian, he must be slaughtered’, as a Christian I have been abused” says Bahir, one of the six Christians.
Christians face an uncertain future. They are rightly concerned that whatever the outcome of the current crisis in the Middle East, those who gain power may not be sympathetic towards them. Already a persecuted minority and increasingly in danger from Islamic State many feel they must leave. They hope to find safety in “Christian” Europe. But the journey is hazardous and not everyone can make it. Those who have left often worry about family members who are too old or infirm travel.
“My parents are still in Syria and it is very dangerous for them, I call them every day to make sure they are still ok… Every day you wake up and wonder if today I will die,” said Adam. Too old to travel, his parents are still living with this fear.
The Syrian Christians in the Jungle hoped they would find a welcome and safety in countries where people share their beliefs. The response of the European nations, however, has been unwelcoming, and despite its Christian heritage, Europe has not recognised the plight of Syria’s Christians as any worse than that of the refugee population in general. When the UK announced it would take in thousands of Syrians, it did so with the condition that those welcomed would come from the camps around Syria and that the process would take place over a period of five years. Christians such as Adam and Bahir believed they had to leave urgently.
“People who ran away are safe, but the people who stayed are stuck now” explained Bahir.
The seriousness of the situation for Syria’s Christians is illustrated by the fact that they are willing to risk their lives to escape and put up with the terrible conditions that they must endure along the way and in the Jungle camp in Calais.
Bahir considers himself lucky to have made it to France but believes more must be done as many are not so lucky.
“I would like to say to the British church community we have to find a solution to this mess, I have seen people die on this route. Some on the boats, some trying to get onto the lorries here, and some just from the cold.”
Those who have made it find themselves living in tents on the edge of an industrial estate. While most are trying to reach the UK, even those who have applied for asylum in France, end up staying there for months at a time while their application is processed – they have nowhere else to go.
“They call this a camp,” says Adam, “but this is not a camp. Camps are where you go to relax, they are where you go to have fun with your family. They are for people who have passports. You should not call this a camp. Other people call this the Jungle and do you know why? Like in the children’s book, only animals live in the Jungle.”
Mornings in the Jungle are slow as most people have been up late the night before trying to get onto the lorries crossing to the UK. When people do wake up, the day is spent simply waiting for the night to arrive when the cycle starts again. Adam and Bashir sit and talk outside the tent they share. Later they drink coffee at one of the shacks that has appeared in the camp to sell food and drinks.
These shacks are the only amenities, and even these have been set up by the inhabitants. The only help that the French government has provided is several large tents that quickly flooded as they were placed on the lowest ground in the area. While policemen are a common sight on the edge of the camp they, along with the ambulance service, refuse to enter. Many residents complain of physical attacks by the police outside of the camp.
There are two NGOs providing much-needed aid, but they are both understaffed and unable to deal with the terrible situation that they are faced with. Doctors of the World has set up a medical tent but it is staffed by volunteers, lacks basic medical supplies, and has only one doctor. Another French agency attempts to distribute clothes, tents and blankets but is also severely understaffed. They have set up a ticketing system to try to make sure that these items reach those who need it most but some of the camp’s inhabitants horde them and sell them on to new arrivals. As winter sets in, the cold will increasingly become a problem and there are worries that poor sanitation and the numbers of people living in close quarters will lead to disease.
Some groups and individuals try to help by delivering food, shelter and clothing, but these uncoordinated deliveries cause large, unmanaged crowds to gather. The help may not reach those who need it most.
The six Syrian Christians in the Jungle are stuck in limbo as the EU nations argue over who should take responsibility for the migrant crisis. Every night they risk their lives trying to get across to the UK and by day they sit in the increasingly cold camp with nothing but a shared tent and the clothes they wear. As they explain their situation it seems unbelievable that the Western world is turning its back on these people and denying them the only chance they have of living in safety.
As Bahir explained, this is all they want:
“When I get to London I don’t want to ask help from the British people or the government. I have friends who I can go to and who can help me to find work. In Syria I lost some of my family and I lost my home – all the world knows what is happening in Syria now. Before the revolution started, we welcomed people from all around the world to Syria, but now we need help, nobody in Europe or the Middle East welcomes us.”