A terrible fire burns deep in the forest. Terrified woodland creatures flee, except one tiny hummingbird. As the rest of the animals bemoaned the destruction of their homes, a hummingbird gathers a few water droplets and flies to drop them on the fire. It repeats this fruitless endeavour, to the amazement of the other creatures. A few try to discourage the bird, fearing it would harm itself. One cries: “what are you doing?” Without hesitation, the hummingbird replies: “I am doing what I can!”
Around 87 miles away from Brighton, near the French end of the Channel Tunnel, there’s a temporary settlement known as the ‘Jungle’. It’s a place with no fixed geographical location, intolerable living conditions and a growing population that no nation wants. “For most people I’ve met there, this will be their first winter in Calais.” Elaine Ortiz, founder of The Hummingbird Project, tells me. Together with her Brighton-based group of activists, just like the story’s plucky bird, they are confronting an impossible situation.
The Hummingbird Project was started by pro-equality campaigners ‘English Disco Lovers’ (EDL). They offer a response to this worsening refugee crisis, regularly sending teams of skilled volunteers to the camps. They co-ordinate appropriate aid efforts from across the UK and organise building groups, recently constructing a space offering new arrivals somewhere to sleep for their first night.
What began as a Red Cross centre in Calais was quickly over-run by growing numbers, who found this passage into England blocked. This sprawling camp sits on a desolate flood plain, surrounded by chemical plants and coarse bushes. Whilst there is an emerging economy within the camps, there’s no governing body, little organisation and fewer prospects. The terms ‘Jungle’ and the ‘Illegals’ serve to further de-humanise the people here. Conditions are bleak. Glastonbury at its most inhospitable seems like a luxury holiday in comparison. Many stand no chance of entering the UK. Yet every day more arrive in this desolate corner of Northern France.
The gamut of nationalities gathered reads like a list of the world’s trouble spots. Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea are all represented. The human cost of disinterested foreign policy and failed nation building is finally hitting Europe. “I’ve not met anyone who hasn’t been through something really terrible. There’s a very good reason why they are there. I don’t think anyone chooses to live in a makeshift camp with no basic human rights.” As extra measures are introduced to prevent illegal entry into Britain and numbers of refugees reaching Calais rise, there’s been a sharp population increase recently. Accurately assessing numbers and demographics is difficult, but current estimates put the camp’s population at over 6,000, and this figure is growing.
Most food is supplied by charity-run soup kitchens. Water has to be brought from remote points, so hygiene in conditions is a problem. While donations keep residents relatively well-clothed, finding footwear for such conditions is difficult. Shoes are often ill-fitting, disintegrating or simply inappropriate, many people negotiating the squalor in flip-flops.
The French authorities face the dilemma of dealing with a growing humanitarian crisis, without encouraging new arrivals. Regularly areas are bulldozed without warning, destroying belongings, documentation and shelters. Entrances are now blocked off to motor vehicles, restricting access for most relief organisations. So the majority of foreign aid is dropped off at an over-whelmed destitution point. Ortiz has noticed the local police becoming increasingly threatening towards foreign aid providers. “It’s not fair to just blame the French government,” she says. “The UK also has a massive responsibility to these people. Most of the people are fleeing because of our involvement in their countries.” There is an attempt to divert this human tide to centres elsewhere, where housing and a fast-track asylum process is promised. Yet few accept the offers. When refugees are detained they’ll often be dispersed to other parts of France, most immediately returning.
Although the population is perceived as ‘generally healthy’ by UK charity Human Relief Foundation, serious problems do present themselves. The cold brings respiratory issues; dirty water causes infections like dysentery and anywhere without clothes-washing facilities will see the spread of scabies. Having already travelled to Calais every other week with tons of food, shelter materials, fire extinguishers, clothing and money; the Hummingbird volunteers have just built a medical clinic. As many of the people living here have also been traumatised, the next task is to build a support centre, offering the more vulnerable of the camp’s resident a safe space to talk.
As well as encouraging us to do what we can for people in Calais, Hummingbird and EDL have been running poster campaigns, giving TEDx talks, campaigning against current immigration policy and encouraging creative and peaceful activism. “Part of what Hummingbird and English Disco Lovers are doing is challenging people’s preconceptions, myths and stereotypes of immigration and refugees.” Recently EDL have taken to the airwaves, extending their reach with shows on Radio Reverb and 1Brighton FM. Raising awareness and funds with two sell-out Bank Holiday events at The Spiegeltent during Brighton Fringe, they’ve also rocked festivals around the UK and packed the beach with a series of al-fresco parties. Along the way they’ve raised over £17,000 for Calais Solidarity groups in Calais and the UK this year. So to round off an amazing 2015, EDL and The Hummingbird Project are having a Christmas Disco knees-up at Komedia on Fri 18 Dec, celebrating the work of key supporters and raising even more funds.
No matter where you stand on UK immigration or human rights, the fact this is happening right on our borders brings shame to us all. There is no simple fix. The refugee crisis won’t disappear overnight, despite our hopes. Like their plucky namesake, The Hummingbird Project is acting in the face of an impossible situation, as sometimes you can’t stand idly by. “We’re the lucky ones. That’s why we have a responsibility. We should be treating people in the way we would like to be treated in that situation.”
English Disco Lovers and the Hummingbird Project hold their Christmas party and Awards Ceremony at Komedia on Fri 18 Dec.