Seeking Sanctuary: Speaking out on behalf of ‘strangers’

Phil Kerton, Co-Director of Seeking Sanctuary (CSAN Member Charity)

I start to write this on a ferry heading towards Calais, a journey often made when representing my employers on European collaborations. But, unlike about twenty other voyages during the past couple of years, this one is not for business, nor for shopping or dining in France. I’m again delivering goods to one of the Calais warehouses for distribution to needy migrants across France and beyond. I’m also taking a cheque to a project that has been supported by Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN), the “migrants’ wardrobe” of Secours Catholique – approximately France’s Christian Aid – currently harassed by the local council and national riot police.

It’s not too difficult as I live only an hour’s drive from Dover. What is tough is seeing and hearing about the sorry state of thousands making dangerous journeys to flee violence and poverty, only to end up blocked from further travel towards their chosen goal. They may be misguided in choosing Britain as a destination – reaching Calais some do not know that there is another sea crossing to make – but they arrive cold, hungry, weary and unwashed and usually with shoes and clothes worn to tatters.

Many think that “Calais is over – the migrant camp has gone.” But the recent episode of the “Jungle” was only the most recent in the decades-long saga of the arrival of exiles. Although thousands were dispersed across France as November began, people remain in the camp near Dunkirk, along with a couple of smaller settlements nearby, totalling about 2000. Additional scores of newcomers and returnees turn up daily; about 500 sleep rough in woods and fields around the town or are hidden by sympathisers. The streets of Paris are home to thousands too, who for the present, hesitate to travel further.

A great network for finding and bringing donations to the Calais aid warehouses and kitchens still operates. Some items are often in short supply, volunteer workers are less numerous, and cash donations remain welcome. Money goes toward buying food locally and ordering items in bulk to benefit from wholesale prices and generous discounts.

The former camp developed an amazing society. Smelly in the summer and boggy and partly flooded when winter gales blew in from the sea, its residents always offered warm welcomes and generous hospitality. There were bars, cafés, clubs, gyms, hairdressers, a library and mosques (regularly filled for worshippers marking the daily sequence of prayer). There were also two churches, until French bulldozers demolished the supposedly safe Protestant Church whilst clearing a space around the camp perimeter in May 2016. The Eritrean Orthodox Church remained until the end, with an ever-growing number of impressive icons produced by one of its flock, some now in London.

The scriptures tell many tales of migration, with prophets repeatedly warning rulers that they would be judged by their treatment of the least of their inhabitants – widows, orphans and strangers. The Church has long recognised the right of people to flee war and natural disasters, and the right to try to escape from poverty and seek a better life. Yes: we are called to do what we can to provide constructive help and spiritual support to so-called “economic migrants”, within generous limits. Pope Pius XII wrote a masterly account of the development of Church practice in 1952, when Europeans headed for North America to seek new lives in the aftermath of war. All travellers are human beings, made in God’s likeness. Pope Francis has not invented a new concern, but follows other recent Pontiffs in speaking out on behalf of “the strangers”.

Discovering unprecedented numbers leaving the Middle East and Africa to reach southern Europe, the European Union seemed ill prepared and without a plan of solidarity to support the nations at its external frontier. A small proportion arrive at the French coast where they find very little state support, just humanitarian aid from a large number of volunteers. I find a warehouse needing donations and volunteers, as expected, and with kitchens still preparing food despite an official Calais ban on crowds gathering in locations known to migrants. As a consequence, distribution points now move around. One group reported a 20% drop in the number of meals being collected.

I carefully pass by the armed riot police outside the Secours Catholique premises. There are objections to their provision of showers, a necessity for health and individual dignity. The police detain those who use the facility and staff and volunteers are saddened and puzzled that services offered to the sick and vulnerable are being denied to their sisters and brothers in Christ. Please pray for their perseverance in the face of adversity.


This article first appeared in the CSAN ‘Caritas in Action’ column in the Catholic Times on 17.03.17