Volunteers from Brighton’s Hummingbird Project have been helping refugees in the Calais “Jungle” and were deeply upset when they returned with founder ELAINE ORTIZ and saw the results of its destruction this week.

Last year I set up the Hummingbird Project to help support refugees in Calais and Dunkirk because the governments were doing so little for them.

The project grew until we had more than 200 builders making anything from shelters to schools, a weekly medical clinic and a cheery tea kitchen.

Over the last seven months it has been an absolute pleasure to meet many inspiring adults and young people who have fled war and oppression but somehow manage to get up in the morning, pop on a smile and get on with their day.

They are strong and resilient despite living in the worst slum that aid workers have ever seen, just 87 miles from Brighton.

Early this year, France ordered the demolition of the Calais camp, known as ‘the Jungle,’ where about 7,000 refugees were sheltering.

First the lower southern part of the camp was cleared. Refugees and aid volunteers worked through the night to squeeze people into the rest of the camp.

When the authorities announced the next round of evictions, they claimed it would affect 800 people. We knew it would be far more and that the alternative accommodation they were offering far from met the need.

A headcount organised by the aid organisations identified 3,500 people in the area to be demolished, including 651 children, 423 unaccompanied young people and 205 women. Nevertheless the courts turned down an appeal and the eviction started on Monday last week.

I was working in our Safe Space in the Jungle at the time we heard the news and had to comfort a man who just burst into tears when he heard.

The judge ordered the eviction and officials stated it was to be done slowly as a “humanitarian operation”.

The following Monday the CRS riot police lined all the roads surrounding the camp with riot vans and water cannons. The police were carrying guns and tear gas.

The upper part of the camp took one hour to move, then they went in with chainsaws and mallets and systematically destroyed the refugees’ homes. They used tear gas and water cannons. It felt like the camp was at war.

Many people in the camp have fled from wars and have often experienced multiple bereavements. Many face their memories at night in their dreams and experience flashbacks due to post traumatic stress. Some are children.

They have travelled to the other side of the world, on foot, by car, or by boat, trying to find safety and security.

Exhausted by their journeys, they arrive filled with courage and driven by hope.

Working alongside volunteers the refugees created a protective infrastructure that helped support the most vulnerable.

Our community in the south of the camp provided a medical clinic, legal centre, youth club, churches, schools, mosques and a safe space.

The CRS riot police and local authorities have been demolishing them all.

On Thursday I took Caroline Lucas so she could witness what was happening.

I was shocked to see a quiet camp. Our community has been bulldozed and the people I would see every day there, gone. Some are sleeping rough, others setting up camp somewhere else with just a rucksack on them with nearly freezing temperatures. Caroline was shocked and saddened by what she saw.

The ‘Jungle’ is not the answer to an ever growing refugee crisis. The ‘Jungle’ exists because we are not looking for answers, we are just pushing the problem aside.

Violence and intimidation of this nature should never be used on anyone, especially the vulnerable. We are fully developed first world countries and it shocks me to see that we think this kind of behaviour by the police is acceptable.

A few miles away, there is another camp in Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, a swampy hell hole where 2,500 residents, many of them families with children, have been surviving.

Most of our team have cried at some point at the dire conditions. The mayor, Damien Carème, has been campaigning for around 3 years to help refugees and build a proper camp.

Without French government support, and without the financing he asked for, he has just opened up a refugee camp in order to move people out of the hellish conditions they were living in.

“I am building this camp, we need to be humanitarian,”; he stated.

“We are living an incredible moment in human history. Nobody will die of cold in my town”.

When we heard that the camp was being built We teamed up with our sister projects Brighton Shelter Build and Brighton Bridge and Monsieur Careme gave us permission to provide a school and family centre.

The camp opened on Monday and has such a positive feeling to it! The move from the old site to the new one went well.

Our teams are now lovingly building the new centre which has only been possible due to the dedication and courage of Damien Careme.

Like the people we work with in the camp we are driven by hope.

We hope that the courage of Damien Careme will influence others to look at ways of supporting refugees rather than pushing them away. We hope more camps will be developed like this to meet the needs of the thousands now homeless because of the eviction in Calais. We hope that those with a legitimate claim can be assessed and offered safe passage to the UK. Above all, we hope for more compassion.

The Hummingbirds continue to hum. We have made a promise which we will keep: to be there as long as we are needed.

  • Elaine Ortiz is founder of the Hummingbird Project Brighton