AS THE migrant crisis continues at the port of Calais, where up to 3000 are now thought to be staying in temporary camps while they try to reach the UK, a group of Christians has continued to visit them to offer prayer, as they have done for more than a decade.
Susan Pardo, who leads the group from churches in the Folkestone area and from St Andrew’s Chorleywood, said this week that the situation for the migrants was “desperate”.
“We have been going over there every month for 14 years, taking food and clothes and books. We offer to pray. We go to preach the gospel, to listen to people, and talk with them.
“The people who are there have come from desperate situations, from war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. They have paid so much to be there. I have met boys as young as ten on their own who are desperate to go to school — that was at times more than I could bear.
“I have been thumped by a Frenchman — it took a while for them to accept us, but in the end they have allowed us to help. We take clothes and lots of books and tinned food. We find ways of giving it out. This isn’t always easy as people are really desperate.
“We are just trying to be church to them: it really isn’t complicated. It is pretty awful in the camps, but the people there remain cheerful and they always say they are blessed that we have come to see them. Many of them are Muslims. We are upfront about the reason we are there, and we have seen people become Christian.
“We don’t hear what happens to most of those we meet. Almost all of them say they want to come to the UK, but I don’t know how many do. Many claim asylum in France, or go to Germany; others have gone as far afield as Sweden and Canada.
“I always think how it could be any of us, at any time: anything can happen, floods or war. My heart goes out to them.”
The small Anglican congregation in Pas-de-Calais has no formal links to the camps, although last month an Iraqi man came to a communion service, a churchwarden, Pat Page, said. “He was desperate to get to England and had with him a wet suit, as he thought he could swim out to a boat and be taken on board. One of our members gave him a contact in Calais and advised him not do anything before he spoke to this person.”
On the other side of the Channel at Dover, a lay chaplain to the Port, David Slater, said that British travellers and residents were most affected by the wildcat strikes by French ferry workers, which were causing a build-up of freight traffic along the roads.
“The migrants are taking advantage of the strike situation. Lorry drivers have been held up for days. Our ministry here is being alongside people; we talk to people of all faiths or none. . . The main problem for people here is the uncertainty about what will happen.
“There is no fear in Dover about the migrants, as there is 21 miles of water in between them. Any who do get through are immediately taken away by the immigration services.”
He and a team of volunteer chaplains serve as “accompanying-adults”, escorting lone children seeking asylum to assessment interviews. “We are an intentional presence here,” he said.
This week, a migrant died trying to jump on a train leaving Calais for the UK, and last month 150 migrants tried to storm the Calais terminal.
The chaplain at the Dover Immigration Removal Centre, the Revd John Lines, said that the centre was operating at capacity and that Operation Stack — where police park lorries along the M20 when the Channel Tunnel service is disrupted — was affecting staff who were struggling to get into work.