My time in the ‘Jungle’

[This was originally published as a newsletter for donors to Care 4 Calais]

On the 16th of September we left the UK to provide humanitarian aid to refugees in the decades old camp in Calais. The camp has been a long established feature of life in Calais as the British border is located in this French port town. Calais itself is a rather drab place, obviously suffering from economic hardship, and is dominated by the central port and the roads leading to it. It is striking to note the extent of fencing and barriers that line both the motorways, slip-roads and the perimeter of the port — typically more than 15 feet high, three layers deep, and lined with barbed wire. Floodlights and police vans sit at intervals along these fence-lined roads, the police armed and padded with body armour.

Care 4 Calais, the charity with which we had gone to volunteer, rent two warehouses in a small industrial estate no more than 300 metres from the coast, yet due to security concerns the address is kept hidden — we spent a morning driving around Calais trying to find the warehouse before we were guided there by the charity staff. Concerns about protesters and intimidation have prompted this precaution, and upon arriving and donning our Care 4 Calais high-vis vests we were informed that we should remove them before leaving the compound; volunteers and refugees are frequently subjected to abuse and sometimes violence by far-right groups that permanently protest the camp. The warehouses themselves are filled with donations — blankets, tents, clothes, shampoo — in cardboard boxes piled precariously on top of one another. A porta-cabin sits in one corner of the main warehouse as a kitchen where meals are made for volunteers, often catering for 20 or 30 people.

Bags filled with blankets

Working in the warehouse mostly consists in testing and cleaning donated tents — tents must be able to withstand the harsher conditions the camp is subjected to; any tents that are discarded are made into tarpaulins which are used to construct larger communal areas in the camp. Large tents were in particularly high demand, not only because people tend to arrive to the camp in friend or family groups, but because it is generally safer for groups, particularly with children, to share the same space. Clothing is also distributed in the camp, and thus donations of clothing must be sorted through, boxed up and packed into ‘container bags’ (to be sent to the camp for distribution from a shipping container). It was surprising to know that only clean and decent quality clothes were being packed — due to the large numbers of people in the camp, and the charity’s limited resources, refugees can only receive new resources every three weeks, meaning that the clothing they do receive must be of a high quality as camp conditions are damp and dirty. Large vans of donations arrived almost daily, and were sorted, packed and distributed accordingly. Yet, there would often be shortages of particular items, such as shampoo or torches, in which case a team would be dispatched to the local supermarket to covertly buy these items using the charity’s funds.

The camp itself is a sprawling mass of tents and tarpaulins built on an old asbestos dump, organised into districts depending on nationality. We would walk into the camp through the Sudanese District, filled with people fleeing the Sudanese civil war and genocide in Darfur, and arrive in the central Afghan District. Here sits a large shipping container owned by Care 4 Calais, from which the ‘container bags’ were distributed. Each day, 10–15 volunteers would come to the camp and distribute these goods amongst the refugees from this container. We went to the camp three times in the week, and each time we were stopped by the French police, had our identification and personal details recorded, and had the van in which we were driving searched. Distribution operates on a ticketing system — every day a group of volunteers goes to a particular area of the camp, such as the Syrian District, and hands out tickets to refugees. On these tickets people record three items which they most need (eg. Large T-Shirt, Blanket, Torch), and copies are taken back to the warehouse. The following day ‘container bags’ are made containing these specific items, which are then distributed to the refugee with the corresponding ticket. Three volunteers would work inside the container, finding the bags that relate to the respective ticket, while the rest of the volunteers form a human chain in front of the container, to encourage the formation of a queue and to prevent a rush.

It is clear that the camp is predominantly young men, but we saw many children and a few women also living in the camp — all of which wear donated clothes, and most wore only sandals or no shoes. What was surprising was the number of people that had family already in the UK. Many members of the camp had been given asylum in other European countries, such as Italy, but had been expelled from the country once they had become adults as they were no-longer considered ‘child-refugees’; these refugees spoke fluent English or Italian, and would often translate for other refugees. Medical staff operate in the camp, as many refugees are injured, or have been injured in the camp, but the enduring image of the refugees are young, able men, often under-fed and living in squalor, but of working age — wanting to work in the UK. We met one gentleman who was a qualified dentist who had fled Sudan; another, a doctor from Syria; and a media manager from Afghanistan. It was evident that these people wanted to continue their careers, but had been forced to move due to war and violence.

On several occasions we met a 15-year old Eritrean boy called Daha. He, like the majority of the people in the camp, seemed detached and distant from his surroundings, but he would come to the container and talk to us. It was clear his parents had been killed in the war in Eritrea, and that he wished to come to the UK as he believed it offered him the best chance of success in life. Every night, he said, he would try to get onto the back of a lorry to enter the UK, simply because he had no other hope. This is the mentality of the majority of people in the camp, a general sense of hopelessness — the only hope being to climb onto lorries in the minute chance they can enter the UK. Knowing this mentality, the construction of barbed wire fences and walls is not going to stop people from trying to enter Britain — it is only going to mean more people die trying.

Graffiti just past the police checkpoint

It was bizarre, after it all, to be able to pass so easily back into the UK with our passports, and sad to know that of the 10,000 people in the camp, only a small few will ever make it to the UK. What is clear, is that all of the people in the camp are refugees — whether fleeing war or poverty, everybody had dire circumstances from which they were fleeing. Every effort is being made to drive these people from Calais — the camp is frequently demolished and the debris burned, meaning thousands of people lose their shelter and charities are put under new pressure to provide for the people in the camp. The walls and fences which are being built only make the refugees more likely to hurt themselves when they scale them — these people have fled total poverty, bombs, terrorism and death, so a few additional feet of fence or the risk of being sliced open on barbed wire is of small concern to them. The formal refugee and asylum process in both the UK and France is too slow, and too difficult to get access to. The police harass volunteers and refugees, often raiding the camp with tear-gas and tearing down tents. Yet what is most concerning is that the camp is still not recognised as an official refugee camp — rather it is officially an ‘illegal settlement’. It sits on an old asbestos dump and is filled with raw sewage, and the French government have only very small obligations to provide sanitation to the refugees.

In the coming weeks, the camp is to be fully demolished, dispersing the refugees. This action has been widely condemned, particularly for Care 4 Calais, as not only have inadequate proposals been put in place to deal with the 10,000 people this will displace, but it will inevitably lead to children and vulnerable people going missing — at least in the camp charities could monitor the health and well-being of the residents.

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