In The Heart Of The Jungle

I went to the Calais refugee camp, and this is what I saw.

-March, 2016-

Under an overpass, barely a five minute walk from the gentrified streets of Calais, is the entrance to a third world country. They call it ‘the jungle’, but there are hardly any trees left standing. The mouth of the camp is flanked by police vans, numerous officers armed with AK’s, as if anybody were threatening violence but them. A makeshift mud road disappears into the heart of the camp, both sides of every street are jammed with huts made of two-by-fours and tarpaulins. A huddle of men in one intersection, I’m told is the black market, where goods stolen during the day are hawked at a discount after dark. At night you can see the lights of various roughshod businesses that have sprung up, some tarpaulin cafes, and even what looks like a disco with lo-fi music and some flashing lights flickering on the nearly translucent walls. Word is that the police have begun cracking down on the gas used to run the generators. Seems they’d prefer everyone in the dark, literally and figuratively.

Smoke rises from a smoldering hut that had been torched that afternoon. It is barely visible between the hundreds of huts huddled together amidst the ever present mud, knee-deep in places. A few figures stand by the embers of what was once somebody’s shelter. Some say the police did it, others say the kids did it. By ‘kids’ they’re referring to the roughly 290 children who are in the camp without adult companions, no family, nowhere to go. Nobody has anywhere to go, that’s the thing that unites them all. Whether Afghani or Somali, Syrian, Sudanese, Eritrean, Bedouin, Iranian, or from anywhere else, nobody has a place to go, they all dream of England, and time appears to be running out.

The French government is in the process of tearing down the camp from the south end, a line of riot gear cops advances northward with every passing day. There have been refugees here for more than a decade, but the population has exploded in the last year. Estimates are anywhere from 3700 to 5500 people, and word has gotten out in the press that living conditions in the camp are inhumane. In response to cries of a human rights crisis, the government has moved in to ‘help’. They’ve airlifted in dozens of shipping containers that have been retrofitted as living quarters and have access to heating and water. The container area is in the north end of the camp and is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, prohibiting unregulated traffic both in and out of the compound. The government has been clear to say that the living quarters they have so graciously provided are far healthier and safer than being out in the mud, which is especially true when riot cops are teargassing you out of your shelter before bulldozing it and carting off the remains, so as to make rebuilding impossible. Not your common definition of ‘hospitality’.

The government says they just want people to be safe. The catch (there is always a catch), is that to gain access to the container living quarters, all refugees are required to have their fingerprints recorded. As it is explained to me by an extremely well-spoken young Syrian, as soon as a refugee registers their fingerprints, they are thereby denied the right to seek asylum in any other country. No chance of making it to England, or Germany, Canada, or anywhere else. They are in effect, stuck in France, and the minute France decides not to house them anymore, they are liable to be shipped back to wherever they came from; most likely a war-torn country with an imminent threat of death, or else they never would have braved the travel across a continent to get away. Understandably, the majority of refugees do not want to be fingerprinted, and are thereby banned from the warmth and safety of the containers. Whether the fingerprints really do hamper the mobility of a refugee with legal finality is unclear to me, but it is clear that misinformation reigns. Nobody can tell what is rumour from what is fact, and these people aren’t in the position to take that kind of chance. Really, it’s a moot point, since I’ve learned that the containers are now full to capacity, and still thousands of refugees remain.

Meanwhile the police follow their orders from the top and the destruction continues. Nobody gets behind the police line once it crosses an area, and people are scrambling to move their shelters to the north side of the camp, if only to keep a roof over their head for another day, week, or month. Nobody knows how long, the police won’t say. They say nothing, just hold up a hand. Some shelters are light enough to be hauled by eight or ten men, some are too heavy. A few groups of volunteers have come with flatbed trucks and are working with refugees to flip their shelters onto the trucks, depositing them on the north side. These informal crews join Doctors Without Borders and two volunteer groups (L’Auberge and Care4Calais) as the only organized aid I could discern. A warm meal was cooked daily by these volunteers, which has surely saved many lives throughout the winter. While I did speak to one UN ambassador, I was told by a British volunteer that the UN can’t move in with formal aide unless the government of France declares a state of emergency, which they have refused to do, in favor of their own brand of handling the situation by bulldozer. I join one of the informal crews with a truck, and we sweat side by side to move shelters all day long, as the riot gear and bulldozers creep ever closer. The lucky ones are able to move their shelters out of harm’s way with minutes to spare. For others it’s too late, and can only stand and numbly watch while the only roof over their head is cracked and swallowed by great machines and swept into the trash. Some tried to resist, videos can be found online of migrants sitting on the roofs of their shelters in a display of defiance. The videos will also show them being shot with teargas and physically dragged off the structures by helmeted policemen. One such migrant, whom I met, is a pregnant woman, who is witnessed on video being torn off the roof of her shelter by force and tossed to the ground, a video which never made it to the mainstream media. This is because the truth is just as these refugees fear: the truth is nobody wants to think about it.

In an effort to make people think about it, and to encourage news coverage, a group of ten men have sewn their lips together. Outside of a meeting, I shake the hand of one of these men, see the dried blood that stains the thread that binds his mouth, and see the sad coolness in his eyes. The lip-sewing is part of a hunger strike, and that morning I learn that they are refusing liquids as well, and their health is in serious decline. I witness an argument between volunteers, some saying the men ought to be supported in their right to be heard, and others saying that these men will die and it is irresponsible to encourage them. The news doesn’t appear to be getting out. It seems society has a vested interest in looking the other way.

A Calais cabdriver tells me that tourism is the main industry of the town, and that news of the jungle has discouraged as much as 75% of business. To walk the sidewalk of the city you would never know that a refugee camp was on the outskirts, but the news, or the guilt, has been enough to scare away the scores of British tourists that once came for a day by the sea. Instead of sending tourists, the British government has sent money. Something in the neighborhood of 17€ million. No, not to the refugees, but to the French government, to fund the construction of kilometers of 10 foot high un-scaleable white fences topped with barbed wire, an effort to discourage migrants from hitching rides through the tunnel or stowing away on boats. Refugees are clearly not wanted in Britain, and the percentages of those who are deported once sneaking in are, to me, patently discouraging. Still, when asked, the main objective of the vast majority of the migrants I spoke to was to make it to the UK. “England, yes, England. I go to England!” one man tells me. “I travel far. It is just there”, he points to the horizon.

It’s not surprising to find these men, (women and children too, but mostly men) obsessed with England as their promised land after such a long and harrowing journey. They’ve left their families at home, dreaming one day to claim amnesty for them, deliver them from hell and build a life together in a safe country. They’ve risked their lives for this dream. A kind and gentle Sudanese man, (I’m shocked to learn he’s younger than me) invites me into his tent shelter, cooks me dinner, and tells me his story while we drink tea and hug ourselves against the cold. He tells me in perfect English, of his experience fleeing the killings in Sudan, of being smuggled through Libya by human traffickers. He says that after being paid, the smugglers took all of their clothes, locked them up like animals, came and took all the girls and young women to be raped, and locked the men together packed sweating in rooms for days at a time. He tells of running into ISIS forces, who ask you if you’re Muslim and shoot you on the spot if you’re not, then offer you a handsome salary to join their forces, and maybe shoot you if you refuse. He tells of facing racism in Europe once he arrived, of how the Sudanese look out for each other in the camp, of his dreams to study law in England. He left his family in Sudan, where he can only pray they are safe. He cries silently as he tells me he hasn’t spoken to them in three months.

A Syrian man tells me that all the low-cost avenues to the UK are no longer viable. Police are patrolling the tunnel for foot traffic, have set up checkpoints to scour trucks and boats as they pass the border. He says people have even tried to swim across but coast guard has gotten wise. He says the only option is to resort to the human traffickers. Those few refugees that can afford it are paying exorbitant amounts of money, as much as 5000€, for fake passports that they can only hope will hold up under scrutiny. This is, of course, provided the passports are delivered in time, or at all. Everyone knows these human traffickers are criminals and have little stopping them from waltzing away with every cent. When I ask him what he’ll do, he says “I don’t know. I have no money. So I wait.” It seems common knowledge that the rest of the camp will be demolished, but nobody knows how long that will take, or what will happen after.

For me, the most heart-breaking thing is the unanimous reaction when any refugee hears that I’m from Canada. They break into a smile, shake my hand and say something like “Canada! I love Canada. Oh my friend, I want to go to Canada. How can I go?” Each time I have to tell them that I wish they could, but that I have no control over immigration, and each time my heart bucks in my chest. Why can’t they go to Canada? Why can’t we send a boat? There’s sure as hell space. I know it’s complicated from an economic standpoint. But we are not figures in a spreadsheet. We are humans. All of us. These are industrious, resourceful, resilient people. These are people who have left calamity and injustice, crossed an unfriendly continent against all odds, who have managed to adapt, to innovate, to create a community in a foreign land with little but tarps and mud. And yet they are not treated like human beings full of potential. They are treated like a drain and a liability, hoards of unwanted others, intent on playing the system dry. This is not the reality I was faced with when I went to Calais, however. I saw determined people, without opportunity and without options.

I believe that the way we think about refugees must change. Even if they wrap up the jungle with a nice little bow and make everyone disappear, the problem isn’t going away. Far from it. Even if we stopped every war this morning, the number of people that are going to be displaced in the next fifty years by environmental concerns alone is staggering. Consider the percentage of human settlements within 10 meters of sea level in contrast with predictive models of rising sea levels. Google it. An Oxford study says that ‘ The potential scale of displacement and permanent resettlement related to climate change — estimated at between 50 and 200 million people by 2050, mostly in developing countries — constitutes a significant policy challenge.’ (http://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/policy/environmentally-displaced-people). This doesn’t even take into account the many populations driven out by violence. And yet we are still clinging to an outdated view of immigration, migration, and border policy that is based on scarcity and xenophobia. The world is not a colonial footrace anymore. We are connected, and it is time to evolve. I believe that the first step to tackling this problem on a global level is to change the base ideology held by the people of the world. Policy will follow, but it’s what we believe, what we stand for, that must lead the charge. The way that we can signal to each other and to our leaders that our ideology is changing, is to get involved. This has the dual benefit of both aiding those at the end of their wits with nowhere to turn, and simultaneously educating ourselves in empathy. We in the West are not immune. It’s just happening over there this time. Imagine a world in which you’re a displaced person, and instead of fear and regulation, you are met with open arms, welcomed into the other countries of the global community and treated like an asset. Imagine you were valued for your contributions both cultural and fiscal. It’s not fiction. This imagined world is possible, we need only to agree that it’s a possibility to get the great wheels turning. The biggest problems will never be undone without the great majority of us becoming vocal and becoming active. It is a societal problem, and like it or not, we are society. All of us.

-Evan Williams

Paris, March 2016


If you feel moved by what you’ve read here, please check out: http://www.calaid.co.uk There is an option to donate online, or to donate clothing directly if you live in France.

Also, a pair of clever young men have listed tent shelters in the jungle on AirBnB, in order to collect donations. While the stunt drew publicity, it was eventually shut down by AirBnB as a violation of their terms of service. The website is still up however, and while you can’t ‘rent’ a shack, you can still donate: http://www.homesofthejungle.com/


For more information and insight, I found the following video especially illuminating:

Here, Alexander Betts, Professor of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University, elaborates on some striking solutions to the refugee crisis:

https://www.ted.com/talks/alexander_betts_our_refugee_system_is_failing_here_s_how_we_can_fix_it?language=en#t-1068975

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