Calais - FAQs

It’s been quite a while since I last posted and I’m not sure what to say other than:

I’ve been trying to keep busy, still painting, starting prep work for my Honours year at Uni, trying to hide from the summer heat and trying to stifle the constant nagging urge to go back to Calais. It is winning right now.

Amongst all of this, I have also been writing an article that I hope to soon submit to one of the Australian news outlets… not sure which yet but watch this space.

In preparing the article, and having to clarify and elaborate on certain points to ensure understanding from an audience that I have to assume knows nothing (purely for completeness), it got me thinking that it wouldn’t hurt to write a blog that attempts to answer some of the “frequently asked questions” that people might have about Calais. If you have other questions you would like me to try and answer based on my experience there, please post in the comments below.


Q. Why aren’t there any organisations like UNHCR or RED CROSS helping out in Calais?

A. Because the French authorities wont let them in, plain and simple. When the French closed down the Sangatte processing centre more than a decade ago, the refugees starting pitching tents in the bushland in the sand dunes by the Ferry Port (some say this is where the name “The Jungle” comes from). The French have refused to officially recognise this Jungle population ever since. It was previously a much smaller population, but as a result of global events, refugee flows globally have increased, including in Calais. Large NGOs will not enter an area without a mandate from the government, and so without French governmental support, they are unable to assist on the ground in an unofficial refugee camp such as Calais.

Q. Then why are groups like Medecin Sans Frontieres there?

A. Because under international law the French MUST provide medical services and aid to asylum seekers - so they therefore MUST allow MSF and Medecins Du Monde in to Calais

Q. Calais is full of young single men, if they are in an unofficial camp then they must be economic migrants, right?

A. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Sure, there will always be a handful of people in a population of thousands who are not genuine refugees but maybe had to leave their circumstances for reasons that would not neatly fit the refugee convention (narrow) criteria for “what makes a refugee”. However there are other more explanatory reasons for why Calais is made up of so many single young men. Firstly, single young men are often targeted by groups such as ISIS, The Taliban and others as potential recruits - and so these young men have to flee in order to avoid being enlisted or killed. Secondly, families may often only be able to send one family member to try and secure safety so they of course will send their fittest/ most able family member to seek asylum. Thirdly, these young men understand that in the official camps, countries are selecting women, children and families for their humanitarian quota intakes. They know they have little chance of success. They will therefore resort to their next best option. If they speak English already or have family in the UK, it is logical that they would try to make it to England. The closest and most direct route to England is via France, hence they come to Calais.

Q. Why do all the refugees in Calais seem well dressed and have mobile phones? If they were “real” refugees, they would be poor.

A. Firstly, the refugees in Calais are being clothed by volunteers who distribute donated clothing to the camp. The volunteers dress them in clothing that is fit for purpose. That means they will not be dressed in torn, soiled, old, threadbare, inappropriate, ill-fitting clothing. They will be dressed in clothing that will keep them warm and dry as much as possible and if that means that people are donating quality, then blame the donors, not the refugees for looking well dressed. Secondly, they all have mobile phones. For some it is the only thing they do have of value so they can stay in touch with family and store some precious photos. I defy any person from France, UK, Australia etc to tell me they wouldn’t take their mobile phone as a priority item if they were having to leave their home and loved ones, possibly forever. Also, since when do refugees have to be poor? Often it is the rich who are targeted in crisis zones because attract attention. Oh and by the way, don’t forget your history… there were plenty of Jews fleeing the Nazis in their best fur and wool coats, carrying all their jewellery and valuables. It didn’t make them any less at target for the SS, and any more immune to the gas chambers now did it?

Q. Why are all the refugees in Calais trying to get to England?

A. Firstly, not ALL refugees in Calais are trying to get to England. I met many who are waiting to hear about asylum claims in France (though their chances of success in France are around 30% I have heard). Secondly as I have already explained there are many and varied reasons why people try to go to England. The single biggest reason that I noticed from talking to people in the Camp is that they have family there already (and under the Dublin Convention they have every right to claim asylum in England to claim family reunion). The second biggest reason was that they already speak English and want to be able to work and rebuild their life as quickly as possible. I met refugees who had TRIED to claim asylum in other countries on their journey and were turned away against international convention and they believe that England would be a country that would uphold human rights and give them a fair go to prove their claim. I didn’t meet a single person in Calais who said to me “I want to go to England because I will get great welfare benefits and an easy ride”.

Q. How many women and children are in the camp?

A. It is hard to estimate because the women and children are not as visible in the camp as the men. This is because they have a separate housing area that is managed by French organisation La Vie Activ where they can access some heated tents and showers etc. I have heard there are up to as many as 1,000 unaccompanied minors in the camp, and unaccompanied children as young as 8 years old. During the day you will sometimes see some women and children walking around the camp but because they have their own housing area, at night they are there. These women and children also do sometimes try to get on trains and Lorries to cross the border as well as the young men.

Q. Why is there so much rubbish in the camp? Can’t these filthy people pick up after themselves?!

A. Firstly, these people DO pick up after themselves and utilise rubbish bags and bins as much as possible. However, The Jungle has been in Calais for more than a decade as I already explained, without the French recognising it as an official camp. This means there has been more than a decade where no rubbish collection services have been provided, nor places for people to dispose of rubbish. This means there is a HUGE amount of legacy rubbish in the camp. Recently a French court ruled that sanitation and waste needed to be improved in the camp by the French Authorities. Since then some rubbish collection areas and services have been implemented and ARE being used. However they are insufficient to keep up with roughly 6–7,000 people. The skips and collection areas fill up and sometimes overflow. The strong winds in Calais blow the rubbish around and the problem endures. Also the conditions do not lend themselves to effective waste management. For example, clothes, bedding, tents get soaked in the driving rain. Shoes get caked with mud. There is nowhere to wash or dry clothes so things need to be thrown out, and people are again clothed with dry, warm, donated clothes. “Soup Kitchens” run by volunteers to feed thousands of hungry mouths each day struggle to access clean water so they use disposable plates and utensils as there are simply not facilities available in which to wash things. All of this kind of thing contributes to the waste problem.

Q. It has been reported in the media that there are nightclubs and restaurants and theatres in the Jungle, is this true?

A. Yes there are shops, restaurants and and theatre (a plastic dome shaped tent) in the Jungle as well as churches and mosques. However I would suggest that they are NOT being portrayed properly by the media. These are basic wooden and tarpaulin structures, large rooms if you will that are fortunate enough to have a generator supplying electricity and are a space to congregate to stay warm, have some light and maybe a place to charge your phone every now and then. YES one such place put up a disco ball and played some music on a donated stereo and one media outlet reported it as a “nightclub” as though the refugees were living it up in Calais. Refugees are also NOT helpless infantile people - they are resiliant, innovative and driven to make the best of what is a totally shit situation. So they have used their skills to provide shops with basic supplies and to open restaurants. Some people might find this threatening. I just find it impressive and a testament to the human spirit and will to survive.

Q. The Syrians are “real” refugees, but most of those Africans in Calais are “fake” aren’t they?

A. There is so much wrong with this statement I don’t even know where to start. I could write a huge diatribe on global conflict situations, refugee flows, ongoing legacy persecution as a result of currently dormant conflict and a run down on places like Eritrea, Sudan, etc, etc, etc. but we’d need about oh, a year and you’d probably tune out. So I will just say this.

A refugee is a person who has fled his or her own country and cannot return due to fear of persecution, and has been given refugee status. Refugee status is given to applicants by the United Nations or by a third party country, such as Australia.

According to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees [PDF], as amended by its 1967 Protocol (the Refugee Convention), a refugee is a person who is:

  • outside their own country and
  • has a well-founded fear of persecution due to his/ her race, religion, nationality, member of a particular social group or political opinion, and is
  • unable or unwilling to return.

If they meet that criteria, they are every bit a refugee as a Syrian person who also meets that criteria. Pretty simple.

Q. Those people in Calais are illegal. Why didn’t they claim asylum in the first country they arrived in?

A. It is not illegal to seek asylum (in fact it is a Human Right) and the refugee convention does not state anywhere that you must claim asylum in the first country you arrive in. The Dublin Convention which is operation in Europe as I understand it DOES try to enforce that people should seek asylum in the first country they arrive at. However this is not true in all circumstances (for example where a person has a right to claim asylum in a country where they already have family members residing). Also this is problematic as this poorly written condition of the Dublin convention overlooks the fact that this will mean that certain areas will carry a much heavier burden in terms of asylum claims than others, for example Greece, Italy and other areas which are key crossing points from the rest of the world. In short, I believe it needs to be reviewed, as does the refugee convention - neither are fit for purpose in a world where the legacy of Western interference and the colonial past continue to screw over other countries. It is time the rich West took responsibility for the mess it caused.