Owen and I have just spent three weeks volunteering in the refugee camp in Calais, France, working with two grassroots organisations – Care4Calais and Auberge/Help Refugees – which provide most of the food, clothes, shelter and other support the camp receives.
The media often refers to the camp as the ‘Jungle’, a name which some I spoke to rejected because it makes them feel as if the world sees them as animals. In the eyes of the French government, it’s not a refugee camp but an ‘illegal settlement’ – that’s why there are so few aid agencies present there.
The camp has existed for over 20 years, but has grown hugely over that time.There are currently around 9,000 people living there, and more than 10,000 people are expected to be there this autumn. People come and go each day – I met new arrivals all the time, often groups of young men with no tent, no blanket, no change of clothes. I spoke to people who’d been in the camp for just a few days, others who’d been there for over a year.
The vast majority of people are young men, but there are also women and children living in the camp. Over the three weeks we were there, I met people from Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Libya, Rwanda and Romania. There is a Syrian community living in the camp, but I didn’t come across any Syrian people while I was there. The biggest communities are Sudanese and Afghani.
The camp itself is made up of makeshift structures that stretch out over a large area of sand dunes next to the Calais port. Many people sleep in second-hand camping tents, some in more robust structures of wood and tarpaulin, and a few in caravans. While the weather was mostly sunny for the whole three weeks, after just one night of rain many shelters had completely flooded, with people’s blankets and clothes soaked through. One man I spoke to just pointed at his floor, where water was leaking up from the ground, and said: ‘Please help me’.
“A funeral was held for a Sudanese man who was run over by a truck on the motorway, which didn’t even stop after hitting him.”
There are two schools in the camp (called ‘Darfur School’ and ‘Jungle Books’) which teach English and French from 11am to 7pm every day. There’s also a youth centre, a women and children’s centre, a church, a mosque, and a football pitch. There are also dozens of cafes, shops and restaurants made from wood and tarpaulin, which have been set up by people living in the camp. These sell tea and coffee, hot meals, food and toiletries.
Médecins Sans Frontières (as far as I saw, the only major NGO present in the camp) runs a mental health clinic, and there are also two medical caravans staffed by voluntary nurses and doctors. Both are overwhelmed by the needs of 9,000 people. Every day, I met people with broken legs, feet, ribs, with head wounds or other injuries sustained while jumping on and off lorries and trains.
There are some portaloo toilets in the camp, apparently provided by the French government, but these are overflowing and the areas surrounding them stink of sewage. The camp fails to meet international humanitarian standards on many fronts, including because there are so few toilets per person. There is also little to no rubbish collection, which is carried out by volunteers, so the camp is overrun with rats, which crawl across people while they sleep.
Daily life in the camp tends to start around 1pm, as most people are up all night trying to cross the border to the UK by hiding in lorries. In the camp, this is called the ‘try’, ‘chance’ or ‘game’, and is incredibly dangerous. Three weeks before our stay, a funeral was held for a Sudanese man who was run over by a truck on the motorway, which didn’t even stop after hitting him. His friend told me that 20 Sudanese men alone have died trying to cross the border while he’s been living in the camp.
Many people don’t want to talk about their journeys, attempts to cross the border, or memories of home. But one Sudanese man told me that in Italy the police had used taser guns and sticks on him. He said he tried every night to get to the UK, but the police always pulled him off the lorries, laughing as they sprayed gas in his face and using ‘horrible dogs’. They then leave him to walk half-blinded along the motorway back to camp in the middle of the night. He told me he is too tired to keep trying at the moment, but is determined to go to London one day. He said to me: ‘It’s no problem, it’s normal. In Sudan, the police use guns’, and showed me a huge scar running the length of his leg where he was shot in Sudan. I didn’t ask how old he was until the end of the conversation – he was 17.
In the afternoon, people tend to hang out in their shelters, find or queue for food, and sleep. Some go to English and French lessons. Some go into Calais town, but many people I spoke to said they don’t feel safe there and wouldn’t go alone. While some people I’ve spoken to from Calais are sad about the situation, the local community is pretty hostile towards the camp and most want it to disappear. I saw a picture a child from the camp had drawn of white men attacking tents with knives and kicking people.
I met children as young as 10 who live in the camp with no family. In total, there are currently around 600 unaccompanied minors living there. The UK made a commitment to bring them safely across the border months ago, but nothing has been done by the government.
Kindness and fear
Somehow, in the midst of all this, people still have the energy to be kind, welcoming and light-hearted. When we went into shelters, we were offered tea, biscuits, and even snacks brought all the way from Afghanistan by new arrivals. The general atmosphere – from my perspective as a volunteer at least – was incredibly warm and friendly. Most people wanted to chat, joke, laugh, and practice English. People were quick to smile and shake our hands. When I told someone I was from the UK, they would say things like: ‘Good, good, UK is very good’. Many people believed the UK would be a friendlier place, that British people would be nicer, and that the police would be kinder. It was hard to know what to say to them, knowing what life as an asylum-seeker will be like if they ever manage to cross the border.
“The UK is often seen as wealthy and safe, with kind people and less brutal police.”
But the camp can also be a scary place for people living there. The police don’t enforce law and order in the camp, which is very unusual in Europe. People are also hungry, tired, trapped and frustrated, which means tensions can run high between different communities. While we were there, an Ethiopian man was stabbed to death in a fight. People from the camp told us that others living there had guns, and I heard someone say that a boy standing next to me – who looked 10 or 11 – had a knife. I feel hesitant about sharing these things because the media portrays the camp as such a violent place, when in fact I found it to be one of the friendliest environments I’d ever been in. But the violence is a real part of living there for residents in the camp.
The atmosphere was particularly tense and uncertain while we were there because the police have been trying to close the restaurants, cafes and shops. One of my many terrible moments was watching dozens of riot police, armed with shields, tear gas and rubber bullets, move down the main street seizing van-loads of food and drink, stealing from people struggling each day to find enough to eat. I stood with a crowd of people from the camp watching the police move from restaurant to restaurant. One man said to me: ‘Take one step closer and they’ll spray that gas in your face’. There are rumours of another major eviction this autumn, as well as of plans to close the camp entirely, with no information as to where people would be expected to go.
One piece of good news is that an attempt by Calais authorities to demolish 72 restaurants and cafes was rejected by the French court. These spaces are so important in the camp – while they are make-shift structures, they provide community spaces that stay dry in the rain and cool in the sun, giving people the only available choice over what and how they eat each day. They also provide new arrivals with a place to sleep.
One of the cafes under threat was the kids’ cafe, one of the only spaces for young people in the camp, which also provides legal advice for children.
A large part of the camp was demolished by police earlier in the year, where now there is just a large grassy area covered with yellow flowers. I met a man from Pakistan who used to run a restaurant there, and moved into the containers after the eviction. The containers are what they sound like – rows of ship containers where people sleep in bunk beds. If you move there, you have to provide your fingerprints to the French government and so lose all hope of claiming asylum in the UK. When I asked him how he felt about it, he said: ‘I must accept it, because I want to live here. You can get angry, or you can accept’.
Volunteers aren’t allowed into the container area, which is guarded by police, so I don’t know much about the situation there. While some support is provided by the French government, I was told that there were often up to 12 people sleeping in one small container, and many people still needed or chose to continue eating their meals in the camp.
“A funeral was held for a Sudanese man who was run over by a truck on the motorway, which didn’t even stop after hitting him.”
When the police aren’t taking food away or evicting the camp, they sit in parked vans outside the camp’s entrances and along the fence around the port (which fence apparently cost the UK £6 million to build).
On several occasions, the police refused entry to volunteers trying to collect rubbish from the camp because they didn’t have ID with them.
We spent most of our evenings in Calais walking along the beach, where, on a sunny day, you can see the cliffs of Dover across the water. People have sacrificed everything to make the journey to Calais, risking their lives over and over, and often enduring months or years of no contact with the people they love.
They have made it so far, but must now live in the Calais camp because of 20 miles of sea. Some people I spoke to said they wish they’d never left home, that it’s better to risk bombs than to live without your family. And yet people living there find the energy not only to survive, but to learn English and French, build restaurants and community spaces, be so kind to people around them, and try each night – under horrific circumstances – to cross the border.
Calais organisations and what you can do
Auberge is a French organisation which has been delivering aid to the Calais and other refugee camps in France for years. It partnered last year with the UK organisation ‘Help Refugees’, in response to the vast quantity of donations for the camps coming from people in the UK. They have a large warehouse near the camp where every day volunteers sort through donations (food, clothes, tents, toiletries etc), cook lunch for 2,000 camp residents, distribute all these things, and help repair and improve people’s tents and shelters.
We spent five days of the three weeks working in the kitchen at Auberge, run by Refugee Community Kitchen, preparing huge amounts of curry, rice and salad each day.
Refugee Community Kitchen
We volunteered with Care4Calais for just over two weeks. We spent each morning at the warehouse sorting new donations, and packing food, clothes and toiletries to distribute in the camp. In the afternoons, we went into the camp to:
- Teach English and French informally, often in the cafes and restaurants (for me this mainly involved learning Arabic and Pashtu!)
- Distribute food, clothes, toiletries, tents and blankets
- Pick up litter and dispose of rubbish
- Help people in the camp to build and repair shelters
More info: www.care4calais.org.
The work of both grassroots organisations, working almost wholly on a voluntary basis, is really impressive. But we also saw the challenges two small organisations face in providing support to more than 9,000 people. These are not professional aid agencies, and both were set up by volunteers last year in response to the refugee crisis. They work with few resources and little capacity, but manage to go into the camp every single day to offer support and distribute resources.
Camp residents work with both organisations, most often as translators, which is a way for them to achieve something tangible/discrete, and give them a sense of purpose in such a difficult situation – even if only for an hour.
In terms of what you can do to support these organisations:
- Donate money. This will be used to run the warehouses, buy clothes, toiletries, food, cooking gas, construction materials and other needed things when donations are low. If you donate directly to the Refugee Community Kitchen, it will be used to buy fresh food for 2,000 people each day. Money is used incredibly carefully by both organisations.
- Donate clothes, toiletries, tents and other useful things. The websites for both organisations list what is most needed at any given time, and you should be able to find collection points near to where you live. If you are thinking of donating things, bear in mind that only good quality stuff is useful. Both organisations have high standards about what’s acceptable to give to people in the camp. These people have been treated as if they’re worthless in so many ways, so clothes with holes in or tents with rips etc. will be sorted and thrown away/redirected to a charity shop.
- Volunteer. It’s really easy to sign up. You can find a registration form on the website for both organisations to let them know when you’re coming, then you can just turn up. Even giving a weekend of your time is really useful – there are tasks that short-term volunteers can easily and usefully do.