Often portrayed as a feral, lawless refugee camp, the Calais “Jungle” in northern France is a vibrant, friendly community that cooperates to make the best of inhumane hardship. Lacking the support and infrastructure typically provided to official refugee camps, the Jungle’s population of some 5,000 people endure unbearable, squalid conditions. Reported.ly’s Malachy Browne recently returned from a visit and shares some of experiences there.
The appalling conditions of the Calais Jungle are well documented. Thousands of tents and shelters are densely pitched across a rubbish-strewn scrubland, pools of water stagnate, sanitary conditions are dire with outbreaks of scabies and rats. A token number of filthy portable toilets dot the sprawling camp, home to refugees, mostly male, of fifteen nationalities. Several people I meet say the conditions here are “no good”. People are hungry, cold and find it hard to sleep. In the days after I arrived, several people discreetly asked me for money, food or clothes.
Yet despite the miserable conditions, the main strip in the camp is bustling on a dark Saturday evening in January. In sharp contrast to my preconceptions of the fearsome “Jungle,” people are out and about, moving around, chatting, sharing stories, talking on smartphones. Sudanese, Kurds, Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Eritreans and Ethiopians are among the nationalities I meet. Several people approach and ask friendly questions: where I’m from, what I think of the camp. One boy inquires if I have shoes.
“No, sorry,” I reply.
“Do you have gloves?” he asks, motioning with his hands.
Groups of young men traipse thorough the streets, in and out of small shops, busy cafés and restaurants. A whir of generators is punctuated by friendly banter as people rush by in the sub-zero temperatures. To the side of roads, men stretch their arms over crude stoves and open barrels where timber and debris burns. Fairy lights and miniature disco balls advertise shop front windows in the twilight.
A gallery of photos from the camp taken by Malachy Browne.
A crowd packs the main junction just inside the camp, where street vendors splay their goods across cardboard boxes – hooded sweaters, long-sleeved shirts, trousers, a pair of men’s leather boots. Several young men huddle around a friend playing a game on his smartphone.
Business is steady in a nearby newly-opened barber shop, the owner says. It’s a little after 6 pm and he’s had three customers already this evening – five euros a cut. For those who can afford it, hot showers powered by butane burners are available at a cost of two euros. For some, these are a welcome alternative to the supervised, four-minute showers provided for free at the gated Jules Ferry Center, one of only government-provided facilities in the camp. Situated at the far end of the camp, the center is open only at certain times of the day. Long queues form to get in, and wait times there often exceed 30 minutes.
A town has grown from this “Jungle”, a self-organized society sub-divided into many communities who share the amenities they have created for themselves. At least 15 nationalities live here. This is not a typical refugee camp that caters to one or two nationalities, but a true “camp full of refugees.” Most nationalities cluster their shacks and tents together in informal zones.
Enterprise developed slowly in the early months of 2015, and flourished once building materials became available as winter preparations began in October. The materials were intended for housing and shelters, aid workers say, but people capitalized on the opportunity to pool materials, start businesses and make a living. Today they add to the vibrancy of the place.
Two churches and three mosques have been built, though French authorities flattened a church and mosque in the weeks after our visit. A charity built the Good Chance Theatre, a domed tent where plays, concerts and art classes are held. In late January, British groups including the Yehudi Menuhin music school and Knee High Theatre group performed there for young refugees.
Massive volunteer effort
A huge, collaborative volunteer effort is the glue that holds the camp together, making up for the lack of facilities provided by French authorities and mainstream NGOs. Groups of young British and continental Europeans from diverse backgrounds are seen at work throughout the camp.
Two volunteers we met on the street were offering thimbles of blended garlic and honey to guard against sickness in the freezing weather. Volunteer-run kitchens dot the camp and provide thousands of meals daily. A wholesome vegetarian meal is the preferred option by kitchens, given the number of cultures and religions they need to cater to.
Shoes, trousers, coats, sanitary kits, fuel and other basic items are distributed by a number of charities, including Care4Calais, L’Auberge and ACTED, among others. Some aid is directed through self-appointed community leaders, a system that’s open to corruption. Charities differ on the best method of distribution, but it works, by and large.
Volunteers from these and other agencies build timber-framed shelters from morning until 10 pm. Remarkably, housing across the entire camp is coordinated by an independent 20-year-old volunteer named Ben (interviewed in the video above). He allocates houses based on need — badly injured people, women and children first. Ben and his assistant Olivia, who is 23, seem to be ever present on the camp, coordinating with the various charities.
A women and children’s center is run by a British woman, Liz Clegg, and two volunteers. Among other responsibilities, they have assumed the essential and very challenging task of caring for unaccompanied minors (our story here). These are orphans or ones who lost parents along the refugee trail. Another community center and “tranquility zone” is situated further down the street.
A small army of volunteers is particularly active this weekend. French authorities provided notice of plans to bulldoze 30% of the camp, forcing a “monumental effort” to relocate some 1,500 people, including 300 women and children. Most of those uprooted were Sudanese, Kurds, Eritreans and Afghans. The eviction threatened to unsettle a finely-balanced demographic makeup in the camp and fiercely annoyed volunteers. Many see it as a first step to eventually raze the camp.
As with any town of 5,000 inhabitants, problems exist. And this is no ordinary town. Aside from the absolutely squalid and inhumane living conditions, and the flight from conflict and economic hardship at home, about 90% of the population is male. Most are between 17 and 40 years old.
An underlying tension is evident this week, people say, because of the planned eviction and increased media attention. Photographers are not always welcome – photo evidence that a refugee was in France could affect their asylum process should they reach the UK or move to another country. Rob Pinney, a photo-journalist who visits the camp regularly, described the mood as generally positive, but with the capacity to be “volatile”.
Women are rarely seen at night. Two Eritrean women I spoke with said they must take precautions and live in the Eritrean community for protection. Their tiny timber shack – no larger than 10ft x 8ft – is the tidiest I’ve seen in the camp. They are sitting, almost squatting, on a blue mattress placed against the rear wall. One is peeling a bag of potatoes into a pot. Soaps and household products stand tidily along the adjacent wall to the right. Above and behind the women, clothes stuffed in plastic carrier bags hang from hooks; more sit on a shelf around head height.
Petty crime happens here. But, in such a tight knit community, it’s often quickly resolved. A filmmaker and a volunteer had smartphones stolen when I was in the camp. Both phones were returned within 24 hours.
More serious was a mugging on a film crew that was caught on video. Maaike Engels wrote on YouTube that the attackers wielded a knife and pepper spray. Refugees in the camp that told me about the attack had taken screenshots of the assailants faces and distributed them by phone. Volunteers said that community leaders would likely reprimand those responsible.
Indeed, refugees themselves face persecution. And not just at the hands of riot police who have fired tear gas and baton rounds into occupied parts of the camp. Three Syrian refugees were reportedly beaten with an iron bar while in Calais town in January. The three were hospitalized, one sent to the city of Lille for an operation.
Describing the camp as “The Jungle” seems to do the community here a disservice. But the moniker is purposely used by refugees to protest the conditions they are forced to live in.
The irony of the Jungle is that while most of the people here want to leave, they also do not want authorities to raze it. Volunteers believe this is likely in the coming months, as other attempts to clear the camp by French authorities have failed (read our investigation here). Rumors have added to the simmering tensions. Indeed, on the morning of my departure, bulldozers set to work clearing a path into the camp. In the following weeks they encroached deeper, flattening tents, shelters, cafes and shops – as well as a church and mosque.
Clare Moseley of Care4Calais says that people here are starting to lose hope as the authorities tighten their grip on the camp. Police fired baton rounds and tear gas into the camp in January and the days after the bulldoze began. Many Kurds uprooted by the bulldozing in Calais moved to an even more appalling camp in Dunkirk. As the harsh winter set in, others decided to return to Germany, where the government has invested in infrastructure and supports for refugees.
Fewer numbers have been successful in reaching the UK in recent months, an Afghan restaurant owner said. He has stopped trying, happy to focus on his business, while colleagues continue to try every other night. Recent photos from the camp show that his restaurant was also bulldozed by the authorities.
Will people continue to try and reach Britain? Yes. Because as graffiti on the motorway underpass by the camp’s entrance reads, “No one deserves to live this way.”