Where will the journey end? Migration and the refugee camp in Calais, France

During my time at home in Norway this summer, I became increasingly frustrated over the worsening European refugee crisis. I spent my days at home commuting to and from my uninspiring summer job, whilst images of washed up dead bodies on Southern European shores flashed across the television screen every night. I was frustrated because I wasn’t doing anything about it. That’s when I decided to go to Calais. Calais is a town and major ferry port in the North West of France, and can be reached by bus from London in about four hours, including a ferry crossing from Dover. Along the outskirts of Calais sits a refugee camp, which is commonly known as the Jungle.

I wish to briefly highlight my awareness of the fact that the name Jungle has been criticized as being a denigrating and dehumanizing term. However, volunteers and many camp residents use the name Jungle, themselves. I will therefore use this term as well.

To date, the camp hosts about six thousand people, from countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea and Syria. The Jungle’s residents are largely living in abject poverty and regularly have difficulty accessing their most basic needs such as food, shelter and clean water. However, with the UK keeping up its strict immigration policies and Calais town unwilling to accommodate or aid the people in the camp, conditions remain difficult for the camp’s residents. The town of Calais has for long been uninterested in aiding the camp and police have frequently forcefully evicted people from it with short or no notice given to them beforehand.

There are however plenty of individuals and organizations from France, UK and other European countries who are doing their best to preserve the dignity of the camp’s residents and seek to help them provide for their basic needs. It therefore didn’t take me more than a few minutes of research on the Internet before I got into contact with a coordinator for a volunteer organization in Calais. Not much later, I had applied to stay in Calais for a few days and help out with whatever was needed.

I spent most of my time as a volunteer in a warehouse, which was run by volunteers. My time there consisted mainly of packing and sorting. On my first day I was tasked with making men’s hygiene packs, while the next saw me making arrival packs. These packs consisted of a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping mattress, a blanket, a torch, socks and some food. During my two last days a group of volunteers and I sorted through the mountain of donations (which were mainly clothes donations) that had piled up in the warehouse. All of the clothes were sorted according to factors such as gender, size, and water-resistance. A huge amount of the donations, however, had to be rejected and sent on to other charities, because they were completely useless to people in the camp. Such items include oversized jeans, skimpy party dresses and high heels. What was really needed were smaller sized warm jumpers, waterproof coats, joggers and proper footwear such as rubber boots and other sturdy, waterproof shoes. After the sorting, volunteers distributed the sorted items among residents of the camp.

On my last work-day, I caught a ride with two other volunteers and spent a good hour or so with them at the border of the camp, handing out mattresses to people. Living conditions varied widely within the Jungle. We spent our time along the outskirts of the Sudanese part of the camp where some living structures were very impressive. We visited one structure made out of sturdy wooden poles strapped together, with an enormous tarp pulled over it. The inside had proper beds, which were raised close to a meter above the ground and a solid hand made, large stove was fitted in the center of the room. In another section, not far from the impressive structure that housed seven people, two Sudanese guys were living in a miniscule tent, which had definitely seen better days. It lacked plugs and strings and was therefore not properly attached to the ground, which would lead to an inevitable flooding of the tent at the next rainfall.

Many the camp’s residents have their eyes on the UK and do not wish to remain in or be granted asylum by France. Family is a very important reason why many wish to get to the UK, as they already have family members in Britain. With the strict immigration policies and border control that the UK has implemented however, reaching Britain by legal means is close to impossible for most of the camp’s residents. UK immigration laws state one must be in the UK in order to seek asylum there, which is paradoxical when thinking of how strict border control is at the moment. The only solution for most of the camp’s residents is therefore to attempt to get to the UK by illegal means.

With this in mind, particularly after having been so close to the camp and having briefly visited it, jumping on a bus at the ferry port in Calais and standing in line with the other bus passengers in the border control before boarding the ferry for Dover, was a peculiar experience. It was a strange sensation sitting on the Eurolines bus as it smoothly drove onto the ferry deck, leaving France behind. It is a passage so commonplace for most of us that we hardly think about it. Every single night, people in the Jungle try to get to the very destination that I so smoothly headed for that evening. But they cannot just board a bus, as I did. Instead they take their chances climbing barbed wire fences and trying to jump onto the roofs of passing trains, fully aware of the possibility of death involved.

No one wishes to live long term in a refugee camp. Fulfilling even the most basic needs such as clean water, food and shelter is a constant struggle in the Jungle. As mentioned, most of the camp’s residents have their eyes set on the UK and see it as their goal, their final destination. The refugee camp is a temporary condition of life, which they hope to escape from as soon as possible. However, as getting to the other side of the English Channel is a dangerous and often impossible journey, many people end up remaining in the camp for months and months. The Jungle has inevitably become a long-term residence for many of the people who end up there. Other volunteers who have spent a lot of time in camp told me about the intricate infrastructure that is blossoming inside the Jungle. There are restaurants and cafes set up as well as small shop stalls and there are even two nightclubs. Neighborhoods have emerged, mainly separated according to country of origin. The Jungle is turning into a permanent environment with its own infrastructure and organization. As one volunteer who I spoke to about building shelters for the camp’s residents, put it; “Building these shelters is a really great initiative, but it also makes you worry. Once these permanent structures are here, you know it means people won’t be leaving anytime soon. They are stuck here.” This was a truthful point made and one that is important to notice. Help is needed in the camp and I really do admire the work of all volunteers in Calais. The camp’s residents are in urgent need of food, shelter and warm clothes of which they mainly cannot provide for themselves because of their location and situation. Getting these essentials out to the camp’s residents is essential, particularly now during the winter season. At the same time, sorting through a seemingly bottomless pile of clothes donations in the warehouse made me wonder how long this was going to go on for.

How long will it be necessary for people to donate all these items or prepare food for people in the camp? How long will people have to live in these dehumanizing conditions, accepting what is given to them by volunteers and people living outside of the camp? The sad reality is that many of the Jungle’s residents are not merely in the camp for a few days or weeks, but remain there for a long time, long enough to build proper shelters, to set up shops and restaurants. The Jungle is growing and its roots are digging deeper and deeper into the Calais soil, when what all these people want is to tear up those roots and live a dignified life elsewhere. Most of us wish to see the camp as a temporal solution, but with its increasing size and border control and immigration laws remaining the way they are, it seems unlikely it will disappear anytime soon.

Additionally, with David Cameron and his allies in Parliament recently voting yes to war on Syria, the likelihood of a growing loss of civilian lives and the need to flee the country in question, has increased. The Jungle in Calais is one of many places that will most likely bear the weight of the majority of British Parliament’s decisions. A flow of migration that has initiated in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Pakistan, Sudan and many other countries, comes to a halt in the Jungle. People have been travelling, often for months, by foot, boat, train, finally arriving at the edge of mainland Europe and their passages come to a halt. They do not know how long they will have to remain in the Jungle, living off what outsiders give them.

The unease, with which one watches a temporal camp become a long-term residency, is unnerving. However, the creation of a new environment is also inspiring. People are seeking to continue life and create a space which has some sense of familiarity, by creating neighborhoods with their fellow countrymen, preparing and selling dishes from their homeland, and calling friends and family who are back home, or elsewhere in Europe.

Maia is a final year Anthropology student studying at SOAS, University of London.
She tends to take a liking to old stuff such as second hand bookstores, record players and typewriters. She loves the sound of harmonicas and occasionally tend to daydream about being transported in time back to the 60s and being Bob Dylan’s girlfriend. But that’s a secret…