Temperatures of below 5 degrees, mud up to your ankles and the putrid smell of faeces and slightly gone off meat combined; bad for even a single day, right? Well, imagine over 10 months of this hell.
The refugees in the Calais camp, affectionately named The Jungle, live in tents surrounded by water, rubbish and mud. Picture a music festival where the acts are police brutality, scabies, intimidation and hopelessness – that never ends, that’s the only way I can describe the camp.
In early January, myself and 3 students visited Calais to volunteer; faced with frustration and desperation every time you enter the camp it is hard not to give up; when the scale of a problem is so much bigger than anything you’ve ever experienced it seems like you cannot make a difference. In one small area, only a stone’s throw from the ferry tolls, there are over 6,000 refugees, with the number growing every day.
These people live in tents and shelters made out of tarpaulin and wood, conditions that you and I would turn up our noses to, but to them these are luxury in comparison to the war zones they have fled. Many of the refugees have come from Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Ethiopia (among others); taking what they could carry and walking, hitch hiking and rowing over 2,000 miles to be faced with what is essentially a holding cell.
With more and more asylum pleas being denied or ignored these people are stuck, unable to reach England whilst also being denied full access to France, and now with Germany and Austria having shut their borders hope is dwindling for the residents of the Jungle.
Whilst there we did whatever was required, including sawing firewood, sorting donations, clearing rubbish and tents and taking part in classes. The charities there, bar Medicines Sans Frontiers, are small, independent and poorly funded, the people that run them are people like our team but with more time to give and slightly more experience.
The lack of NGO’s, such as Oxfam and Red Cross, in the camp means that the awareness is severely decreased, people are unaware that more volunteers are vitally needed and more sensible donations are required. Every single volunteer I saw had waterproofs, walking boots, gloves and hats; wrapped up to combat the extreme cold, however when in the warehouse sorting donations about 10 pairs of waterproof trousers came in, in comparison to over 200 short sleeved t-shirts, and when in the camp such a minimal percentage of the refugees had coats and proper shoes, some were in flip flops in the middle of winter.
The warehouse receives huge amounts of clothing donations and runs a distribution centre out of the camp, but the warehouse also receives rubbish, people feel that a charity donation is better than throwing clothes out and so whilst there I saw clothes that were burnt or filthy and even completely inappropriate – such as a black lace garter and a penguin onesie. If the camp was able to get more positive and accurate media then the donations may get more sensible and take up less time, as each day there was no more than 50 volunteers and what felt like a million jobs.
The emotions in the camp when we visited were incredibly fraught, due to the plans to clear about 100 metres of the camp – which held close to 1000 people – just having been revealed. The refugees, who started with very little and over time have been able to create something of a home, were being told by the authorities that they were going to lose them and be relocated to elsewhere in the already densely populated camp.
The people of the Jungle released a statement to the authorities stating: “We plead with the French authorities and the international communities that you understand our situation and respect our fundamental human rights” along with informing them that they would resist the government’s actions to clear the area. Around the camp there was graffiti and art work that displayed the conflicting emotions of the residents, some claiming hate and some love, also in the camp is a powerful piece by the famous graffiti artist Banksy, depicting Steve Jobs as a refugee (in reference to his heritage as the son of a Syrian migrant) the piece drew attention to the camp and has now been protected.
The diverse art in the camp is a way for people to express their emotions, as every other way these people have been silenced. Along with artwork, conversation classes and teaching classes were being taken by volunteers in order to aid the residents.
The school/library area (a wooden hut), lovingly labelled Jungle Books, has very few resources and attendance for the classes were frequently poor but those that do turn up are working hard to help themselves become successful in the future, despite it being a bleak one. By being taught French or English these people are able to bridge the language barriers and regain a voice for themselves.
What struck us most whilst in the camp was the resilience of the people living in the squalor we witnessed, they were faced with the worst of situations – personally seeing tear gas canisters on the floor made me realise just what atrocities these people had to endure. The battle they face every day is exemplified by the recent occurrences surrounding the camp church, a pristine a place of worship set on the edge of the 100 metre zone that was to be cleared.
Despite promises not to touch places of religion by the authorities, it was recently torn down, another smack in the face for the people of the camp. But still they get up every day and attempt to better their lives; by setting up restaurants and shops in the camp, attending language classes and creating places of family and friendship.
Obviously, due to events such as what happened with the church and the clearance zone, distrust is incredibly high in the camp, people have to deal with endless broken promises and negative actions, but still the camp is a place of great tenacity, humanity and community, despite being the heart breaking consequence of modern violence and greed.