This article first appeared in Languedoc Living September 2016
I recently went back to the Calais Jungle as a volunteer for the third time within the last twelve months.
So, what’s changed during that time?
Well, when I was first there last October, there were an estimated 5,000 migrants at the camp. According to a census a couple of weeks ago, conducted by two of the charities helping out, the numbers have now reached 9,000, with a 29% increase in just one month and around 70 new arrivals every day.
Each time I’ve been, The Jungle has looked more and more like a concentration camp, reminiscent of recent trips to Auschwitz and the West Bank. The first rather shocking sight when driving off the ferry is of massively high, doubled-up barbed wire-topped fencing, stretching for miles. Creepy-looking sea containers house about 1,800 refugees. The rest of them are living in disintegrating tents and decaying shacks. According to two long-term volunteers I spoke to who live in the camp, the place is now teeming with rats, mostly coming out at night. No doubt they try and get into tents, looking for food.
Police presence has massively increased and the police are not friendly.
Last October, I was able to freely wander in and out of the camp, hang out with the “inmates’’, find them suitable clothing and food supplies. The following March, the police took my passport and studied it carefully for about 20 minutes, typing my details into a computer, demanding to know why I was going in. I’m probably now on a database somewhere. A portion of the camp had by now been razed, a dusty wasteland, overlooked by heavily-armed police on the bridge above, reminding me of those war films where potential escapees are gunned down, trying to reach the fences.
A couple of weeks ago, I needed a formal, stamped pass to enter the Jungle where police demanded to see all vehicle papers as well as my passport. Luckily, I was well-prepared or I would no doubt have been fined. My companion was not treated so well since he’d forgotten his passport. He was dragged out of the car and thoroughly searched and interrogated. We were simply taking in mats for the new gym.
The charity for whom I was working, L’Auberge des Migrants, seems far more organised then it was on my first visit. There are many more volunteers (dare I say it’s become somewhat trendy to volunteer in Calais amongst students on summer vac – keen to beef up their C.V.’s? Incidentally, I was there with my niece, an anthropology student).
We spent the first couple of days sorting clothes, chopping food, stirring huge caldrons of simmering onions for hours at a time and mass-buying cheap biscuits, their “ special treat”.
On the third day, I asked if we could be of use inside the camp. I was keen for my niece to get a taste of the conditions. “We are desperate for French teachers” I was told. (I suppose teaching English would have looked like encouragement to jump lorries.)
We spent the next few days mostly teaching Sudanese and Afghanis, all young men in their 20’s and 30’s. There was the odd woman milling around but they didn’t seem interested in taking lessons. The boys were keen, they were charming and they worked really hard. We made it a two-way thing, learning the Arabic words for the French ones, which went down well with them since it felt like a fair exchange and made them feel useful. I remember one of the boys seemed in total despair, hiding under his hoodie, mostly face-down on the table. “He’s ill. He’s depressed. He’s been here for almost a year”, said Ali, one of my students. I bet a lot of them are depressed. I doubt they get much mental health care. I was told there had been quite a few suicides. Mubarak was a serious boy. He’d been there for about six months. Ali was the joker but he’d only just arrived and hadn’t yet been ground down.
Interestingly, a lot of those to whom I spoke seemed to want to claim asylum in France. Last time, the talk was all of making it to the U.K. Maybe some are sick of trying to get across the Channel, a pretty impossible task by now, given all the fencing and increased police presence.
The only real respite from the boredom (apart from listlessly kicking a ball around and now exercising in what’s called the new gym but is actually a few floor mats in a dingy windowless shack) is the ramshackle restaurants that have sprung up; good meeting places and a bit of income for the owners. And what did the state try and do? Shut them down, citing health and safety regulations and saying they were trading illegally as they weren’t paying taxes. Happily, the court in Lille ruled that the 70-odd restaurants served an important social purpose as “calm meeting places between migrants and volunteer workers” so thankfully they haven’t been destroyed. There were huge celebrations at this one rare piece of good news.
So, how can you help? Obviously, in Calais with sorting clothes, food chopping and teaching etc., but also giving and organising donations of clothes and food which you can do locally. The Calaidepedia* site tells you all you need to know on this.
The other thing that’s hugely helpful is donating mobile phone credit so that they can at least keep in contact with their families, skyping, texting, exchanging photos etc. Incidentally, Mubarak, the boy who’d been there for six months, showed me a photo on his phone of his four-month old daughter, which meant that he’d never met her. How painful must that be?
*Calaidepdia – www.calaidipedia.co.uk
For mobile phone top-up donations, go to: