In the jungle

Impressions from a fleeting visit* to the notorious refugee camp of Calais

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Their tents and shacks and shops are built on sand.

We’re almost on the coast of course: the camp, just outside Calais, sits among low dunes and scrubby vegetation – but I hadn’t pictured there’d be sand, and it adds to the transience of this place: a departure point, a stopover.

The police stop us from driving in without a permit, but anyone, it seems, can stroll in on foot. A steady flow of Europeans have been doing so for many months: volunteers, reporters, filmmakers, activists, artists. Scrawls of graffiti tell of the emotions this place evokes, from the gently tender, to appeals to the gods, to the enraged. F**k the police. We pass structures that have become mosques, churches, schools, a hairdresser, shops selling juice and cigarettes and biscuits – they get their stocks from the likes of Lidl in Calais – and cafes.

Some inhabitants avoid us, some welcome us, many ignore us. F**k the journalists, scrawled on one wall. It’s nearly only youngish men we see; the women and children and families stay in secure areas. Alone, with their mobile phones, or waiting or standing in twos or threes. Where are you from?, the curious ones want to know, always the first question they ask. A group of Afghan friends wants us to drink coffee at their home.

“This is my house”, says Majeed, who has been here for six months – five months in the southern part, which has just been demolished by the French authorities, one month here in the northern part, which has so far been left standing. One of his friends wants to know why the UK won’t let them enter. He’s been trying every day to get to England; another friend of his made it recently, and now he feels depressed, because he failed.

At Belgium Kitchen, we meet Ilias, a soft-spoken type in his late 20s, from Brussels. He doesn’t want to be filmed or photographed, but he shows us the dorm rooms where volunteers stay, the storeroom, their kitchen. Volunteers – Europeans and refugees together – cook meals here for hundreds, even 1000 hungry people every day. “It’s like a family”, he says.

Inside the Ashram Kitchen, their team are cheerfully chopping up ginger, dishing up hot milky spiced tea and egg sandwiches. They offer us breakfast too; a warm welcome that’s tinged with suspicion: they know journalists have different motives. Outside the tent, two English volunteers, dreadlocked and in baggy jumpers, bleary-eyed in the late morning hazy light, are sitting on the sand, hatching plans to start growing vegetables and herbs. It’s not about whether the garden will be there for a long time, they tell me, but about creating a welcoming space, something that gives a sense of hope. And something for people to do: “Boredom is a killer”, says one of the volunteers.

* I spent two half-days in the camp, in late March, reporting for Devex. For a fuller picture, see the Refugee Rights Data Project, the first comprehensive attempt to understand who lives in this informal settlement and what conditions are like.

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