Back in July, I spent a week volunteering with UK-based organization Help Refugees in Calais, France. Help Refugees has a large warehouse in Calais where they sort and distribute food, clothing, and shelter for over 9,000 refugees who are using the Calais Jungle camp as a stopover on their way to the UK. Many of them are fleeing war-torn countries and oppressive regimes in Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Eritrea. The camp is set to be demolished next week and its residents located to official detention centers. With all of this happening, I wanted to share some of my impressions of the Calais Jungle, the residents, and volunteers who worked to keep the place functioning for so long:
It’s Not a Jungle, But a Real Community
In an article about the Calais Jungle, a journalist wondered why the camp had been named as such. “Because we are animals,” a Sudanese refugee explained, “We are not considered human.” I imagined the Calais Jungle to be a dangerous place filled with desperate souls. I went in with my defenses up. My first thought was that the Calais Jungle didn’t resemble a jungle at all. I saw a vast open field, followed by a thriving “main street” with restaurants, schools, mosques, churches, and stores. It was a real community and not this prison-like environment I had expected.
The living conditions were by no means ideal, but attempts had been made to create a livable environment. Volunteers set up bathroom facilities with showers and there were constant efforts to clean the place. I walked all around the camp and it wasn’t the squalid place it’s often portrayed as by proponents of its destruction. Residents and volunteers worked together to keep the Calais Jungle as clean as possible and to contain the spread of disease due to rodent infestation and water contamination. That being said, conditions change with weather. Since I was there in the summer, things were in relatively good shape.
Refugees in the Calais Jungle Aren’t Lazy Bums Looking for a Handout
Opponents of the camp are fond of describing the refugees in the Calais Jungle as lazy bums looking for a handout; that they enjoy living in a place where they have limited rights, depend on others for basic necessities, and are subject to regular abuse at the hands of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) riot police.
What I found was a diverse community of mostly friendly people who were grateful for the help of volunteers and willing to pull their own weight. There were definitely some ethnic tensions, but camp residents worked alongside volunteers to make the best of it. They constructed shelters, translated for each other, and even ran their own businesses to support themselves financially. Based on what I saw, the notion that these people were happy to live in tents and receive handouts was complete nonsense and did not represent the majority of the people there. Why else would they risk their lives nearly every night to cross over to the UK?
Refugees in the Calais Jungle Aren’t Savages
Many of the camp residents I met were highly educated or desperately wanted to be. There were doctors, engineers, university professors, and former translators who had worked alongside the U.S. military. Many of them spoke excellent English. After word spread that an Afghan girl was volunteering in the camp, so many young men approached me on a daily basis. They asked for advice on how to continue their education in France or the UK. These were well spoken, ambitious young men who had great aspirations for the future and treated me and the other females with nothing but respect.
Edward Jonkler made an excellent point in one of his Instagram posts, where he described four Syrian men who were dressed in second-hand clothing with scarves covering their faces. Many people, upon seeing these men, would cross the street and presume them to be up to no good. However, one was an English professor, another once worked for an audit firm in the UK and two were former accountants. These men represented a complete contrast to the way refugees are often portrayed as uneducated, backwards, and thuggish young men looking to take advantage of the system.
Painting them all with a broad brush would be inaccurate because the community consists of men, women, children, and families from all walks of life. I did meet people who weren’t so great, but in general, the Calais Jungle was like any other community.
Why Refugees in the Calais Jungle Want to Go to the UK (aka “London”)
It’s often stated that the refugees in Calais want to go to the UK to take advantage of superior social services. When I brought up this topic, most shrugged and seemed to care little about it. “I don’t know,” some would say, “I need to get to London to reconnect with my brother/uncle/cousin.” Others cited better job opportunities in the UK and were eager to earn money to support their families back home. A 20 year-old Afghan boy actually came to Calais from Germany because he “got bored” of receiving a stipend and not being able to work.
Some of the refugees did in fact claim asylum in France, but lived in the camp until their paperwork was processed. There were many reasons why others refused to claim asylum in France: The language barrier (many of the refugees were fluent in English and had difficulty learning French), the perceived Islamophobia of the French government, abuse at the hands of fascists and police alike. They had negative experiences in France and did not want to make it their home.
Many refugees also have family members in the UK and thus a legal right to claim asylum there. Bureaucracy gets in the way, which is why a third of Calais’ 1,022 unaccompanied minors are stuck in the camp rather than being reunited with their families under the Alf Dubs amendment. With the camp closure looming, the UK government is finally speeding up the process to relocate all eligible minors.
Police Brutality in the Calais Jungle
About 75% of refugees in the Calais Jungle have experienced police brutality. The CRS riot police have become notorious for their random and unprovoked attacks on camp residents. Their weapons of choice are rubber bullets and tear gas, which are freely and liberally shot out into crowds. I met people of all ages who recounted their tales of abuse at the hands of the CRS.
Several young men showed me their hands, which were riddled with rubber bullet wounds. A 19 year-old Afghan boy told me about an incident that occurred after a soccer match one night. A CRS van pulled up as he was walking home and the officers asked him where he was going. “Back to The Jungle” led to the kid getting pepper sprayed and beaten. Another time a 12 year-old boy recounted jumping onboard a ferry headed to the UK. A CRS officer pulled him out, pepper sprayed him, then proceeded to beat him. That’s child abuse if not a completely unnecessary use of force.
Life in the Calais Jungle gets rough and many refugees understandably struggled with their mental health. Still, I found the majority of people I met to be positive and hopeful. These people had spent months away from their families, living in tents and dealing with untreated medical conditions. Yet, some of them were able to maintain a positive outlook. That’s probably the biggest change I’ve made in myself: I don’t let anything get me angry, stressed, or upset anymore. Our problems are trivial compared to what other people are able to put up with every day. That sentiment is easy to express, but it really set in during my time in Calais.
Another thing that stood out during this experience was how many volunteers had given up the comforts of home to help people with whom they shared little to no cultural, religious, or geographic similarities. There were students, retirees, teachers, nurses, business owners, journalists from all over the world (including the U.S.). A few were clearly there to vamp up their social media profiles, but by and large most people were caring and selfless. I guess if you think it through logically, you can find every reason not to care about other people’s troubles. These people followed their conscience and did what they felt was right.
Ultimately, the hospitality and compassion displayed by volunteers in Calais and elsewhere will encourage refugees to integrate into their new communities, while local fascists will continue to foster division, anger, and violence with their negative actions. After all, most of us are compelled to be a part of something that is positive and accepting and to turn away from negativity. Nowhere is that clearer than in the Calais Jungle.
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