Inside the last days of the Calais Jungle
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NOV 2 — The dismantling of the Calais camp began last Monday and is expected to be complete early this week. The French authorities have transferred more than 5,000 Jungle residents to reception centres across France, although 1,500 unaccompanied minors still remain in the camp temporarily housed in shipping containers.
President François Hollande’s call on Saturday for the British authorities to accept more child refugees (they’ve taken in about 274) was flatly declined by the UK’s prime minister Theresa May.
Hollande was right to point out that the British government have a “moral duty” do their fair share in this humanitarian crisis. They should stop being so insular and obstructive, and just get on with it.
On the subject of which, I want to follow up on my first article and share the experiences of two Franco-American teenagers who have being doing their bit to help.
Edith and Matthew visited the Calais camp the weekend before the dismantlement. They worked over a four-day period, leaving just hours before buses arrived to remove its residents:
How did you feel the night before you left for the Jungle?
Matthew ‘M’: Through the refugee stories told by the British activist Jasmin O’Hara at our school’s Human Rights film festival, and what Edith described from her visits to the community, I felt I’d had already been there, but last week’s visit was actually my first.
I was very nervous about finally seeing for myself the crisis unfolding in my own backyard. You can no longer ignore it and live normally when it’s in your face. I was also curious to know whether the media reports over the past couple of months were true.
Who went with you and what did you take?
Edith ‘E’: Early Thursday, Matthew, my mom and I left for Calais, and Matthew’s mom joined us on Friday evening. We brought the rice and lentils we had collected at school along with the €1,000 (RM4,435 to be exact) raised to buy supplies for the refugees.
Where did you go on arrival?
E: We headed to the Calais aid association L’Auberge des Migrants on the outskirts of the camp. They have a little hut that they call the main office where Ross, a volunteer, was waiting to welcome new helpers. We signed a few papers and five minutes later we were working with everyone else: loading bags of food, bagging flour and chickpeas…
I recognised some volunteers that I had met this summer, although I didn’t know everyone. There were plenty of smiles, music and chatting just like before, and it did feel like I was back somewhere that I knew well, and belonged!
M: Ross ran through instructions: be respectful, be responsible and that it was against the community’s rules for new and untrained volunteers to go to the camp. I was surprised when I heard this but also reassured when he explained the reasons. First, the Jungle is not a tourist attraction — wandering through the camp without any purpose and peering into people’s privates lives comes down to treating them as an attraction in a zoo.
Second, is that being untrained and unused to this environment, it’s easy to react or say something wrong, and making a mistake when people’s lives are at stake is dangerous for both the migrants and you.
Can you describe the jobs were you given?
M: By 1:15pm we were in the warehouse on the production line bagging flour, spices, biscuits, dried beans, oil, tea, potatoes and onions into plastic sacs headed straight for the Jungle.
The ease with which we checked in and were almost immediately put to use made us realize that no one had any excuse for not coming to help. It was a great atmosphere too: Stevie Wonder blasting on the radio, students and retirees all dancing and working hand in hand on the production line. About 75 per cent of the volunteers were British and the remainder, French.
M: We first delivered the 100kg of rice and lentils we had collected. The €1,000 was earmarked to deal with the current situation facing the residents: they were about to travel and needed warm clothes (morning temperatures dropped to below 10 degrees) like gloves and socks, plus biscuits/cereal bars to sustain them on their journeys.
E: In the morning we worked in the small kitchen, about 30 of us chopping up lettuce, peppers, mixing salads and loading them into trucks to feed 5,000 plus refugees. Later, I worked back at the "dry foods" section packing various foods and loading them straight onto trucks headed for the camp.
All of the jobs, especially the ones involving food, were done chatting away with the volunteers around a big table or the production line, with music constantly blasting. Lunchtimes were a really nice moment: everyone grabbing a plate of food, the same as what the refugees would be eating in the camp, and just sitting on the ground, on a pile of clothes, pallets, old tyres…
It’s weird to say that our work in Calais was "fun" — but it really was.
M: I worked in an office in the afternoon where my bilingual skills came in handy for translating instructions for the warehouse operations. The first warehouse was where most of the main work was going on. It was divided into different sections: food, tents, clothes and personal hygiene, shoes, blankets, bags, demand and supply desk, and a children’s depot. The second warehouse was where extra articles were stocked or hidden. I say hidden, as it wasn’t uncommon for some volunteers, having become attached to certain refugees, to steal from the warehouse to give to them. A decision had therefore been made to hide more expensive articles to ensure that these were given to those most in need.
Next, I worked in the bag section. It was fascinating to see the piles of articles people were sending, from total junk (bags that were either too small or badly damaged) to very expensive articles.
It was quite astonishing the shape in which some of the donations came; it was as though it had been forgotten that these refugees are people who also had human dignity.
E: Late Saturday morning, I noticed a change in the way we were working. Things became quiet, a little like the calm before a storm. Sunday was for "emergency last minute packing", and everything had to be reorganised for us to be ready. Wood was being kept from entering the Jungle so the refugees couldn't cook, and we were sent to buy more dried food rations.
I drove around Calais that afternoon with three other British girls emptying every supermarket’s stock of cereal bars and cookies with part of the school funds we had raised. It was a little exhausting. As we walked into the supermarkets in our sweatpants covered in flour and stains, people stared at us; they knew why we were there. And, contrary to what some of us had expected, the supermarket staff helped us carry their stock out and load it into the cars. As we left, they wished us luck and said they'd be thinking of us on Monday, the day the destruction was to start.
M: I worked in the emergency "demand and supply" section, running around the warehouse, collecting a list of articles to pack in a bag that would immediately be sent to the Jungle. These were the last bags that would be sent to the camp before the eviction, so our job was crucial. We had to work fast but very carefully: we were warned that an extra pair of shoes placed in one bag by error had caused a riot over who would get them last Tuesday. Equally, putting in the wrong article could have major consequences.
The orders were mostly for children (adolescents usually), because many of them were going to the UK on Monday and needed to be equipped for their journey. Some of their orders were heart-warming as they asked for specifics such as a necklace, a particular leather jacket, or Nike shoes. It just comes to show that after all they’ve been through, they’re only adolescents like us.
About 100 volunteers were helping each day, and their backgrounds were very interesting, ranging from retired Cambridge alumni to young hippies living in the back of their trucks. At end of the evening, we all agreed that this lifestyle of doing manual work together in a close dynamic community in order to serve people in need was much more fulfilling than most other jobs in the professional world.
E: All day in the dry foods section of the warehouse, we frantically loaded bags with cereal bars, cookies, water, milk... everything we had that could be of use during the long week ahead. In the afternoon, I sorted clothes, pairing socks and gloves and packing bags of them.
Around 4pm, one of the volunteers from the camp came to see us to tell us we could stop. The mobile distribution volunteers had been forced to come back — tension was rising in the camp because it had become apparent that not all the refugees would receive their orders that afternoon, and they knew that this was their last chance at getting what they desperately needed ready for Monday. At that moment, our clothes sorting team looked down; a sad feeling swept over the room. Our team leader took out some chocolate that she had hidden in the box of "men's waterproof tracksuits", and said: "I've been saving this bar for right now," as she handed out the pieces.
The cohesion of that moment was unexpected, but it made sense: we had done what we could. When we left the Auberge des Migrants that Sunday evening, people were wondering what Monday would bring: it could be the best thing ever to happen to the Jungle, or the very worst.
Where did you stay?
E: We stayed at an Airbnb in the countryside, about 20 minutes away from the Jungle. Most volunteers stay at the Youth Hostel or at the camping sites that aren’t too far away, but they were full.
Were there any conversations you had that made an impression on you?
M: Saturday evening we drove to a cricket game starring the refugees on one side and the volunteers on the other. On our way there, we picked up a long-term volunteer named Sarah who had just come back from the Jungle. She shared a few stories about her experience living in the camp over the past six months. Her insight was very different to that of the media’s.
She told us how, during last Tuesday’s police demonstrations, there had been several policemen who had actually stood up against the violence committed on refugees, but that this was not reported in the news.
We asked her why so many refugees — who come from several different countries Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea etc. — were so keen on going to the UK? She explained that, on the one hand, refugees who had family in the UK, a brother, an uncle or a daughter, should have the right to be reunited with them; this seemed obvious to us. But on the other hand, she admitted that she herself had a hard time understanding why refugees who didn’t have family in the UK, were still so attached to the idea that it would be a better solution than France.
In fact, she said that some volunteers had been trying to convince refugees that they should stop aiming for the UK, as they would encounter as many difficulties integrating in the UK as they would in France.
What do think about the Jungle’s closure?
M: Moving the refugees in this way is certainly not a sustainable solution, but it is certainly the best thing the government has done for this crisis up to now. Some volunteers told me that many of the refugees would not have made it through another winter in the Jungle.
Did you play in the last of the weekly cricket matches on Saturday evening?
E: Personally no, because I don’t understand any of the rules! But quite a few volunteers did.
M: We watched the match that took place in “the no man’s land”, a hundred metres strip of dirt which runs between highway and along the Jungle. The Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité ‘CRS’ (a special French police force concerned with maintaining public order) were behind us when we watched the cricket match, we could hear them commenting into their walkie-talkies, throughout the hour we were there. They didn’t seem particularly aggressive — as reported in the media — but they were closely monitoring every move as they stood behind a fence where we were sitting.
Two adults sat down next to me and we talked about their aspirations. One of them spoke a little English. He told me that he had two brothers waiting for him in the UK but that he wanted to go to Sweden. We sat together smiling and laughing while we watched the Afghan boys beat the volunteers at cricket.
Later on the CRS came and stopped the game. It was time for us to go, so we shook everyone’s hand and walked to our car. Later that night, we learned that the incident had erupted into tear gas and violence.
Can you comment on the police presence at Calais Jungle?
E: The CRS are absolutely everywhere! They didn’t feel threatening to us. It’s always a bit disconcerting to find yourself faced with stronger and more powerful people, equipped etc. but they never were "scary."
What were the charity workers’ hopes for the Jungle residents post its closure?
E: I guess that they have a smooth resettlement here. I’m not sure anyone thinks of the refugees’ goal of getting to England as "healthy." They really idolise it for being something it isn’t really… many of the volunteers actually think the refugees are better off finding a good place in France.
Which country has been the most supportive/helpful?
E: Definitely France! That said, there were a lot of British volunteers here. Their thinking is that their country hasn’t done anything to help and that they are somewhat responsible for this camp in France.
How did you feel on departure?
E: Worried about the destruction, sort of as though it was the wrong time to be leaving… and sad.
M: Ironically, we left for England Monday morning at the start of the eviction, accomplishing the journey — all 33 kilometres — that 10,000 men, women and children had been wishing to carry out for months.
To a certain extent I do understand the bizarre determination to reach the UK. Some refugees have crossed as many as 15 different countries to get here, undergoing all kinds of sufferings and humiliations only to be stopped in Calais, so close to reaching their goal.
How might you help the disbursed Jungle residents in the future?
E: It’s a little complicated right now. I’m in a Facebook group to help refugees who will be coming to Yvelines (Louvecienne), but at the moment, no addresses or names of places can be given out to make sure there are no problems with people who wouldn’t want the refugees to be welcome.
M: There have been demonstrations in Louvecienne against having an auberge for migrants. They say it is too isolated, and that it would be difficult for migrants to connect or integrate with the surrounding communities.
The government doesn’t ever really address this issue — there have been several “jungle” refugee camps in Calais since 1999 — it’s a disgrace the way France treats other human beings. It’s only thanks to charities like l’Auberge des Migrants that anything is being done at all.
At some point it becomes our job as global citizens to accept the fact that a solution is not going to come from the government, and take action.
Edith and I will be going to the auberge in Louvecienne in the months to come, a 25-minute drive away from our houses. The ease with which we can go and help these communities is staggering.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.