By Geoff Moore
On Saturday January 16th I visited the refugee camp in Calais, France known as the ‘Jungle.’ I was among a group of British volunteers who travel to Calais to help clean up the camp. The majority of my time was spent cleaning up garbage strewn around the sandy and muddy camp as well as clothing and tents which have been abandoned.
It is difficult to put my perception and experience of the camp into words. I have read a lot about the camp and have studied refugees academically, but it is another thing altogether to see it in person. It is surreal to be surrounded by such terrible conditions when you consider that this camp is in France, a country known for its wealth of culture. Personally, I can compare this to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem which I visited in June 2015, but the conditions are not even remotely comparable. It is frustrating to know that French, British, and international authorities are doing next to nothing about the situation of the camp’s refugees. The quality of life in the camp is overwhelmingly poor, which is evident from the moment you walk in.
I was lucky to be in the Jungle on a sunny and dry day. Although it is a cold winter, any day without rain in the camp is a good one because the sand quickly turns to thick mud, and even on a dry day there is a lot of standing water in pools around the camp. In some areas water has cut through the passages between tents and shacks, and has forced more than a few residents to abandon their invaluable tents and clothing. In most areas there is garbage, including dangerous sharp objects, in the water and sand because trash bins and bags are scarce. If residents get their hands on plastic bags, they are more likely to use them to keep their tents dry than use them for collecting trash. The standing water presents its own health problems, but the wind is worse. There is no protection from the wind as it rips through this very flat region of France. Even for those lucky enough to have something sturdier than a tent, it is not enough. If I was cold in my multiple layers of winter clothing, imagine how these people feel at night in their tents.
In the morning I worked in an area of the camp adjacent to the new shipping containers the French government has turned into temporary homes. Although these would house more than 1,000 refugees in bunk beds and provide heat and electricity, the lack of appeal is clear. The area is fenced in and will use a security system for access. The camp’s residents are skeptical because they see this as a ploy to monitor their movements and keep them from crossing into Britain. Worse, the new area looks like a detention facility intended to keep people in, not enable them to reach their destination. The containers will house roughly 1 in 6 camp residents, so they are clearly not a solution to the problem.
I was happily surprised to see that the main street of the camp is becoming a semi-normal area of business and daily life. There are shops, restaurants, and even a barber shop where people can interact and get the basic things they need like food. There is also a dentist and a first aid trailer. This part of the camp has some of the more well-constructed shacks. The road is slightly better because it has gravel and rocks which keep the mud to a minimum. But if this is reassuring for the camp as a whole, it shows how poor the actual living conditions are.
It is far more difficult to describe the human aspect of the camp than its physical condition. The first refugees I interacted with were a group of Syrian young men around my age. Although most were in their 20s, some were clearly teenagers. You can see on their faces how their journeys have aged them. However difficult their lives have been, they have not lost their Middle Eastern hospitality. I was offered (and felt compelled to kindly deny) precious bottled water and coffee. I feel it is necessary to talk about this, because this is the demographic that is so frequently characterized in America and Europe as dangerous, untrustworthy, and ultimately prone to radicalization. I would invite anyone who feels this way to go to Calais and see how you feel when a Syrian refugee offers you his water. More to the point, they started helping us pick up trash and showed us the areas that needed the most cleaning. Even in the squalor of perhaps the worst refugee camp in Europe, the people who live there take pride in their temporary homes.
It was not just the Syrians. One resident of the camp who will stay in my mind was a Kuwaiti named Ahmed. He didn’t hesitate to help clean when we got to his area. We worked together for over two hours, and in broken English we talked about the dangerous places he travelled through to get to France. With only one glove, he pulled tents and garbage out of a deep pool between shacks. This was not easy work, and he could have quit at any time. It is difficult for me to write objectively about Ahmed because I feel that in normal circumstances we could have been friends. He was close to my age, and he was passionate, if disillusioned. I cannot tell you how many times I heard him say “France is no good, London is great.” Ahmed made it difficult for me to continue cleaning up garbage because he so clearly had a pertinent story, but also a work ethic which I can humbly respect. At one point he brought a knife to help us cut through some tarpaulin material, and he cut the palm of his hand with the blade. Although we were able to help him get medical attention, I cannot stop thinking about how much more serious that wound is for him in this camp than it would have been for me in London. When I think of Calais now, I think of how such a scary situation would be only trivial if the circumstances were slightly changed.
I am revolted by the political rhetoric that comes out of the mouths of American and European politicians. I try to be more objective, but the suggestion that the men I met in Calais are somehow in danger of radicalization because of their age and gender makes me sick to my stomach. The best counter-narrative I can offer is the sense of humor I experienced in Calais. Of course, it is not perfectly representative, but I believe it sheds light on the reality. At one point a Sudanese refugee joked with me when I told him I am American, and he asked if I know his ‘brother,’ Chris Brown. This was especially welcome in an environment where I felt hopeless, but he was not alone. One of the Syrians I met said he was from Egypt. As I stood by skeptically, one of my fellow volunteers went along with the joke, and his friend eventually forced him to say that he is from Syria. If you are not familiar with the Middle East, this joke might not carry any significance, but if you can pretend that Egypt is a place of stability then you will understand why I laughed. Yet, these were not pranksters. For a time, the Syrian guys my age were playing games with the teenagers on a sandy hill. Momentarily, you could even picture them at the beach.
Europe, and especially Britain, is a hope that people are clinging to for their future. Calais showed me first-hand that the popular image of the Jungle is merely a symptom of the very Western disease that incessantly transfuses itself via political bombast. I would take Jeremy Corbyn’s recent comments at Parliament a step farther, and invite American and British politicians to visit the Jungle before making any more comments about Muslims, foreigners, migrants, or refugees. They are, literally on our shores, and we can’t ignore this and hope the problem will resolve itself.
 I will keep the name of the organization anonymous, but if you are interested in volunteering I am happy to put you in touch. I refuse to refer to these people as “migrants.”
© Photo taken by author in Calais, France ‘Jungle Camp’ (Jan 2015).