Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

Port in the storm: the Calais ‘Jungle’ felled

Alamy CalaisWeb

In the light of the Calais ‘Jungle’ crisis, where clearance is under way with the help of tear gas, batons, helmets and shields in the name of a ‘humanitarian operation’, these are the living conditions experienced by our writer last year

The first thing you notice in the Jungle is the rubbish. It piles up between tents and is trodden into the ground, where it disintegrates into the mulchy foundation of the growing camp where more than four thousand people live on the outskirts of Calais between motorway and sand dunes. Broken plastic containers lie among the high heels, broken shoes, party clothes and other donated goods that have been discarded as unusable. Some of the rubbish may once have been useful but was thrown out of cars into crowds without thought for whether it would fit the person whose hands it was pushed into. Dropped on the ground in mud and rain, it is quickly ruined. Without waste disposal systems, the rubbish disintegrates into the mud, rots or gets burned. At night, the smell of burning plastic hangs in the air, when people light fires for light and warmth.

At dawn, the twenty or so portaloos are being pumped out and sprayed down with a hose by two workers who speak to no one. Most toilets are just bushes, or holes dug in the ground. The waterpoints are the only other site of activity at that time. A few early birds are washing their faces, hands and feet, in preparation for the day, or for Salat – Muslim daily prayer. A few others can be seen filling water canisters to take back to their homes. This process reveals some of the most valuable assets: shopping trolleys and bikes with trailers – the kind you put toddlers in – which can be filled with large canisters, reducing the effort of getting water. Most of the camp is either asleep or still walking home, making the two-hour journey from the Tunnel where they will have ‘tried’ during the night.

Dirt, rubbish, water, poor sanitation and the need for warmth confirm our familiar understanding of a refugee camp: a biopolitical space that exists as a temporarily neutral location to manage bare life with the bare necessities to sustain survival. It is a space for existing or dying, rather than a place in which to live and thrive. At a demonstration, visitors march with the crowd from the camp to the port, chanting ‘No Jungle, No Jungle!’ The unsanitary toilets, rotting rubbish and boredom of trapped people cause an understandable revulsion for well-meaning humanitarians, but the reaction is swift from a nearby resident of the camp: ‘YES Jungle, YES Jungle!’

Calais jungle banner

Calais jungle banner

Source: Global Justice Now

‘Jungle not for us - it’s for animals’ - the camp in September 2015

With the smaller camps of Calais and other migrant residences of France facing regular eviction, it is vitally important to celebrate the achievements, responsibility and community of residents in order to defend their right to remain. The fires aren’t just lit for warmth and light, but as a social space for friends to gather. These remarkable people have a mosque, a church, bars, restaurants and shops, demonstrating that the social and entrepreneurial life of the camp is vibrant.

Despite the expected brevity of people’s stay in the Jungle, residents take the time and effort to ensure that their identity is expressed in every aspect of construction; faith, modernity, nationality, nationalism, innovation, hope, aspiration and pride can be seen everywhere.

The structures of the camp come in two main varieties: tents and houses. The majority are small tents, weighed down by rocks and crowded tightly together around the periphery of the camp. Most have plastic sheeting or tarpaulins tied either on top to prevent leakage in heavy rain, or attached to the front to create an extension. Drainage is the key constraint that governs the layout of the camp, with the higher spaces in the dunes having the cleanest tents while homes on lower, muddy land require wooden pallets to be used either under the tent or inside it, to prevent the beds and belongings from getting wet. The houses mostly comprise a wooden rectangular frame with a shallow peak in the roof, and tarpaulins stretched over the outside. Inside, there is a layer of cardboard from old boxes tacked onto the frame. In the luckier cases, this has been covered with a skin of blankets, fastened over the top as another layer of insulation. There are variations in the basic structure; in size and shape. Many domestic huts have an open front but a wall halfway inside their home. The front part of the home is where they can easily welcome people on a salvaged sofa, while the residents sleep behind the wall in the more private part.

‘The camp’s distribution of people loosely according to background reflects the way diasporas aim to forge communities and connections in large cities’

Other huts have a narrow doorway with an interior screen near the entrance to provide a little privacy and protection from the outside weather. Some have wooden pallets to raise parts of the floor from the mud. Net hangs from the front of shops rather than a wall, showcasing the colourful tins, while protecting them from being grabbed by thieves. One home has a thatched roof that looks distinctly African and many cafés and restaurants have deep-set benches with rugs on, where people can take off their shoes, sit down and eat Kurdish food. The reminiscences of lost home countries are more explicit in places, where walls have been customised with paint: a simple cross, Arabic script, a plea to ‘think Soudan!’ You see names of countries, prayers, flags and allegiances to liberation movements, signifying language and identity to those who share it, so that newcomers can find support networks to acquire resources. The camp’s distribution of people loosely according to background reflects the way diasporas aim to forge communities and connections in large cities. Fear of creating ghettos in city planning usually means that visible demarcation of identities is limited to illicit graffiti or celebration in state-sanctioned multicultural celebrations. Even in enterprises, identity is usually limited to the products sold, rather than the buildings, decoration, business model and trading hours. In a place where people’s common experiences are highly visible in their presence and lifestyles, expression of difference between communities is less constrained, and serves as a useful mechanism for caring for neighbours and new arrivals. The loss of homelands is openly regretted and mourned, alongside expressions of hope for the future.

As well as expressions of nationality, political statements can be seen in the occasional banner declaring ‘no borders!’, and an old tyre is propped up against a house with yellow letters painted on it, reading ‘FREEDOM’. Ambitions are visible, as well as hopes, with ‘restaurant’, ‘café’ and in one remarkably ambitious instance ‘hotel’ emblazoned on a wall, declaring that the huts are open for business. Lists of wares are painted outside shops and cafés (pakora, chicken, samosa, chips). Other people just seem to have enjoyed themselves in flights of whimsy and individuality, where a few huts have wild flowers in pots and jars in front of their home and a handful of households have flowers or murals drawn on to their tarpaulins in permanent marker. Many house-proud residents have tacked their favourite blankets to the parts of the wall nearest the door, while another household has erected a small wooden fence in front of its home, creating the illusion of a porch on pallets.

People stream in and out of the newly opened library, taking donated dictionaries, novels, comics and textbooks. Some will stop and ask for something in particular, sharing their own hopes for the future:

‘Do you have a biology textbook? I have only found a medical dictionary … I want to be a doctor.’

‘Do you know good art colleges in UK? My family wanted me to be an engineer but I will go to art college.’

‘You have dictionary? I am teaching English to my friends in our tents.’

Only one person helps himself from the boxes of donated Methodist Bibles unlike all those who prefer the Orthodox Eritrean prayer books in the church next door. Teachers, chefs, students, parents and an aspiring engineer all appear, keen to learn and occupy their minds with fiction or the future.

One Somali man agrees to pose for a photographer, holding up a book in front of the shelves while looking serious. Journalists are unpopular among many of the residents.

‘This is OK,’ the man says after posing, pointing around and at his book ‘not like in the queues.’ He is referring to the queues of people that line up to wait for donations near vans of food, shoes and toiletries, or outside the Salam centre. This is where a lot of journalists, photographers and volunteers converge to take pictures of people while they cover their faces or look away. They also tend to ask white volunteers whether they can take pictures, rather than asking the subjects of photos themselves. ‘You have to have respect yourself [sic].’

‘Many residents are persistently hospitable, inviting guests for tea at their tents and offering them the last of their milk, sugar and biscuits, while apologising that they don’t have more’

The significance of dignity is rarely more poignant than in the expression of such a preference. Refuge is something that is often conceived of as something the West gives, using NGOs to deliver all the required goods for survival. However, these people are here because they aren’t being given refuge, and instead they are building it for themselves in their houses, their savings, their prayers and their attempts to cross the border. They don’t always begrudge the societies that are withholding refuge and some even exclaim: ‘We love UK!’ They are, however, reluctant to be treated as passive recipients and are offended by attempts to portray them as such. Many residents are persistently hospitable, inviting guests for tea at their tents and offering them the last of their milk, sugar and biscuits, while apologising that they don’t have more. They will cook tins of kidney beans with oil and provide food or simply seating to guests, shooing away relatives and friends to demonstrate their agency and a hospitality that they aren’t being shown in Europe.

Regardless of its cause and despite its benefits, migration involves distressing levels of social dislocation. We live in an increasingly migratory world where ordinary citizens move between country, city and suburb in the course of their life, while work, study, family and lifestyle become ever more globalised. Across the world, another 2.5 billion people are projected to urbanise by 2050 and over 50 million people are currently displaced, internally or as refugees. All too often people must move for safety and refuge and, finding none, move on, repeatedly forced beyond the boundaries of our cities into holding spaces or else detained in rigidly controlled former prisons. This approach to migrants, and refugees in particular, is contradictory: we either provide food and shelter and legal recognition while imprisoning people in detention centres or tightly regulated housing, or else allow autonomy without rights on the edge of European civilisation in holding spaces that we refuse to acknowledge. Those holding spaces tend to be treated as temporary by both refugees and states alike for political expediency but often end up being long-term residences for people who end up living a liminal existence, free but afraid and unable to safely make their own futures. Without roots and unsure of the future, people need other avenues in which they can feel free and in control of their lives.

calais camp 2

calais camp 2

Source: Wikimedia

The camp in June 2015

Grassroots approaches to planning and development risk irrelevance when they only take account of those people that have already taken root in a place. Where the voices and varied identities of transient populations or future populations are unacknowledged, the dislocation that migrants experience will be greater, and the cohesion of communities harder. Everybody needs to express their tastes and identities in the spaces they occupy, but when you lose the place you take your identity and comfort from, it is perhaps even more important to be able to have a role in creating your new home wherever you end up.

That kind of empowerment means that agencies in camps need to provide services and welfare in camps while allowing organic and anarchic building and enterprise to continue to take place. In cities, empowering migrants means ensuring that the cheap housing that they need exists for people to occupy, but also that its design is flexible. Agency means ensuring that people can move into adaptable homes that they can make their own rather than living in cramped spaces with the same layout and furnishings repeated over and over.

The primary issue, however, is to recognise the innate value of each human life and its capabilities so that we can design our migration policies and plan the capacity of our cities to welcome as many people as want to come. The restriction of spaces to live in Calais has resulted in a seedy underside to the camp: when people are intoxicated and it is dark, it is smarter to move around the camp in a group for safety. People from other, smaller camps on the outskirts of the city and elsewhere in France are routinely evicted, pushing residents into the Jungle, creating overcrowding, and growing too big for an anarchic place without services or legal structures. When we recognise that people are very good at determining how, where and among whom they will flourish, we must acknowledge the need to provide as many opportunities for enterprising, creative and dedicated people to shape our cities instead of enforcing exclusion or assimilation.

Lead Image

The Calais ‘Jungle’ the day before eviction in February 2016. Source: Karen Fleming/Alamy