OPINION: Volunteering in ‘le Jungle’, refugee camps in Calais

Posted On: December 15, 2015

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My time in ‘the Jungle‘, the French name for the refugee camps in Calais, was what I can only describe as a revelation.  I really don’t think I’ll ever be the same again, at least I hope I won’t.  Not that I was a bad person before but I think I was definitely a little self-absorbed and failed to appreciate the good things in my life.  In total, I spent ten days there from the 25th of November to the 4th of December 2015 working as part of a team of volunteers, mainly in the warehouse sorting through, packing and labelling the various donations and distributing them directly to the refugees in the camp.

The refugee camps are referred to by the French as ‘Le Jungle’ and once there, it’s easy to see why.  ‘Jungle’ with its connotations of wildness, exoticism and overgrown dense forest is not too far a departure from this overpopulated, ad-hoc and unruly collection of tents and shacks on a small scrap of land, a couple of miles away from the centre of the town of Calais, located right beside the Eurotunnel highway and a large number of factories.  It’s surrounded by huge barbed wire-topped fences and the entrances near the highway are closely guarded by the French gendarmerie who are intimidating in their bulletproof vests and with their large guns, ready for action.

Once inside the camp, the first thing that strikes you is the amount of tents everywhere and the amount of young men wandering around, alone or in twos or threes. There are no women to be seen.  Walk a little further and you see small shops selling a limited range of goods, a couple of restaurants and even a barber’s!  Everywhere there is rubbish piling up and at the back of the tents too.  You notice a couple of taps and people washing their hands and feet.  Later you find out that these are the only taps for the countless thousands of refugees in this particular camp. It’s filthy, unsanitary and ripe for an epidemic with all these people living in such close quarters with no electricity or proper sanitation. To make matters worse, the camp’s inhabitants are constantly at the mercy of the freezing winds and driving rain that is common here in this part of Northern France.  A more unhospitable environment you would be hard pressed to find. Yet it is here that a huge contingent of migrants and asylum seekers have ended up, caught in a limbo where the French and British authorities are at odds about who is going to deal with them.

Everywhere you look are streams of young men wandering around apparently aimlessly although the minute a white van pulls up these young men hopefully ask ‘Line?’ with a smile and congregate in small groups ready to form a line if it turns out that there’s a distribution happening.  And this is exactly what happens in most cases.

Doing a distribution is an exercise in heartbreak and resilience. The immediate objective of Care4Calais, the charity I was working with, was to deal with donations as quickly and as efficiently as possible and distribute them immediately.  All sorts of donations were received in the large warehouse where I spent much of the day.  Vanloads of goods from clothes to tents to boots, stoves, sleeping bags, underwear and toiletries etc. arrived on a daily basis and had to be sorted through, categorized, boxed and labelled immediately, ready to go into the back of a van as soon as they were needed.  This is where the volunteers came in!  Naturally with all those generous donations, you needed manpower to process it all and the numbers of volunteers varied each day.

The particular item that was distributed on any given day varied and seemed to be based on the most pressing need. One day it was waterproof coats, another day it was ‘goody bags’ filled with toiletries, another day it was blankets and so on. The most difficult day for me was around my second or third day when we were distributing wooden pallets which were for the refugees to sleep on.  I remember standing at the back of the van, holding hands with another volunteer to form a human chain so that none of the refugees would break through and start grabbing and seeing all those young guys, waiting patiently in a queue a hundred deep, just to get a wooden pallet to put their sleeping bags on so that they would have something to keep them off the floor, suddenly had me close to tears.  I looked at their expectant faces and couldn’t help thinking that this was no way for anyone to live and that their dignity had been taken away from them. I wondered how many of them had been perhaps important, respected people in their own countries and here they now were, anonymous and forced to queue for wooden pallets.  How does one maintain a sense of self when that has been stripped away from you?

There were a couple of moments like this during my volunteering experience.  Another time was when I spoke to a young Afghan guy called Saeed who’d been hanging around after a distribution.  I don’t recall how we got talking or what I said to him but he revealed to me that his mother and father had both been killed by the Taliban. Their supposed crime?  They owned a business which the Taliban wanted to possess.  I don’t know the full details of this story, nor did I enquire as I didn’t wish to pry.  All I could do was listen to Saeed and sympathise and try to hold back my own tears as I could feel his pain. Saeed himself was a lovely, gentle soul who spoke excellent English.  He wanted to get to England, as did most of the refugees we encountered.  When you asked why, most of them replied that they had family there.  Someone told me later that I should feel very honoured that Saeed told me his story as it wasn’t often that refugees would trust you enough.

Having seen the injury inflicted on one young African migrant’s hand in an encounter with the police and experienced myself the hostility of the French police who stopped our van to search it on one distribution, I can understand why that might be the case.  And having all these do-gooder volunteers and charity workers come into the camp, while it might be a positive in that they generally never arrived empty handed, might be disappointing as well as most of them never stayed very long and soon went back to their comfortable, safe lives in the rich countries of Europe.

Since coming back to Ireland, after my 10 days in the camp, I have often thought about the refugees and wondered what more I can do to help them.  Saeed has also been in my thoughts frequently.  I feel I am now more attuned to the refugee crisis and perhaps more informed than I was before my trip and am determined to raise greater awareness of the issue here.  People in Ireland really don’t know how good they have it and yes, of course we have our own problems what with our spiralling housing crisis, homelessness, corrupt politicians etc., but it all pales into insignificance with the scale of the refugee crisis that is happening on our doorstep.  If I have learned nothing else from this experience, it’s that I must feel grateful for everything in my life, particularly my family and friends and the simple fact that I was fortunate enough to be born where I was.

Sorcha Grisewood