All the humans in Calais

Hi T,
Things are moving quickly here. I thought I’d share with you a still very undigested experience of volunteering in the Jungle, the camp in Calais. In some ways it was just what I expected, in others I was taken by surprise. The chaotic organisation of volunteers and donations was just what I had anticipated, but I was taken aback by the level of permanence demonstrated in the Jungle itself.

Sure, most people are living in tents, but there are an increasing amount of wooden structures with lockable doors. The streets in the camp consist mostly of mud and puddles, yet they are lined with shops, restaurants, cafes, barbers… There is a theatre, a church, four schools, a library. All in makeshift buildings of course, but nonetheless. Throughout the days there are various language lessons, creative writing workshops, kung fu-training, theatre, music. Volunteers assist in a lot of this, but a lot of it is run by people staying in the camp. It is even the case now that “outsiders” come in just to have a look around, a bit like tourists, and further encourage the local economy. There are even signs up asking people not to take photographs…


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Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of misery and appalling conditions too. There are only a few water points, with rumours going around that the water is contaminated with E. coli. There are a few portaloos that from time to time may get emptied. Now in winter, the camp is very cold and wet, and people have a lot of work trying to keep the water and the mud away from their tents. More often than not there is a strong police presence outside the camp. Occasionally, there are confrontations with them. Often they happen when there is a traffic jam on the motor way that runs next to the camp. People run up the bank and try to jump lorries that have slowed down. While I was there three people died doing this. The police respond by teargasing the entire entrance to the camp.
I spent six days there, working in the camp and in a warehouse that processes the donations coming in, mostly from the UK. It is a fascinating, inspiring, and chaotic situation to come into. There is no official organisation coordinating the aid – it is all done by volunteers. Most of these volunteers tend to come for just a few days, so there is an extremely high turnover. The people who have been there the longest, often only a couple of weeks, find themselves organising and coordinating the aid delivery as much as they can. But it means that there is no real continuity, it is difficult to establish routines and so much gets lost.
At the moment, this is how it works: Donations in the form of clothing, tents, blankets, sleeping bags, hygiene items, food, toys, etc are delivered to a big warehouse. Most of the donations come from the UK. There are several warehouses in Calais, and I was at the biggest. Several vans arrive every day with new things, providing an incredible amount of work for volunteers sorting donations. A scary amount of the donations, probably 60% or so, is sorted as “cash for clothes” – i.e. clothing that is unsuitable for the camp. People donate all kinds of inappropriate stuff like thin or worn out clothing, and other things we just can’t handle, such as children’s clothing. There aren’t that many kids in the camp and there are already so many boxes of children’s clothes waiting to be distributed. All these “cash for clothes” bags are then transported back to the UK to be sold on to other charities. The only one profiting from that system must be the ferry companies – it’s a lot of work for people collecting the donations and the people sorting them through. Anyway, the warehouse I was in was massive, with a lot waiting to be sorted, but also incredible amounts going out to the camp every day in distributions.
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Distributions work in several different ways, and sometimes they don’t work at all. There are a few official distribution points around the camp – wooden structures that have a door with a lock. The idea is that vans load up at the warehouse, drive into camp, and unload their things into these structures. Every day at a certain time a volunteer opens up and does a distribution from there. Now, in practice, people of course notice when a huge van comes into the camp, they crowd around and help unload the donations into the distribution point, and there is no turning them away, so the distribution tends to start whenever the unloading has finished. Those lucky enough to be at the start of the line (if we are lucky enough to be able to form a line) get the best pick.
Other people just drive their car or van into the camp, open up the boot and do a distribution from there, in which case it is the people who happen to be standing around that get the things first.
I took part in the distributions a couple of times. They tend to go better if someone volunteers to be a translator, and they can also often help keep the crowds in check. Once we did a distribution without a translator though, and I had to get by on my very limited Arabic. When speaking to the people I noticed a few things:
Some of the distributions go to people who really are desperate for whatever it is they get, a tent, a blanket, shoes etc.
However, most of it goes to people who are just curious as to what they can get today, and they will probably sell it on the black market in the camp. This must be how many of the businesses and restaurants were able to obtain a starting capital. Branded shoes apparently sell for quite a lot. Jeans as well, especially if they are skinny around the ankles. Nobody wants wide jeans – they get caught climbing fences and jumping trains.
The distributions made me feel uncomfortable, not so much because there is a black market (that only means that people can have some form of livelihood), but because us white volunteers were contributing to creating a hierarchy within the camp that we weren’t even aware of. And I got the impression that most volunteers didn’t even want to think about that, but continue believing that they were handing out things to those who are desperate and extremely needy. Also, there is a practice of “personal shopping”, where volunteers take personal orders from friends they’ve made in the camp (often those who can speak English) and get special items from the warehouse for them. Very strange dynamic there.
But actually, paradoxically, all the UK aid and volunteers are fuelling this black market, or local economy if you want to call it that, which means that people can do some business, have a little bit of a livelihood etc., which in turn means that structures become more permanent, and people can stay for longer. None of the longer term volunteers had any answers to that, there is no plan. Reading one evening, I came across this article talking about research claiming that many refugee camps are in fact not temporary. Instead, they become the new shanty towns and slums. This is what we can see happening in Calais I think. All the resources and aid coming in are contributing to making the situation more liveable and humane (although there is still a long way to go!), but also more permanent.But if the Jungle is becoming more and more permanent – do we really want it dependent on such extremely unreliable, unpredictable, and unthought through inputs such as UK volunteer time and donations?

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