I have recently come back from a trip to the Jungle Refugee camp in Calais.
I have seen shanty towns in Kenya but have never been to a refugee camp. It is horrible.
The camp hides in plain sight at the East end of the Calais Ferry Terminal next to the motorway that almost every holiday maker will use to travel on to the heartland of Europe. It is obvious but inconspicuous in its openness. The camp sits on a former sandy nature reserve and has been half cleared by the French authorities, who have built a camp made from containers for migrants/refugees who are willing to be finger printed and documented. This has reduced the size of the camp but has created a refugee Apartheid separating those who the authorities believe can be settled as refugees from those who have fled terrible situations at home, but who the authorities do not class as refugees. The men I met there were mainly from Peswar in Pakistan, Northern Afghanistan, or Eritrea.
The first question I get asked is why did I go? And this was the first question that the people I spoke to in the camp asked me. The main reason for going was to understand what the Jungle camp was like, who was there and are these people actually the demonised migrants flooding Europe as I read in the press, or desperate people trying to escape a terrible situation at home?
The second question I get asked is what is it like. I think this video and the images below, answers that question, but read on afterward to see what I thought.
In simple terms its horrible.
The camp is a very male place, with the age of the inhabitants being around 25-50. But all male. There are some women about, but the ones I saw were the aid workers doling out free food in the chickpea kitchens or doling out clothes from the distribution points or running the jungle library or therapy centre. They are aid workers and not the core inhabitants of the camp. The main population is male.
The camp has four components.
The cleared area where the “famous church” and community building are. I say buildings, but if you think about Glastonbury after the festival that is what you should keep in your mind. However dial the glitz of Glastonbury down to 1978 and 4 months of rain.
There is the cleared area, where the community buildings are situated. It looks like Satan’s building site covered in rubble, latrines and what I can only really describe as general shit.
The very centre of the camp is a container village, ordered, disciplined and surrounded by a huge fence to keep out the undocumented migrants – a double exclusion.
The shanty town, which looks like a shanty town. If you live in Reading imagine the festival with home made tents that has been there for 2 years. The place is massively scruffy with shacks made of odd bits of material, wood, carpet and home, but surrounded with the detritus of a mobile population of men who do not want a stake in the place they live in.
The main street, which like most main streets is a collection of small shops, restaurants and a couple of mosques. The shops are very interesting and I will come on to that later.
The latrines. These are very important and actually, on the day I was there not very smelly. But the sweet, sickly smell of chemical toilets and general excreta pervades the air. On a hot day it must be awful. It was about 15 deg when I was there and the air was already quite fruity.
Ok I think that this is five areas, but you get the picture.
All through this are doted caravans and aid spots of people who are trying to bring doctors services, dentistry and counselling to people who are dislocated and desperate.
What are the people like? Is another question people have posed to me.
What are the people like?
They are men, men who have travelled for months or in a couple of cases I spoke to years to get to Calais.
For some reason, which I cannot fathom, England is seen as a beacon. Not of better social security, not of better food, not of better housing, certainly not of better weather, but of something intangible…..better hope.
The men I spoke to all wanted a better life than the one they had at home, but it was not a better life in terms of money, in terms of old fashioned Pounds, Shillings and Pence but they saw England, Sorry any ScotsNats readers out there, but Scotland didn’t figure as a beacon of hope, they saw England as a place of hope.
The men I spoke to were lucid, intelligent and could hold a better conversation in English than most Englishmen. I think this is the thing that most surprised me. I could hold a normal conversation at a normal speed and normal pace as I could at home. Everyone I spoke to hoped to make it to England one day.
Whilst they were imbued with hope, there was a sense of failure. Some of the people I spoke would not let me photograph them because, they said: ” I do not want my parents to know I have failed..”They said that they were embarrassed that they had ended up in the camp.
But why were they embarrassed? They felt that they had been undone because at home they were people of status, they were software engineers, marketing managers and store managers. At home they had responsible and status bringing middle class jobs, but felt under threat by the wars and violence around them. To end up in a shit and wood smoke smelling shanty town in France’s least fashionable town was not how they saw their lives panning out.
The majority of men that I met were polite and a bit sceptical as to why I was there. They wondered why I was interested and whether I could do anything to help them? They were right to ask the question, but I was amazed at the fluency at which they could ask the question, and the generosity with which they pressed cups of tea in to my hand, NATO standard of course (If you don’t know what that means look it up here)
And so to the shops. Why were there shops and restaurants there? The Ashram Kitchen aside, which is run by westerners, all the shops and restaurants have been set up by the inhabitants of the camp. As well as meting a need for fresh food and some where to meet, one of the shopkeepers, a baker, told me that he set up his shop because he was bored. He had a managerial job at home and wanted to keep his brain active. He did what I would probably have done if I was in that situation, he tried to deal with his boredom and frustration with activity. His bread came highly recommended by the others I spoke to.
What does this mean?
When I was driving home, I found I could smell the camp on my hands. I had shaken hands with so many people that it had left a mark on me. I could smell the sweet smell of latrine disinfectant, shit, wood smoke, mens’ sweat, dirt and a sense of homelessness. When I sat on my sofa I realised that my clothes smelt the same. In just a short few hours I had become part of the camp, or so it seemed. I know that I have been left with a sense of deep confusion as to what my own reaction to the camp should be and whether, for the sake of humanity, the UK should let these people come in. I know that the people I met would not seem out of place in the high street of any average English town or even possibly a Scottish town. Many of the men I met certainly spoke better English than that I hear spoken by the year 10 girls from my children’s local secondary school.
In fact I do know what this means.
The camp is a blot on our humanity. It is a reproach to European nations that claim to stand for human rights yet refuse to accept that these people and those like them getting in rickety boats in Libya this morning are not fleeing their lands because they want to.
The camp is made up of bright, resourceful, determined and hopeful people who will be an asset for any country that will have them.
The camp is disgusting and I wish that the Nigel Farage’s and Boris Johnsons of this world would come with me on my next trip.
What I don’t know
What I don’t know is what my own and my town’s reaction to this should be. I am only a photographer, a student, a father, a businessmen, a husband, a man – what can I do?
I am still working this out and would love to hear your opinions (Yes I know I am asking for trouble – I really am interested) Contact me on digitalmck [at] gmail.com