Historically Calais has been renowned as our close neighbor, twenty miles from the British shore, famous for being the principle port between the UK and France.
I have fond memories of Calais as it was often the destination for a weekend away with my Grandparents. The trips were an opportunity for them to visit friends in Dover before filling their car boot with wine and their fuel tank with the cheaper alternatives on the continent.
I always remember migrants offering to return our trolley in the hypermarkets in a hope that we’d let them keep the small change. Many were housed at the former Euro Tunnel construction warehouse at Sangatte.I can remember groups of migrants hanging around the Tunnel entrances, however since the camps closure in 2002 the subject of ‘Illegal Immigrants’ has died down and until this year it has not hit the headlines.
Like many I’d watched the news unfold from my mobiles news feed and after a friend shared (along with 63,000 others) this post on Facebook ‘What Life is Like in the Calais Migrant ‘Jungle’‘. My friend then asked me if I’d like to visit The Jungle and see what is happening first hand on our doorstep, to meet the people behind the headlines. Having spent time working in Eastern Africa I was interested to see what it was like and particularly intrigued by the businesses that had been set up in the camp.
Exiting from the 25 minutes of darkness on the 22:50 shuttle from Folkstone you could see the rotating blue lights coming through the trains window. I was mesmerized by the high fences and the amount of security which lined the tracks, with vans of the Gendarmerie stationed at every couple of hundred meters.
We’d booked two cheap nights in a hostel, which was ideally located the main market square of the Calais. The room consisted of a double bed and a nice modern bathroom with a wet room, walk in shower. I hope my friends credit card didn’t get cloned, as the dismal reviews on Trip Advisor only give it two stars: Belazur Hotel.
The picture above was taken on the Sunday morning as the scene was much different on the Saturday. Farmers and marketers from across the local region had congregated to the square selling a wide variety of products from cheese to plants, fish, bread and fruit. We spent half an hour wondering round before grabbing a croissant from a Patisserie.
Following the market we headed back to our room and packed our back for our trip to the Jungle. We’d purchased three fleeces from the car boot the weekend prior to our trip for a pound and had raided the cupboards to put a few food items in a bag – we were mindful about this and later handed it to the church on the camp, so they could be distributed fairly.
Our walk took us north of the city and took about an hour, passing the entrance to the ferry terminal and through an industrial area. As we drew closer the amount of migrants increased with many carrying large bottles of waters, with other riding bikes, overloaded with items, which looked like an incredible balancing act!
On arrival an American Aide Worker explained the set up with the camp being split into countries Eritrea, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan being a few that were listed. I was also surprised by the amount of red ‘Dismaland’ hoodies that people were wearing, after Banksy donated timber to help build shelters from his ‘bemusment park’ at Weston-super-Mare.
One of our expectations was that we would be heavily pestered for money and anything we could offer, which in our two hour stay we did not get asked once. We were surprised by the amount of people helping one another and learned a lot from Salomon, who runs St Michaels Church there. He despite it not being a nice place to live, people were friendly and helped one another, however he wouldn’t recommend moving around at night. Which is understandable due to the lack of lights and over 6,000 people living there.
Solomon, an Ethiopian left Addis Abada last year due to political unrest said he was hoping to join his wife and young daughter who had managed to fly to the UK and had settled near Liverpool. The church had built a small shed which had a number of tent, blankets and sleeping bags within it and this is where we left our fleeces.
You won’t find Baloo the Bear and Mowgli in the small library, cleverly named after Rudyard Kipling’s classic. Instead you’ll find a small space crammed to the rafters with varying genres with thrillers, atlas’, dictionaries and even a neat line of the Harry Potter series. The door has timetables for various subjects for classes that people can attend, with a guitar carefully positioned in a far corner, for those who are more musical. The library offers laptops with access to the internet via a 4G dongle.
Jungle Books was set up by a British volunteer, Mary Jones who wanted to create a space for normality ‘This library can lend a semblance of normality to their lives. It’s a place where people can drop in and have a chat, maybe play a bit of music, not only read books’.
On the business front I witnessed a similar entrepreneurial culture to what I saw whilst working on the Balloon Kenya project. The main streets of the camps were full of wooden structures shops and restaurant, selling shoes, socks, energy drinks – anything they could purchase from the local Lidl. As one Syrian shop keeper told me he buys all his stock from Lidl and Aldi, wheels it back in a trolley and resells it on the camp.
There were many volunteers we spoke to on the camp, a small army of Sikh gentlemen from London had hired a van and made over 5,000 chapatis with a vegetarian filling on the Friday, crossing the channel over night. Despite feeling bad they insisted that we tried one, so we shared it between us.
We spoke at length to a Scottish Doctor, who had been collecting donations in Dumfries before bringing his two teenage children to volunteer during half term, stating they’d learn much more in Calais. The Doctor spoke of the injuries that people were coming to the first aid hut with, many had cut flesh trying to climb barbed wire, others with sprains from falling and he also spoke of an increased level of scabies.
Despite the media often portraying that hundred of people are trying to make the crossing each night (which I’m sure a large amount are) many that we spoke to had given up trying. Many attempts have resulted in death or injury – people jumping on to trains from bridges or being crushed by lorries. Opting to seek asylum on the continent rather than the UK.
One thing that surprised us was the level of education and strong careers that the people of the camp had come from, many from wealthy backgrounds in their homeland. Many were eager to find work and restart their lives. Most were happy to talk, anxious to explain they are not looking for a handout or benefits. Many were embarrassed at their circumstances and apologetic for their living conditions.
A thing that worried me before traveling to France was the safety of my girlfriend, with 65% of the camp being male. However at no point did she feel endangered or threatened, as many of the people were friendly and really wanted to have a chat.
I haven’t really formed an opinion on what is right and what is wrong and would probably see myself sat on one of the £7m pounds worth of fencing that has been erected over the last few months. The situation is not ideal, but it is far safer than where the people have come from.