This is an account from a Volunteer called JP, who I’ve recently met on Facebook on one of the Calais volunteer pages.
This was their first trip and this is what they witnessed.
I’ve returned safely after three days at ‘The Jungle’ in Calais.
The situation there is staggering. I expected to be taking part in an effective and well mobilised charity operation helping to ensure that vulnerable people were receiving vital aid in their hour of need. I had pictured teams of volunteers professionally funded and coordinated.
That is not even close to what is actually happening there.
Arriving at the main and only distribution warehouse on day one you learn that it is an otherwise disused and partially derelict building, occupied by no more than around 35 or so volunteers (including the group of 15 i travelled and arrived with that day). Among these is a sort of ‘hardcore’ of maybe seven or eight people (they wear orange flourescent jackets, the rest of us wear yellow) who on their own untrained initiative do their best to organise the operation, most of these people came for a day or two some months ago and upon realising how desperate things are they have simply dropped everything else in their lives and moved in. ALL the voulenteers who have experienced going ‘on site’ at the jungle and seen it with their own eyes immediately vow to themselves to make further plans to return to Calais doing a few days or weeks in the future as and when they can.
The warehouse contains six or seven bays of sorted items in boxes on shelves and a pile of unsorted donations roughly the size of a small bungalow. There are two people working on this pile today. I will later learn that a vast quantity of these are non useful and non usable items, these will all be sold to ‘cash for clothes’ at a price of one Euro per Kilo. Everything in the huge pile will have to be sorted through by hand, then further sorted into individual boxes – medium t shirts, large t shirts, children’s clothes, scarves, gloves, the many different types and sizes of shoe that exist, hygeine products, tents, the list goes on.
I spend my first morning making up what they call ‘Lucky bags’ – a thin black bin liner tied at the top containing two t shirts, a jumper, socks, gloves and a hat. Sometimes they include underwear or scarves too but often not since they have run out. Four of us really going for it make up around 300-400 bags over the course of a morning – during distribution at the camp these will disappear within just a few minutes. I didn’t do the distributions but i later witnessed them whilst i was doing other things at the camp. There are many more people in the queue than there are bags, it is raining and freezing cold, people are shivering, sometimes the queue breaks down and chaos ensues, sometimes the distribution has to be abandoned to avoid people getting hurt. I only made two breif trips to The Jungle on day one to drop off wood and a rickety gazebo and spent the rest of the day doing jobs at the warehouse.
Day two involved getting to know the camp itself in much more detail. When you work at The Jungle you are one of perhaps a dozen (more on weekend days) from the warehouse in a camp containing approximately 6500 refugees (estimates range on how many new ones arrive per day, between 100 and 150 perhaps). There is nobody else on site except the odd car coming to donate things. 12 untrained voulenteers on a site of over 6500 people.
I stand with three of my friends near the wooden shack distribution center, all of us are trying to work out just where to even begin or what to do. The flourescent jackets make us stand out from a mile away. We are approached by refugees constantly and relentlessly with questions we have no answers to. There is deep wet mud and litter all around us and large pools of murky brown water. People have no tents, most have only the wet clothes they stand in, no blankets, nowhere to sleep, some of them are wearing flip flops, some have missing limbs, there are men, women, families, parentless children, everybody is sick.
An Iraqi man tells me he arrived yesterday and has been out all night in the cold, he is desperate for a tent and begs for information about where to find one. I point in a gesture of pure guess work at at the distribution shack in front of us where there are a crowd of people climbing over each other to get to the tiny window items are handed out through periodically. He tells me “I didn’t come here to fight, i can’t fight like that”. I can’t help him, he quietly walks away.
I soon learn from walking around that tents in the Jungle generally have a very short life. The wind sweeps in over the sand dunes, the rain keeps falling, economy tents like you or i might abandon at a music festival are over crowded and invariably soon broken or flooded. Tent pegs are unusable in the sand, rock and litter. Instead the edges of tents have to be buried. Everywhere you dig reveals layer upon layer of rubbish and untold filth. A tarpaulin stretched over the top of each tent is essential even to make it last 48 hours, there are not enough bits of tarpaulin, there are virtually no tools.
We try our best to distribute tents from the warehouse one at a time so as not to cause a panic, everybody is desperate for a shack made from scrap wood instead. Around ten percent of the refugees get them eventually, either building them themselves or with help from the voulenteers. There isn’t enough scrap wood for most, let alone the hammer or nails to build anything. The rest keep trying to find more tents that aren’t broken or flooded yet.
We spend our time at the camp digging, making up sand bags, rushing around trying to save tents in the wind and rain, trying to errect more. We try to fill them with only the very most ‘deserving’ and desperate people. Everybody is deserving and desperate, nobody has anything, each tent takes us forever put up. It seems at any given point like maybe about a quarter of the people there don’t have one.
Whilst i’m working i am approached non stop by people pleading with me to help them too. They are begging in foreign languages, i have no idea what they are asking me for. I constantly reassure them i will try to get to them soon but they often don’t understand what i am saying. I will not get to any of them them soon, if at all.
Simultaneously there are refugees rushing to help me work. They insist that i give them the shovel and let them dig. They bring us packets of biscuits, bottled water, cigarettes for the smokers, they will not take no for an answer. Everybody wants to help everybody else before themselves. Everybody wants us to accept their gifts for our trouble. Some of the refugees choose to miss rare meal hand outs in favour of helping us work. The camp has designated areas, Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, Eritrea, but everybody mixes. The cold and wet are invited into strangers’ tents though they are over crowded already, people take turns were there are dry places to sleep. I work hurriedly in the rain with a man called Mohammed to dig drainage gulleys so that the growing pools of rancid water don’t run into the group of tents he is living amongst. Every job you do there is an emergency. Mohammed is funny and charming, we laugh together constantly. When i tell him my name is James he says ‘James Bond!’ and i shush him jokingly. I learn fast that human bonding has little to do with speaking the same language. I bump into Mohammed several times while i’m at The Jungle, he greets me with a warm smile each time. Mohammed is just one of several friends i made among the refugees. Many of them showed me photos of family holidays on their camera phones, pictures of their children, pictures of themselves in smart clothes, pictures of home in better times, i feel like they are trying to show me that they were just normal people like me, but it’s already obvious.
Day three brings a storm, it is windier and wetter than ever. I volunteer to work in the kitchen marquee after chatting to another volunteer who was going there. Watery porridge is served up with a mug of Chai. There is a guitar with a string missing and the call goes out for anyone who can play to keep morale up while the food is being served and eaten. I churn out the same ten or twelve songs that seem plausible with my sore throat on repeat and i’m treated like a celebrity for it by the refugees.
There is a newly arrived Syrian man with two boys of around fifteen or sixteen in the food tent. They are all smartly dressed and clean. The man has been granted asylum in the UK, but it is for him alone. I watch as he tightens the scarves of the boys and seemingly gives them a sort of ‘You be careful, i’ll come back for you soon’ type pep talk. The boys look cold and frightened, i know full well by now that they are right to be.
I spend the afternoon outside again rushing around trying to save tents. People thank you for a square inch of gaffa tape as if you have given them your life savings. Conditions are the worst i have seen so far, the wind is unbelievable and there is debris flying everywhere. Tarpaulins and tents are ripped from the ground by the dozen, people continue to arrive. As darkness falls we leave the camp as we had been advised to do each evening, but we all feel an overwhelming sense that we haven’t done enough.
I’m going to go out there again and do more when i can arrange it, to not do so seems inconceivable. They really badly need more voulenteers and more money to make any kind of dent at all, right now despite the best efforts of all the amazing people involved i’m afraid that there is woefully inadequate help for these people – they are literally dying only 200 miles away from Norwich. Whatever your political opinions are i’m asking you to please get involved and not stand by letting this happen. We can make a difference but we NEED numbers. I know so many musical people on here, they need YOU. They need builders, plumbers, wood workers, medical people, people who can put up ordinary tents, people who can use a shovel, people who can sort clothes at the warehouse, they need absolutely anybody they can get to help in any way they can. This is an absolutely horrendous emergency that is not going away any time soon. I don’t think i know a single person who wouldn’t be rushing to help if they truly realised how bad things are, i’m asking you in the strongest possible terms to please realise it now.