A normal refugee camp that we have all seen before across the globe over the years has only ever had a maximum of 2 nationalities, but the camp in Calais named the Jungle has people from approximately 15 different nations and is home to over 6000 people.
I recently visited the Jungle with Brighton base volunteer group, the Humming Bird Project. We went out to build some wooden shelters, to house some of the most vulnerable people in the camp. The aim was to build 3 shelters to house approximately 90 people in 48hrs, in reality, we didn’t factor in things like the Lorry with all the building parts turning up several hours late due to turning up in the wrong meeting point, Landrover breaking down, the Lorry we were using to ferry the building parts to the jungle breaking down and the fact it was everyone’s first time building such a structure.
By end of day one we were way behind schedule having only got the first building up but with no roof, on day two more vehicle issues but eventually by end of day two the second building was up but with no roof. As I write this back in the UK, the guys that were able to stay have got the third building up minus the roof that should go on tomorrow.
Walking through the jungle, you get to really understand the hardship these people are living in, I said at the beginning that this isn’t actually a refugee camp, which is true, no government around the world has officially accepted the jungle as a refugee camp, it’s just an area of land next to a chemical plant that has refugees living there.
Walking through the camp you actually forget you are in a European country and feel you are transported somewhere like Africa or some shantytown of India.
There are still a vast amount of old second hand donated small festival tents that people who have used at Glastonbury and donated, but more and more money is being raised by lots of volunteer groups to purchase and build wooden shelters that are insulated and even have locks on for security.
The rain may have passed for now, which from experience of expeditions around the world, I’ve always considered rain the worse element to battle against in tents, once things are wet, it’s almost impossible to get them dry. Now the winter has turned cold, below zero cold, better for people administering themselves, but now extreme cold is hitting the refugees trying to keep warm, especially at night. Most sleep under thin duvets or in sleeping bags suitable for the summer. During my stay I was in a caravan in an arctic army sleeping bag, as I settled down to sleep cozy and warm I couldn’t not think how cold the refugees were feeling. I also had the luxury that I knew I was going home to my house in the UK.
As much as the camp is cold, battered by the elements, dangerous to the most vulnerable by exploitation by those that take out their frustration on those who can’t defend themselves, during the day they all still put on a brave smile, the majority are polite and so friendly. During my stay myself and a couple of the other volunteers went to walk round the camp and were welcomed into a restaurant, yes you read it right a restaurant, by an afghan guy call Saffi who wouldn’t take no for an answer, he welcomed us in and gave us all a cup of tea and refused to take payment, he told his story… He was an engineer in Afghanistan but left by plane to Iran and made the dangerous journey made by so many others from conflict zones to the northern shores of Africa where he paid people traffickers to get on a crappy little boat to Greece where he then mostly by foot made his way to Calais.
Saffi had even made it to the UK and had lived there for 5yrs before being deported back to Afghanistan, where with determination made the same journey to Calais again, making for the second time the boat journey that has killed so many.
Now in Calais he has built out of wood a small restaurant to help make a living whilst he is stuck in limbo in the Jungle determined to make it to the UK where he hopes to afford to get the rest of his family to follow.
Like I said this is no refugee camp, normally an organisation such as UNHCR or Red Cross etc, would oversee such a camp, western governments would recognise they camp as refugee status, but not the jungle in Calais. French authorities just about tolerate the camp and its occupants and have sent in several times the French riot police firing off rubber bullets and tear gas. The occupants are people unwanted by any nation, left in limbo in a camp not fit for animals.
The refugees only hope is small groups of volunteers, many from the UK who have no experience in humanitarian crisis, fund raising for food, tents, clothes etc… But with more Chiefs than Indians, more clapped out second hand transit vans than I’ve ever seen in my life all in one place crossing to Calais from the UK on a daily basis and three warehouses in Calais stocked up with lots of clothes, tents, sleeping bags and a total lack of logistical knowledge to get it all out to those who desperately needed. Then there’s the important job of allocating the much sort after wooden shelters, which has fallen to a young 19yr old lad from the UK who is on a gap year, this a job with huge responsibility would normally be given to a highly experienced humanitarian aid person from an international humanitarian organisation.
Community elders have met with for the first time with representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR informed the community elders that they still had no plan of what to do about the refugee crisis. That they had no idea what would happen to the 6000+ residents of the jungle.
On my walk through the camp I met with a former interpreter who worked for the British Army in Afghanistan who explained there is estimated over 500 former British Army interpreters in the camp who were left to flee their homes after the coalition forces left Iraq and Afghanistan in 2014. These brave men risked their lives, and their families lives to work with the British Army have been forgotten about by the western governments including the UK.
It’s the politicians of Europe that are causing unjust misery to the inhabitants of the Calais camp, I’m not a supporter of allowing thousands upon thousands of refugees into the UK as we are really just a small Island, as much as it would make us all feel good, the influx would also put major strain on our economic infrastructure and services such as the NHS and housing provided by local government. However the lack of ownership by western governments involvement in the Middle East for example has been a large factor in the mass migration of refugees into Europe.
It’s fact we as Europe can’t cater for a million plus refugees coming to stay in such a short space of time, but until Europe takes a hands on approach and excepts camps such as Calais are genuine refugee camps and pressure France to accept this in particular to allow an organisation such as the Red Cross to come in and take control and organise the many volunteers into a productive and efficient team to help life in the jungle improve.
Reported by Mike Buss – 22nd January 2016