Refugees lost in the Calais Jungle

Times Colonist reporter Katie DeRosa is on leave in England, where she is completing a master’s degree at the London School of Economics. This month, she travelled as a volunteer to an unauthorized refugee camp in Calais, France, where an estimated 5,000 people hope to cross the English Channel to Britain.

The driving wind and cold rains of winter make the Jungle refugee camp in Calais an even more unforgivable place than it already is. On a recent Wednesday in January, men line up and wait for more than an hour to get a pair of shoes, some wearing flip-flops and no socks or running shoes with the backs folded down. As the shoes are distributed, a scuffle breaks out, men shouting and pushing toward the small hut where a group of volunteers are trying to regain control of the crowd.

Next door at the lunch-distribution hut, where I’m serving curry, rice and couscous, the volunteer trying to enforce the numbered ticket system is fighting an uphill battle as people skip the line. I’m told the previous first-come-first-served system was utter chaos, with people descending on the hut en masse.

I can’t blame any of the camp residents for their frustration; they are desperate people living in desperate conditions. Built on a former landfill site, it has no clean water, and I saw only one shop selling hot showers. Generators provide electricity, but are a scarce commodity.

Cooking is done using propane tanks or over open pits.

These third-world conditions exist on French soil and at the edge of the U.K. border. It’s a state of limbo that neither government wants to deal with.

I went to the Calais Jungle with a British woman named Claire Ball, who was driving over from London. We spent only four days volunteering in the Jungle, a blip compared to the long-term volunteers who dedicate months of their lives to providing crucial humanitarian support. But in that short time, I could see that life in the Jungle is in a constant state of tension, like a pressure cooker ready to pop.

Tension is inevitable when there’s scarcity. And there are also unavoidable culture clashes when diverse groups live alongside each other: Syrians, Eritreans, Sudanese, Kurds, Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians all trying to survive.

Adding to the tension is the persistent police presence just outside the two exits and along the highway overlooking the camp.

I found it a sad irony that in our budget hotel, the only guests were either volunteers helping in the camp or the Gendarmerie military police called in from other parts of the country to patrol the camp.

One night after the sun went down, no one was allowed in or out of the camp, so many volunteers were forced to sleep in the Ashram Kitchen. The next night, a large excavator appeared next to the white police vans parked outside the back exit of the camp, promoting fears of a plan to raze the tents.

Last week came the news that French police were planning to bulldoze a third of the tents, which would displace about 1,600 people. Those evicted have the option of moving into a purpose-built facility nearby, which the French government says will provide a warmer, more sanitary living environment. Aid workers told the Guardian newspaper that asylum-seekers are apprehensive of the new site, which they say looks like a prison and has no communal areas.

Leaders of the ethnic groups in the Jungle released a statement declaring their intention to peacefully resist the eviction.

“We, the united people of the Jungle, Calais, respectfully decline the demands of the French government with regards to reducing the size of the Jungle. We have decided to remain where we are and will peacefully resist the government’s plans to destroy our homes,” the statement read.

The camp has a legal-advice centre, but Britain is not granting asylum to refugees in the Jungle, instead pledging to resettle 20,000 Syrians from refugee camps bordering Syria. There’s only one way out of the Jungle, and that’s the dangerous and illegal crossing to the U.K.

The British government has spent $8 million building a steel and barbed wire fence to make it more difficult for people to reach the highway to stow away on a truck. Some follow the tracks and attempt to jump on a train heading through the Eurotunnel. For many, these risks are deadly. In December, a 15-year-old Sudanese boy was killed while crossing the motorway. In October, a 16-year-old Afghan boy was run over by a train at the Eurotunnel.

“Maybe I’ll go tomorrow,” said Farook, a Sudanese man in his 20s who rolled up his sleeves to help alongside volunteers in the Ashram Kitchen, which serves more than 1,000 people two meals a day. Many camp residents volunteer in the various service centres, giving them a break from the monotony of daily life and a chance to practise their English. When I came back to the Ashram Kitchen the next day, Farook was still there, but the thoughts of escape to the U.K. are constantly on his mind.

A British woman named Liz runs the women and children’s centre and stays in a caravan in the camp. She has taken in two of the unaccompanied minors to stay with her, including one teen from Afghanistan named Jamil. He doesn’t speak much English, but he made gunshot sounds and said “war” and “dead” when asked about life in Kabul. He has tried to cross the U.K. border before but was detained by police and brought back.

On distribution day, Jamil helped unload boxes of clothes at the women and children’s centre as mothers and their little ones waited under a tarp to escape the rain. When the distribution starts, women line up based on their assigned half-hour time slot, then come in and pick out clothes, socks and sanitary supplies.

The living-room-sized centre is lined with cardboard boxes, filled with clothes separated according to size and category. One small toddler took unsteady steps across the floor, with that telltale, just-learning-to-walk cadence. I held him under the arms, which were warm under his thick, hand-knit sweater, as he ambled toward his mother.

A woman of about 20 was looking through the box of jackets, passing over a bright yellow ski jacket and a red raincoat. I held up the yellow one. “What about this one?”

“No, it’s too bright, not good for the border,” she said. I told her to be careful, but she moved along looking for a dark-coloured jacket.

One volunteer I met at the women and children’s centre was a Calais resident named Valerie. She said she volunteers as regularly as she can, sometimes bringing along her 17-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. Valerie said public opinion in Calais is sharply divided between those who think the migrants should go back to where they came from or should fight to protect their country and those who sympathize with the plight of the migrants and want the French government to do more.

Médecins sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde are active in the camp, providing vaccines to ward off the flu and TB. However, major aid organizations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees or the Red Cross are not present in the camp because the French and British governments have termed it an illegal settlement. The French government is in the process of building a replacement camp, but this would house only a fraction of the people in the Jungle.

An estimated 5,000 people live in the Jungle. To put the number in perspective, about 5,000 people arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos every day. About 3,000 people are staying in a second camp near Dunkirk where the conditions are even worse. A local bylaw has barred volunteers from bringing in building supplies and sometimes even food and clothes to help those whose tents have collapsed in the winter storm.

As we leave on the fifth day, heading on the ferry back to the U.K., the wind violently pushes the rain sideways. I think of what this will do to the flimsy tents, flattening them until they are practically swallowed up into the muddy ground. I think of the soaking wet blankets and clothes that are impossible to dry. And I think about how no one deserves to live like this.

To donate to support the people living in the Jungle, go to

Katie DeRosa’s blog posts are at

DeRosa’s tuition is funded through a Rotary International Global Grant scholarship, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Oak Bay.

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