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“I wouldn’t call it a jungle” – an experience of a convoy

Tony King is a City of Sanctuary and Cambridge Calais Refugee Action volunteer. He attended a convoy to Calais in May and took part in a clean up of the camp. When he returned he wrote about his experience.

I wouldn’t call it a jungle.  The few real bits of jungle that I’ve seen are all about nature exploding and doing its own thing.  

A jungle works all by itself in its own wild and abundant way.  The Calais refugee camp is (probably like all other refugee camps) strange and artificial and unsettling.  It just about exists because of the huge efforts of the volunteers and the massive amount of donations coming from the UK.  The people who live there look disoriented; well dressed and perpetually on their phones.  Edgy, tired, living on their nerves, but definitely human, not animal.  It’s not a jungle.

I didn’t see anything heart-wrenchingly sad; I didn’t have a child come up to me and ask me to get them into England (although this does happen).  It just all felt wrong: people in transit, not knowing what comes next; the whole place not knowing what it is, or how it keeps going.  Weird.

The camp is much closer to Calais than I expected; sited just before the motorway from Paris makes a left turn and heads towards the ferry terminal.  I imagine the lorries slow down just there and are more easily boarded by the young men who head towards the razor-wire fences every night.  Through the fences alongside the motorway the place looks like an abandoned industrial site that has been taken over by a down-at-heel pop-up festival, and  then abandoned again for twenty years.  You cross a wasteland, turn left into a shabby kind of main street and, quite unexpectedly, see some shops and cafes, decorated with a vaguely hippy vibe; small,dark, ramshackle, but well organised (surprise no. 1).  

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I saw a neatly-presented row of boxes of strawberries outside one.We were there to clean up and we started here on, I suppose, the main downtown area.  It was 9.30 and the place was completely deserted (surprise no. 2).  Daniela, our guide, told us that everybody was asleep after a night of lorry-chasing.  In fact, my first ever interaction with a resident was when they banged on the side of the tent because I was tidying too noisily!  After a while the owner of the “Tastyland” cafe came over and asked if we could do his bit of land.  This was encouraging – a positive interaction and a sign of people trying to make a go of things.

The camp sits on sand dunes which form convenient dips and hollows where everything, and I mean everything, is disposed of.  Luck being what it is, the vegetation consists of dense gorse bushes with utterly ferocious, needle-sharp thorns, which grab, and refuse to let go of, the stuff that is thrown on to it.  We got to work and pretty soon stripped the whole area back to dune, with the exception of one of the hollows, which was covered with a soaking wet mattress, and which looked decidedly uninviting.  Finally we had to do it.  We grabbed one edge and pulled.  I kind of levitated myself backwards and sideways so fast I didn’t really have time to look, but I think there were three rats (surprise no. 3 – and how!)  that shot out.  We quietly put the mattress back.  

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Even an unfinished job earned us the thanks of the proprietor of Tastyland and free teas all round. As we did more we got less queasy about the rats, the urine-soaked plastic waste, the strangeness of finding nearly-new Converse trainers chucked away alongside decomposing food; or an inch of plastic poking out amidst the gorse that revealed a nearly-intact family-sized tent buried under the sand.  It reminded us this was somewhere that people wanted to leave, not stay in.  Except – whole families, men, women, children, were living their lives here somehow, inches from where we were working.  

We got into the habit of clearing areas completely, no matter what, stripping right back to the sodden sand and the glove-piercing thorns.  It felt really good.  We hoped the families would take this as a sign that they were still part of, or at least close to, or to some extent cared for by, civilised society.

Surprise no. 4 was moving between six or seven countries, on different continents, in an afternoon.  A van parked near the entrance to the camp containing a couple of bored-looking Gendarmes provided a bit of French ‘je ne sais quoi’; then down the main street to Afghanistan and Kurdistan where the residents often thanked us, asked for bin bags and helped us clean.  Then the Middle East – Syria, Iraq and Iran – grim, restless young men, often limping, who nevertheless always returned a ‘Bonjour’.  Daniela had asked us always to talk to the residents, smile, treat them like humans; it always worked; this wasn’t a jungle.  And then on to Africa: Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia.  Every region covering maybe a quarter of a kilometre, a few hundred tents or huts, each with its own distinct vibe.  

We were told never to separate, always to keep our valuables out of sight, and always to wait for our guides to take us to the next area.  I happily obeyed.  It never felt dangerous, but it definitely felt edgy.  A young man came up to me, agitated, asking where I had put his rucksack because it had his ‘cans’.  Another volunteer pointed to a bag she had just moved and the young man apologised, picked it up, and walked off.  She later told me they weren’t cans but canisters.  Of CS gas.

At one point ten vans full of Gendarmes in riot-gear suddenly appeared.  There was some kind of argument happening but it didn’t ‘kick off’ (as my daughter would put it) and the vans disappeared again.  Three days after I left a fight broke out between different groups, provoked by the overcrowding and lack of food.  Hundreds of shelters were burnt down leaving a thousand refugees homeless and many in hospital.

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On the right of the entrance to the camp is a wasteland perhaps the size of four football pitches (with an actual football pitch behind it).  In the middle of the depressing nothingness is a larger construction, tarpaulin-wrapped with two wooden crosses on the roof – the Ethiopian church: the only thing left standing after the Calais prefecture bulldozed the southern part of the camp making thousands homeless.  This is when 129 unaccompanied children were lost track of.  Nobody knows what happened to them.  Just behind the church is ‘Jungle Books’. Just a shack, but a combined library and teaching space; brightly painted and cared for; lots of timetables and notices; somewhere where the kids could feel safe.  I felt safe there.

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Surprise no. 5 (although not really a surprise) was the sheer spirit, bravery, cheerfulness, and determination of the volunteers I worked alongside.  Every one of them was amazing.  On Sunday afternoon (we were well into our work by then) I teamed up with Zoe, a Greek student studying at Cambridge.  She somehow worked her way inside one of those wretched bushes, on top of a rat-infested urine-soaked midden, and refused to come out – nearly an hour and a half – until it was spotless.  Occasionally I passed antiseptic wipes to her to clean up another wound caused by the thorns, putting the bloody ones into the bin bag with the rubbish.

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As 4.00pm Sunday, our departure time, approached, I realised that I was repeatedly checking that the slim red book labelled ‘HM Government’ was still in my pocket. I was on a high but I didn’t want to stay any longer.  I noticed that as evening approached there were more vans with more Gendarmes, not looking bored, but looking serious and alert – preparing for the nightly lorry-and-refugee chase.  I realised why many of the young men were limping; the lorries usually won.