In May 2016 we decided to visit ‘the Jungle’. We wanted to see for ourselves what this part of the journey was like for so many people with whom we come into contact during our work supporting vulnerable Sudanese asylum seekers and refugees. We felt this could only enhance our practical and compassionate understanding of what has been overcome in pursuit of safety and sanctuary in Europe. Just 60 minutes from the centre of London by Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel we arrived on to French soil in the small coastal town of Calais. I repeat: 60 minutes from the centre of London. This is an average journey across London by bus, and not even in rush hour traffic! But it was like traversing 60 light years into another reality. According to Global Finance magazine in 2015 France was listed as one of the 25 richest countries in the world. We certainly didn’t see any evidence of this wealth invested in the 6,000 people in the camp.
The name ‘the Jungle’ is a reference which remains contentious. It is described this way by media, Joe Public and even those who find themselves existing there. The Jungle would be more accurately described as a shanty town. Camping tents are mostly used for dwellings, while a few makeshift structures are erected with anything lying around: wood, plastic, string, blankets, and a great deal of inventiveness and imagination. Apart from a very small section of the camp serving some women and children, everything you see is made with donations from the public, individual creativity and a desperate sense of wanting to belong to something that resembles a community.
Unfortunately, the day we arrived a massive fight broke out between the Sudanese and Afghani camp residents. Brawls are not unusual, however on this occasion many sustained injuries – apparently 40 people had to receive hospital care and some were left in a critical condition. We were told it is common for some groups to take up arms and light weapons like AK-47s, with regular crossfire in the camp. When you see the scarcity of food, water, unsanitary conditions and sparse resources it is not hard to understand how tensions rise. Add into the mix language and communication complexities, cultural differences, and dwindling hope. Then add unbelievable trauma from numerous experiences back home, left unacknowledged and untreated, without mental health support or family networks, meaning many people in the camp have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). No matter what direction you look, the picture becomes clearer: society and politicians have failed to address the issues at the core of mass migration, which includes looking at the culpability of our own governments in the deterioration of the societies from which people are fleeing for their lives.
We were due to meet our contact inside the camp at the entrance of the Jungle at 5pm on the day we arrived in Calais, but just before heading in we received a firm and foreboding message from him warning “don’t come right now”, and then later “there’s been a riot”. We were of course concerned for the safety of all inside. Helplessly we watched the smoke billow into view from the entry of the camp along a stretch of road peppered with industrial factories. The foul smell of burning was also a deterrent. We later found out there was a fierce attack on the Sudanese camp where 80+ tents that accommodated at least triple that number of people were set on fire and razed to the ground. The unease and violence prompted the notorious riot police to use tear gas to try and stop the fighting– just sixty miles from the centre of London in this otherwise quiet coastal town in France.
While things were still raw from the previous day’s violence, we spent the second day volunteering with a charity called Help Refugees sorting donations from people like you who’ve taken action. The main priority was to sort through donated tents to ensure they were in good enough condition to distribute urgently. Imagine the only possessions you have in the world, important photographs, documents, paperwork, clothes, all going up in flames. This wretched reality resonated with us. We regularly see asylum seekers without documentation in the UK who must prove they are who they say they are to the UK government through the course of their asylum claim. Seeing first-hand an example of why some do not have any record of anything at all brought home the reality of the precariousness of their situation.
Despite the conditions in which people are existing – I can’t quite bring myself to saying ‘living’ – there is evidence of the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit. We met some of the kindest, most gentle and inspirational people caught in the worst circumstances.
The Sudanese we met in the ‘Darfur School’, a self-made structure in the Jungle off-set from the main road, enclosed by wooden barriers adorned with plastic and blankets, were generous and welcoming. Even though they had so little to begin with, a safe and open space was created in which to teach English or French, meet, socialise, and have a cup of sugary tea together. But the Sudanese we met were also tired. Tired of the abuse they’ve received along their journey, in their home country, from smugglers, by officials, and then finally even in the relative safety of Calais. Tired of dreaming of a better future, with many losing hope day by day.
Before leaving London, we invited our supporters and friends to send us video messages of #hope and #solidarity which we compiled into a video. We played this ten-minute montage to everyone we met. We set up a few screenings at the Darfur School and even shared your messages with individual passers-by who were friendly and engaging. Sometimes a screening would start with two people and attracted the attention of so many there were 15 or 20 people curious to see the video. One young Sudanese man, clearly moved, said softly after watching, “thank you, this is encouraging”.
Thank you to everyone who submitted a video for our montage – you helped provide just a little comfort during these dark times.
If you want to hear more about our experience in Calais, you can download The Migrant Crisis Podcast episode in which we discuss it here.
We need your help to tell the UK public and politicians that the Sudanese in Calais are not a ‘swarm’ of economic migrants. These are desperately vulnerable people fleeing a genocidal regime, stuck in some of the world’s worst conditions, only 60 minutes from London’s streets. We’d encourage you to share our report, video or the podcast directly online, either by forwarding this blog to a friend, sharing it on your Facebook, mentioning our page, or by tweeting us at @WagingPeaceUK using the hashtags #SudanSolidarity & #Calais.
And if you want to support Help Refugees’ work in the camp, you can donate camp equipment they can distribute quickly here. You can also donate to our campaigning work via our sister charity Article 1.