I don’t think I’m going to write very well tonight because I am in a bit of shock. It’s very rare that I’m lost for words, but the Jungle is the worst place I’ve ever been. I thought long and hard before committing to that statement, because it’s a big call- and it seems sensationalist. I thought about Soweto and Kibera townships in South Africa and Kenya, the slums I saw in Cambodia, the poor village where I lived in Tanzania, the dire conditions in some of the camps on Lesbos, the chaos in Presevo, the poverty in Addis Ababa, the desperation in Palestine. But I can’t think of anywhere I’ve seen that is worse for the human spirit than the Jungle in Calais. I can’t think of anywhere else I’ve been that was so on edge and sad and without any joy. It is a home you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. A place devoid of hope.
And it’s in France. An hour and a half train ride from where I live. A G7 country, one of the richest in the world, one that prides itself on its observance of human rights, it’s amazing health care and social system, one whose motto is liberte, egalite, fraternite. This makes the place seem even more brutal. It’s more shocking to see babies living in tents in the mud when you know that the resources are there to fix the problem, there’s just not the political will. Civil action forced the government to put in some portable toilets and fund the Jules Ferry Centre where women and children are able to sleep and everyone gets at least one hot meal a day. There are showers, but the queue is 4 hours long, and after nightfall men are locked out. This means that several women and children sleep in the Jungle because they don’t want to leave their husbands and fathers.
Unquestionably, one of the reasons this place is so dreadful is the fact that people here are stuck. While 10 000 could pass through Macedonia in a day, everyone was on the move, heading to somewhere better, a new life and brighter horizons. People were tired and hungry and stressed and dirty and anxious, but they were hopeful, they believed that in a few days or weeks things would be better. In the Jungle, everyone is in a limbo that resembles hell. Each night men still try and jump vehicles to the UK, even though it has become virtually impossible. As long as one person occasionally makes it, people here will not stop trying. The odds are so stacked against them it’s incredible they don’t give up and try to find another path, but the majority of them have friends and family in Britain, communities where they will feel like they belong to something again. So they keep waiting and trying while the months and the years go by and they languish.
And the numbers continue to rise and the sense of misery increases. There are people here from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Libya, Palestine, Sudan, Kurdistan, Nigeria and others. Putting that many different languages, cultures, religions and nationalities on top of each other in such a small space, with no infrastructure or resources is bound to be problematic. Violence between and within groups often occurs, there is competition over handouts, and tent cities are segregated. All things considered it’s actually amazing that there aren’t more problems. When you walk down the Jungle’s ‘main street’ there is an abundance of pop up restaurants, such as Cafe Kabul which appears to be the best stocked establishment. There are churches and mosques. There are grocery shops and businesses. There is a book store. One thing that would make a huge difference to everyone is internet access, but organising that seems to be difficult. This seems incredulous to me. If Greece, Macedonia and Serbia can arrange for refugees to charge their phones and go online surely France can.
A few days ago the Daily Mail, Britain’s answer to the Tele, published an article that made it look like refugees were living it up and quite comfortable in this ‘tent city’. I really doubt that any regular reader of the Mail would walk in here. The first thing that struck me about the camp was its sheer size, in space and numbers. At the moment estimates have the population at around 4500, but a few months ago I’m told it was closer to 7000. Tents sprawl in every direction and have sunk into the wet ground. The temperature is not that low, but the rain and the wind cut through my jacket and jumper. There is mud everywhere. And not just wet dirt, the kind of mud that you sink into and traps your feet and cakes on all the way up to your knees. Disease is rampant. One volunteer told me that 80% of the population has scabies, and because they don’t have easy access to showers, hygiene standards are appalling.
There are fences and barbed wire everywhere. On the train from Paris I felt like shrinking in my seat at the site of how many steel walls cordoned off the Eurotunnel. On the hill next to the camp high fences block the roads so refugees cannot get to the trucks that board the ferry. All I can think of when I see these barriers is Israel and the Occupied West Bank and how horrible a feeling it was to be behind similar walls in Bethlehem. Even though in Calais the fence isn’t technically trapping them, it’s a constant reminder that these people are not really free to move. The increasing number of walls being built on this continent has been touted by many as evidence of Europe’s failure. I think its evidence more of humanity’s failure.
On my way in I chat to an elderly French volunteer who comes to the jungle and knits with the women and children three times a week. She loves the children she tells me, and laughs while recounting how the police have searched her many times and only ever found wool and knitting needles. She is horrified that conditions like this exist in France, and when I ask about the election tomorrow she is distraught at the idea of Le Pen, but admits she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Sarcozy now that the socialists have pulled out. She then hangs her head in shame while telling me it was the left who allowed the Jungle to descend into its current state and she has lost all faith with the government.
We come across a group of men from Iraq who are leaving the camp as we go in and she embraces them and asks about their families. They call her Mama and one tells her he has just been granted asylum and is going to Lot. She cannot contain her joy that his family will be somewhere safe and hugs him fiercely. When the men find out I’m Australian they all want to know about the island detention centres, and if it’s true that there people are not even allowed to walk out of ‘their jungles’ . Amazingly, I’d never made this direct comparison. I shudder to think what a jungle would look like where people are not allowed to leave. These guys may have nowhere to go, but at least they are not locked in.
I meet a Sudanese guy as I sludge through the mud. He tells me how he fled Sudan in September and has been in the Jungle for three months. He travelled through Egypt and Libya, took a boat to Sicily and then came through Italy and France. His English is soft and polite and near perfect. He has a wife and two children in a province near Darfur and he is hoping to bring them to the UK ‘once he gets there’. He has tried every night for 10 weeks and been caught, beaten and sent back over and over. ‘Do you think it will get easier?’ he asks me hopefully, ‘Do you think that maybe they will open the border and let us in?’
I’m asked this question at least a dozen times through the course of the day by people who are hoping I will tell them what they want to hear. After what some of them have been through it’s incredible to me that they have any belief left at all. The man looks devastated when I tell him I only think the UK is going to get harder and harder to get into, and I feel as though I’ve personally let him down. But despite his crestfallen face he still shakes my hand and thanks me earnestly before walking off with his friends.