Back in September, Rebecca Coley joined the Jersey Calais Refugee Aid Group and reported back from the makeshift camp on the other side of the Channel. She went back just before Christmas to see if goodwill was out in force.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, (well it was about a week before Christmas but it had that kind of feeling) and I was on the road again with the JCRAG (Jersey Calais Refugee Aid Group) team. They had two vans full of goodies for ‘the Jungle’ in Calais, translating to supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables, milk from Jersey Dairy and boxes of clothes.
We arrived at the warehouse in Calais where large teams of volunteers were doing a stellar job, with a positive vibe of organisation, camaraderie and cooperation. There was a fantastic chef at work in the kitchen making great big vats of fresh soup, good music on the stereo, and people sorting cans of food and clothes into piles to be distributed. Basically good people doing something good for their fellow humans in the spirit of the time of year that approached.
Numerous vans would appear that Friday evening to dump a load of stuff and then leave. Some of this stuff would be very useful and other stuff would be highly useless. Of course the goodwill was appreciated, but volunteers spent a lot of time sorting through inappropriate items for winter in the Jungle, such as high heels, posh dresses or some delightful smelly underwear.
You wonder whether people were packing saying, “Well we need a good clear out; let’s just stick everything we were going to give to the car boot sale/charity shop/laundrette to those refugees in Calais instead.”
It felt like what they needed most in the warehouse was people to come and donate a few weeks of actual time to help, to go through all the stuff that was turning up and make sure it got to the right place. (See the list at the end for what is most needed.)
The first time we visited in September there was a good vibe as there was a solidarity march happening; people were in high spirits and the sun was shining. It almost felt like a mini-festival; the difference being that after a couple of days when the toilets are overflowing and people are tired of queuing for stuff, they can’t leave.
A lot had happened since that trip. This time the weather was much colder and the atmosphere was very different. The heavy police presence and the huge double barrier fences made it look more like a concentration camp.
As we entered the Jungle and walked around the camp talking to people, we wanted to see if the situation had improved. There were more structured shelters this time, but while they were a hell of a lot better than the flimsy tents they had before, there were still too few of them and they were lacking in stability and warmth.
There were a lot of queues. For everything. People queue for food, for showers, for a sleeping bag, for a tent, to charge their phone. This could have been a training programme for life in England, mind you.
Overall though, while the camp’s facilities had slightly improved, the people living there seemed more desperate than ever.
We came across the Banksy mural under a bridge, where there was a Sudanese man sitting in front of it starting a small fire to keep warm. He told us his tent had been gas-bombed two nights before by the French police.
He said he was asleep in his tent around 8pm, woke up to find his tent was on fire and he tried to put it out, scalding his hands in the process. The remains of gas canisters and charred markings on the ground signalled where his tent had been.
I recognised him as the man who’d been featured in the UK press for charging people to look at the Banksy artwork the week before. He sat down and cried, saying he was very depressed as he’d been stuck in the camp for 10 months. He lost what papers and money he had saved in the fire. He says he did nothing wrong and you do wonder what he did to deserve that.
We dropped back a tent, sleeping bag and various warm items for him, but it felt like such small gesture as we drove off to be warm somewhere else.
A few people living in the camp we spoke to talked of police brutality and the feeling of being terrorised. They spoke of beatings and gas bombings and talked a lot about feeling confused as there is nowhere else for them to go.
We spoke to Kochi from Afghanistan. He said he was a businessman before and he’d like to be a businessman again. “I’m not interested in your benefits. I like to work. People have nothing to worry about. We all want to work.”
Majid, an 18-year-old man from Syria, told us: “We are in a situation in the Jungle where we’ve come from destroyed countries and countries from which people are escaping, in order to integrate into another country, settle in it, and know that we are safe.
“We left Syria and came to Europe to live in peace. The main reason we left Syria was the war, the killings and the kidnappings. If that wasn’t the situation in Syria, we wouldn’t have left.
“We came to European countries in order to seek refuge. We are living here in tents; in Syria we used to sleep in our homes, where no one would bother us with anything. Now we are sleeping in tents. We came to the Jungle in peace.
“You have to stand in line in the Jungle for everything. You wait in line for food. If you are sick, if you are cold, you have to stand in line. In the tents, it’s cold. We are under a lot of pressure here. We stand in line. We Syrians, we stand in line, and when we get to the end, they tell us it’s finished.
“We wait for two hours in line for our turn to shower, then after six minutes the water cuts off and you have to finish your shower.
“In Syria, we were escaping from the police. Here in Calais, the police are also after us, spraying us with gas, hitting us with batons, breaking our bones. You ask him why? He says, ‘go, go, move away’. Where to go?”
If you’d like to send supplies to the Calais camps, here’s what would be most helpful:
Rice (no pasta)
Cans of chopped tomatoes
Tinned fish (sardines)
Long life milk
Cartons of juice
Tins of fruit (with flip lids)
Boiled eggs (high protein)
Salt and spices
(No baked beans or spaghetti hoops – too much already)
Clothes: shoes, jogging bottoms, coats, jumpers
Winter sleeping bags
If you’d like to make a donation, or find out how to help, the charity running the warehouse is L’Auberge des Migrants, email [email protected]
The School Bus Project is also well worth exploring if you’re looking for ways to help.
Rebecca is a writer/director hailing from the island of Jersey. When she’s not trying to make films, she likes exploring, drinking tea, visiting as many islands as possible and getting in the sea all year round.