The closure of the Calais refugee camp, also known as the “jungle”, is imminent. Those living there are being urged to leave for other designated centres in France. However, French and British authorities have faced criticism over their handling of the situation. In March of this year, half of the camp was demolished, stoking widespread antagonism. Many of the refugees living in the camp have hopes of reaching the UK. Obliging them to move from Calais, with its close geographical proximity to what they wish to be their final destination, is no easy feat.
In March, around the time when the southern half of the camp was being demolished, I went to Calais and volunteered with an organisation called Help Refugees. By that stage, I had been at home in Brussels for two months, and all that seemed to be on the news was related to the refugee crisis that Europe was facing. I had time on my hands and wished to help alleviate the suffering of these people, who had no-doubt faced death on numerous occasions. I also hoped to experience the camp for myself and attempt to draw my own conclusions about this complex and grave situation.
At the time, Help Refugees rented a warehouse in the outskirts of Calais where volunteers would sort through donations and prepare food for the refugees in the camp. I spent two days working at the warehouse. They were long and physically demanding, but satisfying also. From watching the news, I had wrongly concluded that Brits cared little for the migrants in Calais. At the warehouse, most of the volunteers were from the UK and deeply concerned about the unfolding situation.
For the three remaining days I worked as a volunteer, I was sent both to the “jungle” in Calais and another refugee camp 40km away on the outskirts of the town of Dunkirk. Our task in the Dunkirk camp was to help move people living there and their belongings onto buses that would bring them to a better camp constructed by the organisation Médecins Sans Frontières. The situation in Dunkirk was dire. Migrants, most of them Kurdish, had been living in a field all through the winter. Due to heavy rainfall, parts of the field were now flooded. We helped move families, women and children out first, often traipsing with them through knee-deep mud to reach the buses. By my second day in the camp, the atmosphere had become tense. Every so often a tent would be set on fire or a gas canister, intended for cooking purposes, thrown on the flames causing a minor explosion. People were angry at the conditions they had been forced to live in. This was their small act of protest.
Back in Calais, the “jungle” was unlike anything I had witnessed before. Much larger than the Dunkirk camp, with an estimated population of between 3,500 and 5,500 people, it was constructed on sand dunes which prevented flooding. Those living there had built homes using tarps and rescued bits of wood. There were shops, restaurants and places of worship, and its inhabitants were from a range of different of places including Afghanistan, Egypt and subsaharan Africa. Almost by chance, I ended up in the southern part of the camp while an eviction was occurring. A fire had started and the French riot police were standing by. A group of volunteers was helping a man carry his house on some wooden pallets out of reach of the fire. The man was frantic, I was told. Despite the fact that he lived in a makeshift house in a makeshift camp, this place had become his home.
After five days as a volunteer, I returned to Brussels on the train. It was one of those late-winter evenings on the cusp of spring and a mist had settled on the fields. As the giant red sun descended languorously the train stopped in villages that seemed untouched by the passing of time. When I got home, I felt overwhelmed at having been confronted with a situation I did not want to believe was real. As the weeks passed, Brussels experienced its own tragedies with the attacks that occurred on 22 March. There are times when I think that all we can hope to achieve is survival. If I have learned anything it is that there is still good in the world. People struggle and suffer, but there will always be those willing to help them. I am an optimist in the end. I have to be.