1. Governance
September 5, 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 10:18am

A city of 7,000: Life inside Calais' refugee camp

By Barbara Speed

Back in July, the aid charity Care4Calais circulated a photo of its volunteers holding up signs in a near-empty warehouse. They were asking for more donations.

When I visit that same warehouse only weeks before, it feels plentifully stocked. There are piles of sleeping bags and blankets; boxes full of cleaning supplies donated by a church group; and an entire shipping container filled with the type of food – rice, cooking oil, biscuits – the volunteers hand out to the refugees every day.

And yet the charity is already feeling the pinch.

“The EU referendum has definitely had a chilling effect,” Alexandra Simmons, a lead volunteer with the charity, tells me. Politicians in favour of migrant rights went mysteriously quiet, in a climate where speaking out for refugees was seen to push people over to the Leave side. Meanwhile, the demolition of half the camp back in March convinced many in the UK that it no longer exists. “You hear a lot of ‘oh, is that still there?’” Simmons says.   

And in France, too, the authorities are blowing cold: Convoy to Calais, a march from the UK meant to remind the world that the camp is still there, was blocked from entering the country by the French government in June. With it, Simmons tells me, Care4Calais lost donations, but also the chance to raise public awareness that there are now almost 7,000 people in the Calais camp who can move neither forward or back.

Cleaning supplies ready to be handed out in camp.

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Care4Calais was founded by Clare Moseley in September 2015, after what was meant to be a short trip to visit the camp. She still hasn’t returned to the UK. Back then, she tells me as we walk through the camp’s streets in the afternoon sunlight, it was “long hours, emergency conditions, standing in the back of a van throwing out food – just a sheer volume of aid”.

Now, almost a year on, between five and 20 volunteers arrive daily at the two warehouses rented by the charity. Between them, they co-ordinate the day’s delivery to the charity’s in-camp container, where refugees queue up for food, clothes, and washing supplies. “Use a tiny bit of masking tape on boxes,” a lead volunteer shouts out as volunteers sort and sort. “Treat it like precious china. Treat it like platinum!”

Volunteers put together food parcels. 

Acknowledging the needs of the camp at large involves acknowledging some awkward truths about its existence. The colours of clothes, say. Simmons tells me that most of the men want dark clothes and shoes, so they aren’t spotted when they try to attempt the crossing at night.

Most, too, want fashionable clothes that fit. “They tend to be small, not like us chunky Brits,” Simmons tells me as she shows me examples of the clothes they like – black and grey, in a close fit. “They use clothes to express themselves, just like all of us do.”

However, nothing is wasted, and most of the women’s, children’s, and large clothes received by the charity are sent either to charities in Syria, or back to Britain to the homelessness charity Shelter.

Appealing for the items refugees actually need is hard, especially when those donating might like to think they’re helping women, children, or those not attempting to board lorries as they prepare to cross the channel. Yet clothes for men in particular are constantly needed, as the camp has no laundry facilities, meaning that even once the right clothes get to refugees they don’t last long.

One wall of the sorting warehouse is dedicated to unusable donations. There’s a Minions toy, alongside a t-shirt reading “PLAYA” and a tiny, wedding-ready child’s waistcoat. But some unrequested items are more welcome: for example, schoolchildren have sent letters of support to the refugees, especially the camp’s unaccompanied children. “I think David Cameron is rong,” reads one [sic]. “Every child must have a friend to care for them.”

The wall of shame.

Everyone I speak to agrees that the feel of the camp and its needs have changed since the early, more chaotic days. There are now much-documented restaurants, shops, churches, and a community centre in the camp. After the demolitions, Care4Calais carried out a survey in camp, and found that a major issue was boredom, which can lead to declining mental states and crime or violence. As a result, the group now offers art and English classes. As Moseley and I walk past an art class and a church, the camp feels almost placid.

But despite the camp’s apparent order, there is much lurking beneath the surface. Moseley tells me that the confident young men striding up and down the camp’s well-defined roads and visiting the shops are one side of camp life – but there are others. “There’s a young boy living in one corner of the camp who was brutally beaten at home in Afghanistan, and beaten here in camp,” she tells me. “He won’t walk through camp on his own.”

There are many like this boy, who cannot access aid when it arrives, or the boost that activities or social activity would bring. With time, what Moseley calls a “social scale” has developed in the camp, which divides those confident and well enough to run small businesses or access aid, and those too beaten down by their situation to work the system.

The perfect shoes.

“We’re not qualified to deal with the mental health stuff,” Moseley tells me. “And it’s a huge issue, both for refugees and long-term volunteers. The camp is dangerous. Everyone here is traumatised and damaged. Nobody is ever healthy or not tired.”

And at any moment, more demolitions could arrive, or aid could dry up. Teargas is a near-daily annoyance, and is sometimes thrown by police into the camp itself, where it can damage the temporary structures and tents where the refugees live.

And yet: “Imagine how someone in Britain reacts if someone’s tree grows onto their side of the fence,” Moseley says. “Here, people have no space. They are living on top of each other, and they come from all different backgrounds, from all over the world. It’s unbelievable the riots that don’t happen. The fights that don’t happen.”

The camp’s precarious status, and the uncharted territory for the few aid groups here, is inescapable – but so is the equilibrium somehow struck on a good day. Aid packages are handed out. Another carload of clothes arrives from a British youth group. An English lesson takes place. An aid worker buys a refugee a train ticket to meet an asylum officer in Paris, and his grinning friend translates as she explains when it leaves the station.

Where does it end? Sitting in a well-known camp restaurant where the football is playing on a screen in the background, Moseley tells about one family from Sudan. “Their daughter was killed before they came here, and they can’t go back because their other daughter would be killed too,” she tells me –another story among many. 

And then, abruptly: “I can’t leave here without them. I’m not leaving until they can, too.”

This article was previously published on our sister site, the New Statesman.

All images: author’s own. 

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