A day out in Calais

An anthropologist's day in "The Jungle", the patch of land in Calais that brings shame to British and French governance

Hugh Brody
26 December 2015

So many of the worst forces of this moment in history converge on that few acres of ground that is known as The Jungle, a piece of Europe where loss and grief are concentrated. A patch of land that brings shame on every level of British and French governance.

I have worked in some of the worst slums and resettlement sites in India, and in the poorest of southern Africa’s shanty towns, but I had never encountered a place as grim and soul-destroying as the sprawl of tents, shacks, squalor and boredom that defines the Jungle.  This is a society outside society; a combination of anarchy and dispossession.  There are no regulations, no civil authority, that can be seen.  Just the French police waiting for riots to suppress. There is nothing to do for the 5,000 people who are stuck there other than attempt to deal with the squalor and find the bare minimum of things to meet their needs; and there is nowhere to go except the ever more hazardous attempt to break through the fences and find some way of hitching a hidden and dangerous ride across the channel.   This is both dire poverty and entrapment.   It is achieved by a complex of cruel indifference.

We walked along the Jungle’s streets and tracks, some just passable for a car, many now deep in mud and pools of water.  A truck had arrived to pump out the small row of portaloos that serves as the community toilets (no wonder there are human faeces dotted around in the few patches of grass and bushes that remain).  The stench was unbearable – even the hardened residents were pulling the edge of a shirt or sweater to cover their faces.  There were lines of men at the short rows of stand-pipes where a thin supply of cold water is available for open-air, public washing.   There were groups of men standing together, as if waiting for something to do or something to happen.   Some women and children were gathering at a small area reserved for them, to meet one another without the problem of men, and to collect things that had been donated.  The conditions in which many of the women have to live are grotesque: hidden away even from the diminished freedom of a camp, living in fear, trapped within the trap.  When we were there the population was made up of 4,000 men, and just 400 women.  No one was sure how many children are there, but we saw a few who ran around chucking pebbles at one another, finding some way to play.  

Yet this society outside society has grown, as all human systems will, to meet some of the  people’s needs.  Made from whatever building materials can be found there are some restaurants, a bar, a church, mosques, a minimal library and even an improvised hamam, a steam-bath.  Migrants who have been stuck there long enough to give up hope of getting anywhere else somehow manage to build the starting-point of an economy.  Reinforcing the feeling that this is indeed a place where many are stuck. The British contribution to the Jungle was pointed out to us: lines of gleaming new fences, high and topped with razor-wire.

The British contribution to the Jungle was pointed out to us: lines of gleaming new fences, high and topped with razor-wire, set up in ranks. If you manage to climb over one such fence, there is another to get over, and then another.  This is the British barricade, the ring of steel around the port and the areas where lorries line up to cross the channel.  This is the direct British contribution.

The indirect contributions of our governments are less evident but more central to all that is happening in the camps around Calais.  The long journeys that have led to this entrapment began in places where political disarray, wars and poverty are linked to European and American projects - and just about all of them with some British involvement.  It is simplistic and unhelpful to declare that the refugee crisis in general or the Jungle in particular flows in some inevitable way from imperialism, proxy wars and related ventures in British or Anglo-American foreign policy.  Each case, each centre of violence or inequality, has its own complicated story; and there are many ways in which those fleeing from extreme violence and those seeking a new set of economic possibilities can not be divided into separable categories of flight or migration. But there are connections between European history and the disasters from which refugees are seeking to escape; this is a humanitarian disaster in which we are all implicated.  This is an issue for us all. A shared responsibility.

In the camp, and at the huge warehouse where donations to the refugees are stored and sorted, there are British volunteers. Just as people all over the UK (and from many other parts of Europe) have sent clothes, blankets, tents, fresh water, building materials, so also have individuals travelled to Calais looking for ways to give direct help. We were lucky to spend time with the Joe Murphy, Joe Robertson and Dan who have created and are now running a theatre and events space; and to meet Martin McTigue who has in five weeks managed to go from the idea of an immunization centre to the reality ; and to be shown round the warehouse by Hettie Colqhoun.  Everywhere there are English voices, the English wish to help, English humanitarianism.

But the British government? It allows this entrapment.  Worse, it spends several million pounds on reinforcing it.   Government could be doing what governments are designed for and can be very good at: administration and collective welfare.  Instead of hemming people in, money could be spent on finding out who everyone is, sorting out who has what rights to be where; let the bureaucracy go to work – to achieve the maximum of relief for the maximum number of those who are in such dire need.  There are people in the Jungle who are entitled to travel to the UK, but still are not given the means or, in effect, the right to do so.  There are people with all kinds of circumstances, needs and, it is to be hoped, possibilities.  The job of government is to know and address these – not just to build fences or, in the case of the French, supply armed police and tear-gas to deal with outbreaks of frustration, community tension, despair.  The British could join forces, and resources, with the French authorities to deal with the grave risks posed by the Jungle’s anarchy.  There are thousands at risk – from the wet and the cold, the diseases that could so easily become endemic, the despair that is its own kind of insidious sickness.  There are women who are in many kinds of danger.  And there are children - some have no parents; all need urgent protection.  

And a special irony, which is also a warning.  The anarchy of the Jungle, a society outside society, has grown out of the political void that the wars and extreme violation of human rights in Iraq, Syria, the Sudan and Libya have spawned.

Invaders who deposed the existing tyrannies or took sides in savage civil wars, filled with a sense of historic righteousness, failed to anticipate the chaos, the socio-political lawlessness, the anarchic fragmentation, that these invasions would create.  Within this breakdown of society the fanatics and fundamentalists found their opportunity; angry and alienated young men became their brutal front lines.  And now the men in the camps, in the Jungle, many of them fleeing the murderous chaos in their countries of origin, in this microcosm of anarchy, are trapped and bored.  They are finding that high hopes of a new life in northern Europe, especially in the UK, are frustrated by a cold, slow, absent political bureaucracy.  Instead of a chance to discover a new cohesion, a welcome into some form of social order, they are held against fences, festering.  What kind of foolish lack of sense is this?  In the name of holding an imaginary  line against the flow of desperate refugees, for fear of losing voter support, to appease the likes of UKIP and the French Front, our leaders are busy creating the very demons they tell us we should most be afraid of.  Enlightened self-interest would point in the very opposite direction.

Volunteers are now essential for the minimal housing and the most elemental support for the people cooped up in the Jungle; but they can not deal with the heart of this crisis.  They can provide shelter, food and even inoculation against some diseases.  But this is both a profound humanitarian challenge and a call on government.   We  must continue to give what help we can, as individuals or NGOs.  But all of us, across the very significant consensus that the refugee crisis has revealed, must call on the national government to release the refugees in the Jungle from the trap.  To leave them there, becoming victims now of our government, is unconscionable.

The British government’s response to the refugee crisis, perhaps a defining moment in modern history, has been tight-lipped, evasive.   Only when the full spectrum of the media, including conservative voices, cried out in dismay has there been a minimal commitment to give help – but none of it for those who are in or anywhere near Calais.  We walked in the Jungle with the increasing realization that here is where the British response to the crisis must take its shape.  To fail in this is to create a dark shadow of inhumanity over our government.   We can only dread the possibility that, one day, many will look back on this lack of governance and simple human cruelty, and express disbelief and scornful condemnation..  Everyone in the Jungle, and all of us who are implicated, depend on being released from a wicked and self-defeating trap.


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