The Calais Jungle: The Story So Far

On the Go

Smita’s recent visit to the migrant camp at the Port of Calais, France.

The port of Calais in northern France is the main connecting port between the Continent and the UK. Near Calais is also the Terminal of the Eurotunnel for the train service connecting Paris and London. Migrants from Africa and Asia have been gathering there since 1999 with the intent to smuggle themselves into Britain, where living conditions are thought to be better than in France, by stowing away on lorries, ferries, cars, or trains travelling through the tunnel. The migrants are a mix of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants from Darfur, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and other troubled areas of the world. It is estimated that around 3000 migrants are living at the port at present.


“So, where are you travelling to?” The taxi driver asks eyeing my luggage.

“I’m going to Calais in the morning to the refugee camp to unload supplies and volunteer for the day with some people.”

“Oh, so you are going to the Jungle.”

“No, to the refugee camp.”

“That’s the Jungle. The people who live there call it that because they feel they are treated like animals. I am from Eritrea. I was in Calais a few months back to see some friends there. Awful. Total chaos and disorganisation. Terrible.”

The story so far

And so my journey to Calais begins. At Clapham Junction station where I need to board my train to take me to our meeting point I find myself pushed around on a platform three deep with people – mostly men – trying to get on the trains coming through. They trip over each other racing up the steps, single pointed in their determination to get on a train. The platform crew shout, “Move down the carriages! Move down the carriages!” There is real tension in the air.

Rugby season is upon us.

I wait one and a half hours before there is enough room for me and the suitcases I am carrying. As I step back and watch the crowds around me, I imagine what it would be like if all these people were refugees fleeing from bombs and guns and falling concrete, trying to protect themselves and their children. What would all this single pointed determination be like if fuelled by the need to survive rather than something to do with Rugby?

We got up at 4am to finish loading three cars with plastic bags of non-perishable foods, with clothes and shoes all painstakingly separated into gender and size, sleeping bags, sanitary pads; all items asked for by the organisation we support, items collected over the past two weeks in response to the emails sent out.

Some people have sent the things they no longer need or care about, broken things even…

Such indifference in action.

On the other hand a woman in Manchester has filled numerous small plastic bags each with soap and shampoo, body lotion, toothpaste and toothbrush and a handwritten note.

Such love in action.

There is a lot of razor wire and fencing outside the Calais Euro Tunnel and beyond. Needless to say, during the day I will see men in the camp with each finger bandaged.

The Jungle is about eight miles from the Tunnel. We drive slowly following the satnav’s [GPS’s] instructions until we turn up a road suddenly full of tents lining the pavement on one side and many young men – mostly black it seems to me – sitting next to them. There is tent upon tent upon tent, single sleepers; a very long line of them on the pavement with cars moving up and down on the road just in front of them.

We have arrived.

Welcome to the Jungle.

As we drive further up the long road the tents extend on one side into the distance. There are roughly 4000 people living here, about 350 of them women and children.

All around the road large plastic bags are lying ripped open, contents spilling out everywhere: shoes, coats, boots, trousers. Many people come here driven by the need to do something but ignoring the organisation that has been set up for distribution. They hand out sacks to everyone they meet. Of course, the sacks are accepted but then tossed aside when the contents are of no use.

The taxi driver was right. Chaos reigns here and we slump back in our seats as the vision of our well-choreographed plan disintegrates.

We are supposed to meet the head of ‘Salam’, the French organisation created here to try and meet the needs of the inhabitants. Our contact had told us to meet her around 11.30am and that we will first of all help to stock the warehouse, help with food distribution and then be free to walk around or volunteer in whatever way we wish for the rest of the day. As it stands, now the gates we are supposed to drive through are locked and will remain so until 12 noon, and nobody has come to let us in as arranged.

“At 12 noon the gates are opened for showers and charging mobile phones. For at least an hour after that it is just madness here, so now you have to wait,” a harassed woman in a high-visibility jacket tells us in English.

We can see why. A large crowd is gathering. We are told that people start lining up very early in the day. Suddenly hell breaks loose, people clamber over the fences even though the gates have been opened. I have seen this scene before on TV; men trying to reach lorries or get across a border.

I sit back in the car longing for invisibility, conspicuously ‘not from here’ in my nice clothes and obvious social respectability. I know that the others are feeling the same.

I have read that people have questioned the fact that the asylum seekers (refugees) all have mobile phones. As for me, I cannot bear to be without mine so I can stay connected to family and friends. Why should it not be the same for them?

Finally there is enough calm for us to drive through the gates. A woman is standing at the end of a driveway. She and her husband have created this organisation against all odds – unimaginable stress and very hostile authorities. The Mayor of Calais locked them out of the first warehouse they set up in the area. It was full of supplies.

The day after we were there the tents, belongings, papers and passports of some Syrian refugees who have been camping across the road from the designated area are destroyed, the people dumped in the Jungle with nothing to protect them from the elements. I had offered a small boy sitting outside one of the tents some paper and crayons. (In some years from now if he becomes a suicide bomber in one of our cities we, the people in the West, will be outraged by his evil deed….)

In some respects this camp is very much like a large African market. Most of the people in it seem to come from Africa – Eritrea, Sudan, Chad – hence the African feel, although I overheard someone on their phone describing it as a Brazilian favela. Instead of stalls, there are tents. There are also people from Afghanistan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran; all casualties of some of the nine ‘civil’ wars taking place on the planet at the moment. There are hardly any women around because they are housed with their children behind the fenced-off area.

We would particularly like to meet them but no-one is allowed beyond the gates without permission, and to find someone to give it to us is too much of an arduous task in all the confusion. When we are told to distribute the sacks of food we have brought with us we spend some time looking for any women to give them to. But none are around, it seems. About 2000 of the inhabitants here get one hot meal a day; ‘Salam’ cannot manage more. For the rest the people have to do what they can as best they can. Somehow it would feel better to give the food to the women but in the end we hand them out to the men. There are a few women who are living on their own inside the Jungle though. We can see their clothes drying on makeshift lines – a sweet order in all the disorder.

The standard opening is “Hello, what is your name? Where are you from?”

If it is an African I feel free to offer my hand. With the Middle Eastern men I am more cautious, unless it is clear that the male/female barrier can be crossed. I do not ask the women that I meet how they came to be here. We just look at one another and maybe smile. I don’t feel I have the right to intrude on their privacy, in any way.

I listen to many stories told by the men, some obviously embellished for maximum effect, some simply heart-breaking. I have many questions, but do not ask. It is such a fine line to walk between genuine questions for useful information or just to feed curiosity. There are many ‘tourists’ here walking around with their cameras and also journalists. This is all so much better than reality TV.

“Get the f..k away from me!’ a young man screams. “I don’t come to your f..king house and take your f..king photo.”


I take two photos. One is of a pair of a small child’s boots resting on a towel, both tied to a bush with a piece of string. They have obviously been left there deliberately. A memory, a love letter, a shrine?

My other photo is of a T-shirt worn by a man that says THE STORY SO FAR.

“Take the T-shirt, not my face…” the man says.

Our collective story so far is not doing very well.

How much worse does it have to get before we wake up to the very simple fact that we are one humanity?

How much more suffering does there need to be?

Love or Fear – it seems to me that there is very little choice left as the world explodes around us – although there is still room for indifference among those of us privileged enough to live in relative peace and safety for a bit longer.

And incredibly, love is happening in this camp. A man walks up to me and offers me a sweet he has just been given, then smiles and walks away. Two very sad Middle Eastern young men allow me to sit silently besides them for a while and then turn and give me the most beautiful smiles when I get up to move away.

There is a moment of pure playfulness when I catch a guy coming to the food distribution line for the third time and I turn him away. He is wearing head phones which is why I can remember him. We giggle at each other and keep giggling for quite a while even though he is now just standing on the other side of the road.

There is a medical team here building wooden huts and gravelling the ground outside them to keep out the mud. People get sick here a lot: dysentery and apparently gangrene. Someone cares enough to create a library called ‘The Jungle Book’. There are people helping to make sense of the legal status and rights of the asylum seekers. A man is cutting hair and shaving heads for free.

Someone who has been here since the camp opened eight years ago – still without the status necessary to move on – has built himself a shack, drawn amazing designs on its walls and filled the ground around it with potted plants.

Love in action. The heart opens and for a moment we are simply people together enjoying something beautiful.

On the other hand so much fear. Razor wire is fear. Water cannons against flesh is fear. Tear gas in a baby’s eyes is fear. The group of Afghan men who go quiet when we two women approach them is fear.

There is a middle-aged French couple living opposite the Jungle. This Sunday afternoon they are having a party in their garden. They and about six of their friends stand behind the fencing topped with razor-wire drinking wine, loud disco music booming from speakers stationed close to the gate. They give the people walking up and down the road the finger. The men respond in kind. The Police are called.

And so it goes.

We walk past the mosque here and the Imam strides out coolly ignoring us women and offers the man with us a warm welcome. He takes him into the mosque. A rubber bullet strikes him in the stomach the next day when the French authorities demolish the tents.

Fear in action.

Within the parameters of this camp are areas that appear almost middle class and orderly with larger tents and almost no garbage around. There are even a few stalls and eating places. There is probably a very successful drug dealer somewhere. I see a young black woman in provocative clothes leaning up against a wall.

There are also areas with tents near stinking mud. Winter is coming. What happens when it rains here? What happens at night here? The stench of the toilets is overpowering in some areas. A French woman wearing gloves and a mask is emptying plastic containers overflowing with excrement. I wonder why the people in the Jungle are not cleaning their own toilets or organising rubbish removal. The Calais garbage men are not going to do it for them. Actually, no-one should do it for them. This co-dependent dance of entitlement and enabling is one that poisons us all on every level – personal, social, political – every single day, and we are dying from it.

The truth is we are one, simply one and each of us is suffering more and more intensively as every separation we have invented for ourselves as the human race comes to the surface and is played out more and more brutally.

In the EuroStar terminal we wait to board our train home, surrounded by lights and food and magazines and wines and perfumes and toys for every occasion and every age.

The Tunnel was closed yesterday because many asylum seekers tried to board trains. Someone was electrocuted. Someone was found in the boot of a car. Russia is helping Syria bombing ISIS which allegedly the USA has been doing for a year without success. Another massacre on an American university campus. The Tories are planning to build a prison in Jamaica so they can send Jamaican prisoners ‘back home’.

And the truth is we are one humanity.

Our story so far.


SmitaBorn in Sierra Leone, Smita attended boarding school in the UK because her father was a diplomat. In 1973 she participated in a one month meditation group run by Poonam, took sannyas in 1975 and travelled to Pune where she worked as a cleaner and later trained to become a Tantra group leader. During four years in Rajneeshpuram she was the Tool Mama, later worked in Security and finally as editor of The Rajneesh Times. She lives in Totnes, Devon, England, working as a healer and facilitating meditation retreats.

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