At the French coast, next to two ferry terminals leading to the UK, two refugee camps have been existing for years, though never officially recognised by the French authorities. Calais and Dunkerque have grown significantly in recent months, as it has been getting more and more difficult for the asylum seekers to get to the UK. Migrants are stuck as they do not want to get registered and thus forced to stay in France, but cannot reach their destination. They are surviving in rainy Northern France with the help of their own improvisation and international grassroots support, often for months. I have joined the hundreds of volunteers there for a week, to try to make living conditions a bit more bearable.

Photo credits: Wikimedia/ CC BY-SA 3.0/Strait of Dover map/Hohum/15 December 2005

Photo credits: Wikimedia/ CC BY-SA 3.0/Strait of Dover map/Hohum/15 December 2005

Of mud, tents, and confusion: the camp in Dunkerque

It is dark among the trees. Little twigs are scratching my upper body. I put forward one boot after the other with as little noise as I can make in the inches-deep mud. My back and arms are aching under the weight of several large tents.

Calais

Photo credits: Courtesy of Sonja Wiencke

Welcome to Dunkerque, the refugee camp in Northern France that should not be there.

Carrying tents through the dark forest to help refugees? It is as absurd as it sounds. Only a few months ago, Dunkerque was „home“ to a couple of hundreds of people, by now it has grown to around 3000 inhabitants. The French authorities take an odd approach to it: it is officially forbidden to make the camp inhabitable, that is, to provide tents and building material. Of course, activists have found ways to smuggle them in, and at least the obvious hundreds of tents inside the camp are left alone by authorities.

Calais

Photo credits: Courtesy of Sonja Wiencke

Dunkerque is a surreal place as it is only meters away from French residents doing their shopping. The camp consists of one main gravel road, surrounded by endless mud that swaps several inches deep around trees, tents and boots. Yes, this is Europe in the winter, and yes, people are living in tents here, average nylon tents or self-made tarpaulin constructions. Sanitation consists of a couple of portaloos and some installed tabs of water, showers haven’t been functioning for months. The resulting smell is for the most part elegantly covered by the smell of wood fires and food.

A number of different organisations and independent supporters are providing limited infrastructure staffed by volunteers and inhabitants: a distribution tent giving out tents, sleeping bags and other inexpendable things as far as they are donated, a kitchen tent, a school and a kindergarten that sometimes functions as a cinema, and an ad hoc clinic by mèdecins sans frontières.

When we get there with two vanloads of sleeping bags and blankets, it takes a while to understand what support we can actually provide. Everything in Dunkerque seems improvised, every volunteer and inhabitant doing what is the most urgent at hand. We join in, setting up new tents or saving abandoned ones, as a large number of new arrivals need a place to stay. It feels terrible to have to send some of the new arrivals, including children, to „bed“ in thin blankets, as we have run out of sleeping bags early in the night.

Calais

Photo credits: Courtesy of Sonja Wiencke

The people we meet, most of them Kurdish, appear very friendly and cheerful, which I find remarkable considering the miserable environment they are in. Several young men, with whom I unfortunately do not share a means of communication apart from hand gestures, offer their help or carry stuff along with us, as far as possible without the protection gear volunteers have. As it gets dark, a couple of the inhabitants gather around a dry spot where someone has a violin and plays songs which most of the others sing along to – a weirdly beautiful scene in this muddy misery.

Of hope, huts, and pepper spray: the camp in Calais

The residents call it „the jungle“: the camp at the outskirts of Calais. This camp is not only larger than Dunkerque, but feels very different: most residents have built improvised homes out of wood, tarpaulins, fabric and anything useful, the women and children’s area even offers caravans. The jungle is slightly less muddy and offers some sanitary facilities such as showers.

The camp houses around 7000 people and resembles a small town: there is a main street with shops and cafes set up by entrepreneurial residents, there are neighbourhoods of all the different origins, there are language schools, a small library, a stage for local and foreign artists, and streets with unofficial names.

The large community kitchens and the info point on asylum matters remind you that this is a camp of people who did not plan to be here, as do the distributions of donations coming in with the volunteers.

Photo credits: Courtesy of Sonja Wiencke

Photo credits: Courtesy of Sonja Wiencke

There are two big warehouses nearby, run by L’Auberge des Migrants and Care4Calais, respectively. These are staffed by volunteers, mostly from the UK, but also from France and other European countries. This is where endless sorting takes place: the massive amount of donations from several middle European countries is checked for quality and appropriateness (glittery pink cocktail dresses? Socks with holes? High heels? Really?) and then sorted into boxes of kind and size to enable distributions. The distributions themselves are a tricky undertaking: treating the refugees with respect and as clients rather than beggars has to be balanced with the need to get these donations to those most needing them rather than those shouting the loudest.

I have been asked why the refugees can’t deal with their daily lifes themselves instead of depending on volunteers. Part of the answer is that they are in fact dealing with it themselves – the tiny businesses around the main road prove it. However, that only works for those who still have money left after fleeing destroyed homes and paying smugglers for their terribly long journey. Most migrants stay between 3 and 8 months in Calais. To forbid asylum seekers to work and expect them to feed their families themselves at the same time seems to me rather paradoxical.

Volunteers are advised not to wander around on their own and certainly not after dark. Mafia and petty crimes have appeared in the jungle as they would in any small, impoverished town, though I have not felt unsafe at any time in the jungle. We went for dinner at one of the cafés in the Afghan area, which was very tasty and a nice place to hang out. By night or by day, people of all areas are very open and in fact told us welcome to their homes, inviting us for tea and a chat by their fire all the time.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Sonja Wiencke

Photo credit: Courtesy of Sonja Wiencke

Danger at night comes from very frequent clashes between the police forces and inhabitants, involving lots of teargas and pepper spray. Some of the measures used by the police to keep refugees from jumping onto trucks and trains to England appear rather strong: one night this week, teargas was sprayed at all the entrances, indiscriminately blinding anyone coming close. The medical tent treats an unusually large number of people with corresponding injuries. Any material evidence is usually taken away by the police, but the suspicion of human rights abuses seems to be worthy of investigation.

And then there are the human stories behind this: on the one hand, the volunteers, sacrificing their  time at the warehouses, the school, the kitchens or the workshop. I have met a handful of people who broke off their usual lifes and will stay in Calais until their money runs out, but the majority are short-term volunteers. Even though most of the tasks at hand do not require much experience, the large turnover certainly causes inefficiencies. Nonetheless, the volunteers at Calais, coming from literally all kinds of backgrounds, are a very motivated bunch of people sharing the conviction that while governments may have decided to ignore people in Calais, they still deserve a life in dignity and support after their terrible journey through Europe.

The refugees have a similarly diverse background. I spoke to several people from „Darwar“ („we used to call it Darfur, but since 2003 there is only Darwar“), one of whom has tried to get to England more than 50 times and has been caught, teargassed and beaten in return.

A passionate Darwarian poet shares some of his verses with me. A young man from Chad proudly chats in German to me, which he learned during his short stay there, and explains that he only left there because they wouldn’t let his wife join him.

An Iraqi man says he got to England a long time ago and his asylum application has been accepted, but his wife and children are still not allowed in, so he visits them in Dunkerque as often as he can. Some of the men I meet make plans of how I could smuggle them into England, plans that sometimes sound more appropriate for action movies. And I feel terrible, having to destroy a little spark of hope in them: No, the border police wouldn’t believe we’re married. No, they’d find you in the luggage room of the bus.

Of borders, rights, and politics: making sense of Calais and Dunkerque

Sitting on the ferry to England, I struggle to make sense of it all. Why should I be able to take this ferry and the 10 000 determined people in the camps should not? Why should I be able to go back to a hot shower and dry bed at the hostel after a day of freezing in the rain and mud, and the 10 000 people in the camps should not?

There is one thing all of the involved, police forces, authorities, right-wing populists, volunteers, and migrants, agree on: the camps in Calais and Dunkerque should ideally not exist. No one really wants to be here. That is obviously where they stop to agree on the matter, though. Governments appear to follow the strategy of denying any support and waiting until the inhumane living conditions will drive people away. That strategy is not only obviously failing, it is also contravening international human rights law (International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Art. 11). Volunteers are currently following a humanitarian strategy: the general feeling is that we are doing what the government should be doing, but we don’t meddle in political affairs. Will these two strategies be viable in the long term?

It is a special feeling, to be on the ground and do whatever seems currently most appropriate to help fellow human beings in neglected conditions – easy, peaceful, straightforward. This contrasts sharply with the „real-world“ or public debate on refugees, so loaded with hatred, fear and political games as it is. I have seen so much compassion, so much laughter and smiles, such warmth and energy for a better future this week. I would wish for more of this humanising energy to swap over into the public debate.

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Sonja Wiencke

Sonja Wiencke

Sonja is currently studying at the University of Oxford for an MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy, having graduated from a BA in European Studies in Passau, Germany. Her passions include human rights, environmental issues, hidden -isms in society, and improvised theatre. Sonja's dream is to work for the UN or the EEAS.