Four square kilometers of sand. An immense pool of mud when the rain pours down. Insufferably hot when the sun shows up. Freezing to death when winter arrives. Welcome to the “jungle” of Calais.
Some 6,000 people live there. In tents, in shackles, in anything that can keep one dryer and warmer than outside.
Some of the people in the Jungle arrived there in the hope to move on to the UK. The vast majority however, ended up there just because they had nowhere else to go.
I visited the place some weeks ago to learn about the camp and the work Secours Catholique - Caritas France is doing there.
Although I already “knew” about the situation in the “jungle”, no report nor documentary can ever match the sudden feeling of true awareness that one gets from witnessing first-hand the terrible living conditions of this people. The smells, the sounds, the sight of thousands of fragile tents and rudimentary shelters, the very scarce points for water and the utterly limited hygienic conditions – i.e. French authorities restrict the use of showers to six minutes per person, including entering the shower area, taking your clothes, take your shower, get dried, put your clothes on and leave.
And when you think that you you've seen it all then you realise that there is something else: the never ending queuing.
When you live in the jungle, your main occupation is queuing. You have to queue for everything: to eat, to obtain a ticket for the showers, to access the shower, to go to the toilets, to do your paperwork with the administration.
Despite the nightmarish situation, I was amazed by the generosity and humanity that many showed during the visit. Some offered to share their meal, even if they didn’t have much. Everyone wanted to shake our hands and thanked deeply Secours Catholique for what they were doing in the camp.
Although the shelters are only rudimentary, the migrants have tried to brighten them with drawings and flowers. I even saw written “CR7” on one, the nickname of the famous Portuguese football player Cristiano Ronaldo. Kids are the same everywhere.
The work that Secours Catholique is doing in Calais is remarkable. They not only provide for migrants’ basic needs (clothes, hygiene…) but they also build informal relations with them to provide them with social contacts and conviviality by the means of a dedicated space in Calais city centre. A safe place outside of the camp for migrants to meet, discuss, rest, learn some French and enjoy activities such as movies, debates, etc. A lot of migrants become volunteers in this convivial space. They take care of the garden or help to repair bikes. Bikes are really important in migrants’ lives in Calais: it is the only way of being mobile and of going outside of the camp.
Secours-Catholique – Caritas France’s staff works with prevention too. Untrustworthy smuggling networks are known for spreading false information about asylum systems in Europe to attract potential victims. Secours Catholique counters that with accurate facts distributed in several languages.
The organisation also accompanies asylum seekers during the procedure of applying for asylum, which is a long and complicated process in Europe.
During the visit, I discussed with migrants from Sudan, Eritrea and Afghanistan. They told me their story and related their journey. We had no common language, but the combination of good will and a mix of French, English, Italian and a lot of signs made the communication possible. The stories they told us are terrifying. However, they still have hope in the future. They are hopeful and confident that the EU will help them overcome the ordeal they have suffered and that they will be able to rebuild their lives here.
We are hopeful with them that indeed the EU will live up to its values of solidarity and humanity. And we will continue to advocate this at the highest political institutions for a Europe that truly puts people at the centre of its policies.
Read more about the work of Secours Catholique - Caritas France in the "jungle" (in French)