Three weeks ago there was a huge fire in the refugee camp in Calais known as 'the Jungle'. It started as a result of a fight between two groups in the queue for food at the Jules Ferry Distribution Centre and quickly spread through the camp. According to aid organisation Help Refugees, approximately 40 people ended up in hospital and 250 shelters burnt down, leaving at least 500 homeless. It's unlikely you heard about it. Because despite the severity of the situation, there was very little media coverage in Britain. The national press, it would seem, have all but forgotten about the once notorious Calais refugee camp. It wasn't long ago that we were hearing daily reports about the so-called ‘Jungle’. Left and right wing papers ran front-page stories about unaccompanied minors, about the violence and about clashes with the French riot police. When the south side of the camp was under threat of being demolished, it sparked outrage from the public; politicians and celebrities visited the camp, wrote open letters to the government and launched petitions to prevent it happening, with the media circus reported their every move. But the demolitions happened anyway. The bulldozers moved in and the whole southern half of the camp, home to thousands of people, was destroyed. After which, it all went very quiet. So quiet, in fact, that you could be forgiven for believing the camps are no longer there. Banksy posted a photo of the bulldozed area with the words 'Dismaland is no more' and the British public assumed, perhaps understandably given the lack of media coverage, that 'the Jungle' had been completely demolished. Worryingly for both the inhabitants of the camp and the volunteer organisations who support them, donations and volunteers have dried up as a result.
Refugees are once again living in flimsy, inadequate tents, in increasingly cramped and squalid conditions with limited facilities.
The camp did not disappear when the bulldozers moved into the south side in March. Homes were destroyed and people were displaced but the majority of the two thousand plus people living in the southern side of the camp simply moved to the northern half. The most recent census conducted by Help Refugees in May found that there were 5497 inhabitants living in the jungle before the demolition of the south side. Post eviction, the population dropped to 4946 but by the beginning of May had risen again to 5188. The demolition didn’t significantly reduce the camp’s population, it simply forced them into a space half the previous size. With the destruction of their shelters and the CRS (French riot police) restricting any further construction, the displaced people from the southern side are once again living in flimsy, inadequate tents, in increasingly cramped and squalid conditions and sharing fewer facilities. Less space and lower living standards create further tensions between the different communities and, with the warm weather bringing on average 100 new arrivals every day since the start of May, the situation in Calais is becoming increasingly desperate.
In the absence of mainstream media coverage, grassroots volunteer organisations such as Help Refugees and the Refugee Community Kitchen who feed between 1500-2000 people every day are becoming dependent on social media to raise awareness and keep the camps in the public conscience. Entirely funded by donations and reliant on volunteers, they use their Facebook pages to appeal for donations of food, clothes, sleeping bags and money. 30km along the coast in a town called Grande Synthe, just outside of Dunkirk, is France’s first internationally recognised refugee camp. Here, around 1150 refugees, the majority from Kurdistan, live four people to one lockable wooden shelter on a purpose-built site that is free from mud. There are toilet and shower blocks regularly maintained by volunteer sanitation teams and large open structures built for communal cooking and socialising. This camp, which opened on 7th March this year, was purpose-built by local Green mayor Damien Careme with the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) to house the 2000 refugees who had previously been living in the horrendous, rat-infested 'forgotten camp' located just a few kilometres away.
In the three months since it opened, the camp has had its fair share of problems relating to violence and people traffickers but there can be no doubt that conditions are a vast improvement on the old camp. Careme fought a battle with the French authorities for the right to build the camp and as a result the threat of closure is never far away. I spoke to long term Belgian volunteer Johanna Verpoort who has been working at the new camp since it opened. She told me that the Careme will fight to keep the camp open, but wants a much smaller population. “The Mayor doesn’t want to close the camp but Grande Synthe is a small town so he feels the population of the camp should be much less, ideally around 400-500. He would like other Mayors in towns along the coast to build more small camps, to spread out the refugee population and to share costs.” Given the anti-refugee sentiment in Northern France and the resistance of the French Government to the creation of the Grande Synthe camp, this seems an unlikely outcome.
We will continue to service and deliver dignity to the refugees living in the camps.
For the time being, at least, the camp seems safe from closure and the recent completion of four communal kitchen spaces has brought positive change to daily life. Built by volunteers from the Refugee Community Kitchen, these huge structures comprise of a total of seven kitchens with 28 wood fired cookers and fully accessible hot running water, allowing families and communities to cook for themselves rather than queuing for meals cooked and served by volunteers. Director of the Refugee Community Kitchen, Steve Bedlam, says the change has been a positive one and the new spaces have been well received. “The Dunkirk kitchens are working very well now that they are all open and running,” he tells me. “Families are cooking for themselves and having hot water to wash up with has been very well received. The spaces are also being used for communal events and gatherings and we have one women’s only space next to the school which has been a great success.”
The completion of the kitchen spaces coincided with the start of Ramadan and, with large Muslim communities in both the Grande Synthe and Calais camps, Steve explains how the Refugee Community Kitchen have had to adjust the service they provide accordingly. “We continue to provide a smaller service to the non-Muslim communities and are working with the Muslim communities to supply late night meals and food parcels that are easy to eat.”
With the rising numbers of new arrivals and the stream of volunteers and donations drying up fast, aid organisations in Calais are under extreme pressure to continue to support the camps’ needs. Despite these significant challenges, organisations such as the Refugee Community Kitchen have no intention of stopping. “We will continue to service and deliver dignity to the refugees living in the camps,” says Steve. “One thing we know is that we do not want to stop helping those who need help.” What can you do to help? - Donate directly to Refugee Community Kitchen or Help Refugees. - Fundraise. Organise an event to raise money for the organisations who rely entirely on donations and volunteers. - Buy items on the list at Leisure Fayre at 20% discount and they get delivered directly to the warehouse in Calais. - Hire a van and drive over with donations and volunteer. Check Calaidipedia for up to date lists of donations and further information about volunteering.