Life Among the Displaced
One Sewanee student’s summer internship places him at the heart of the European refugee crisis.
By Bret Windhauser, C'18
I was helping hand out blue jeans the first time I got hit with tear gas in the Jungle. Before the coughing, the gagging, the spitting and the furious blinking, we saw it coming—drifting ominously on a westward wind from an area known as “No Man’s Land.”
The British non-governmental organization I was interning with this summer, Care4Calais, distributed clothes daily from a shipping container in the middle of this massive refugee camp on the French coast, and my job on this particular day was to help manage a line of jean-seeking refugees, with the hope that we could prevent the line-cutting and fighting that might lead to a riot. As line security, I was rendered essentially useless by the burning in my eyes and throat. I could hardly see; I could barely breathe.
When I was finally able to open my eyes to see what was happening, I was surprised to find that the line of people had not dissipated at all. They willingly stood there, some for an hour and a half, suffering blow after blow to their already-embattled humanity as the gas continued to come in waves through the makeshift shelters of the camp.
There is no international crisis today that can compare to the modern refugee disaster. Mention of this hot-button issue is often met with heated debate and polarizing ideas that cast a pall over millions of lives. To this point, the 21st century has been characterized by the growth of multinational and international aid organizations but also by the expansion of border walls. This dichotomy creates an ever more globalized world with increasingly stringent bureaucracies that limit freedom of human movement.
Multinational organizations such as the United Nations and its branches (UNHCR, UNICEF, UNRWA) and organizations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent provide support and protection to populations caught up in the current crisis. But what happens when these organizations, along with the aid and protection they bring, are not in place? The result is “the Jungle”—a camp of asylum-seekers and refugees on the outskirts of Calais, France.
Without protection from France or the international community, the Jungle has represented the dark side of the refugee crisis for years. The camp was established in 1992, first hosting U.K.-bound asylum seekers during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Later hosting Kuwaitis and Iraqis after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces, the Jungle has a history all its own. Even after a partial demolition at the beginning of this year, the Jungle is alive with activity.
For two and a half months, my job as a Care4Calais team leader involved everything from organizing volunteers to sort supplies in the warehouse to facilitating emergency midnight aid drops. But the job was about as predictable as the conditions in camp. My fellow team leaders and I could spend a night organizing games and lesson plans for the next day’s English lessons in one of the camp’s schools and then be completely barred from entering camp because of a riot. Flexibility and adaptability was the name of the game.
Before arriving at camp in May, I spent two days in Paris, visiting landmarks that represent some of the high-water marks of Western civilization—the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower. Traveling from the City of Light to the country’s dark little secret, just an hour and a half north of Paris, induced culture shock. Calais is known for two things: being a cheap booze run for southern Brits, and our camp, the Jungle. Calais’ economy relies on its large port and the tourists who travel between France and the U.K. on its ferries. And just off the highway that runs to the ferry port lies the camp, on the outskirts of town yet only a five-minute drive from the city center.
To access the camp, our vans, loaded with supplies and volunteers, travel beneath an overpass known here as “the Bridge” and then are immediately stopped at a police checkpoint. On the camp side of the Bridge, a mural by the British street artist and activist Banksy depicts Apple founder Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian immigrant, walking with a computer in one hand and a bag thrown over his shoulder. The piece reminds onlookers of the promise that refugees can bring to host nations.
The mural advocating for the potential of refugees directly faces a unique police checkpoint. That’s because the Jungle is not technically a refugee camp, but an illegal camp full of illegal migrants in illegal settlements.
The official and legal means to gain asylum in Europe is simply to make it to the continent. When refugees land in Europe, they are required to apply for asylum in the first European Union country they enter. The problem is that this puts a massive resource burden on Italy, Greece, and, to a lesser extent, Spain. So, many refugees seek a legal but unofficial way of gaining asylum by passing through countries without registering until they reach another country where they hope to make their home.
Asylum seekers hoping to make it to the island nation of the U.K. face an added challenge because they can’t legally pass through a border, which gives them three options. The first is to purchase illegal documents, but doing that is very expensive and known to fail. The second is to sneak onto trucks on their way to the ferry port, hoping the trucks will not be searched before they arrive on British soil. Lastly, they can pay smugglers from the various organized-crime syndicates operating in camp to smuggle them across using the same method but at a higher success rate. The Jungle is strategically placed next to a highway on-ramp and the only 24-hour gas station in the area that can fuel 18-wheelers.
The British government is as concerned about security at the Jungle as the French. French police at the checkpoint are paid from a fund provided by the British, and security fences around the highway were paid for by the British. Officers guard the perimeter of the illegal settlement, which is not policed internally at all and effectively exists outside of the laws of the European Union. Adding to the ridiculousness of the situation, the border between the EU law-enforcement zone and the lawless Jungle is marked by a series of traffic safety cones arranged in a semicircle behind the checkpoint.
The Jungle is a mixed tent and wooden-shelter settlement with a population of between 6,500 and 9,000 people. The camp is loosely divided along ethnic lines, with Sudanese, Afghan, Eritrean, and Iraqi areas, although I met people of 23 different nationalities in my time there. As an outsider, I was surprised to find that the streets of the camp were alive with constant chatter, music, laughter, and exotic aromas wafting from the Jungle’s many restaurants. After working in camp for only a few days I began to see familiar faces, and after that, I was constantly being stopped by friends for a chat. But life in the Jungle isn’t easy, and it’s often defined by the constant threats of sexual assault, drug abuse, riots, racial tension, organized crime, and competition for resources. One of the biggest problems is violence perpetrated by the police.
Although the camp is unpatrolled inside, the exterior security forces offer constant challenges to residents and aid workers. They sometimes refused us entry into camp. They sometimes made volunteers endure extensive searches or questioned us to inhibit our progress. And then there was the tear gas. Traffic jams on the highway outside the camp meant that dozens of trucks would be parked next to thousands of people willing to risk their lives to board them. Residents would brave barbed-wire fences and police resistance, rushing to cross the 60-yard stretch of land between the Jungle and the highway known as “No Man’s Land.” To stop the wave of asylum seekers, police would gas the open, sandy area until the crowd dissipated. But the gas lingered and drifted into camp for hours.
There were other times in the Jungle when I found the best of humanity in the people to whom the least humanity had been offered.
The camp is predominantly Muslim—with smaller populations of Christians, primarily from Ethiopia and Eritrea—and I was in camp for the entire month of Ramadan. Although the fasting was hard for men in the camp, they were always happy to celebrate when given the opportunity. Every night of Ramadan, the other long-term volunteers and I were invited to break the fast with people all over camp. During the last week of Ramadan, before the large celebrations for Eid, our work focused entirely on providing food parcels to everyone in camp. A normal day of food deliveries involved making parcels in the morning at the warehouse and delivering between 100 and 150 in the afternoon. In the five days before Eid, we delivered 2,564 food parcels, making four to six deliveries a day to different parts of camp.
Thanks to the abundance of food for the celebration and the enthusiasm of nearly everyone in camp, Eid was one of the most amazing days of my life. In the morning, we were greeted with food and dancing, which continued until midnight. We enjoyed a massive lunch prepared in one of the kitchens in camp that was housed in a large mosque. It was incredible to see people of every background greeting one another in peace, speaking of hope for the future, and laughing about stories from their lives back home.
Unfortunately, good things in camp do not last long. Toward the end of my time in the Jungle, police began shutting down the restaurants, citing them for being unlicensed even though it’s impossible to obtain a license in the illegal settlement. The crackdown was especially hard to take because the restaurants served as communal meeting places where residents would watch football matches, hold English and art classes, and enjoy some amazing international food.
French President François Hollande has announced his plan to demolish the Jungle in the next few months. The remaining residents will be moved to centers across France where they can apply for asylum. If they are refused asylum, they face deportation. All of the asylum seekers who had the dream of reaching the United Kingdom will have to choose to stay in France or be forced to leave, and the time, energy, and money that they used to pursue their dreams will have been wasted. I’m having trouble processing the irony of displaced people being displaced from their home in their displacement.
Working in the camp, I learned more about myself, met more people from places I could have only previously imagined, and gained more understanding about how the world works than I have through any other experience in my life. But I can’t shake the idea that if humanity were more humane, the Jungle wouldn’t have had to exist in the first place.