‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais far from a typical Christmas story

‘Nobody wants to complain, but they are determined to get to where they are going’

 

It’s Christmas Day and Gary Daly, a solicitor from Dublin, is sitting in a makeshift Pakistani cafe in France, eating samosas and talking to locals while watching a James Bond film on a small television set in the background.

It’s not a typical celebration but then the “jungle” refugee camp in Calais is far from a typical Christmas story.

There is little reason for festive cheer in a makeshift town deluged in mud and heavily fortified by security services. At any moment, says Daly, teargas might arrive to stop those attempting the final leg of a long journey to the UK.

The 42-year-old arrived here on Christmas Eve with a van full of supplies – tents, clothes, bags of tools, food parcels – giving up his seasonal break at home to help build facilities in the jungle. At a central warehouse used to store supplies, he began nailing wooden pallets to plywood sheets to make foundations for homes.

“From a logistics perspective the muck was my first impression. It’s everywhere and really swampy. I invested in a pair of wellies coming here and I am very glad I did.”

There are a few purpose-built huts that function as cafes – including the “Three Idiots” where he spent some of Christmas day – and which, with the help of generators, produce ethnic cuisine from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Eritrea.

“But 90 per cent of the camp is tents and they are floating in muck. Pallets are in huge demand here because they pitch their tents on them to stop them sinking,” explains Daly.

Although the Jungle has been in existence since the early 2000s it became a focal point of the European refugee crisis earlier this year.

By August there was estimated to be up to 5,000 people living in squalid conditions.

However the numbers of people attempting to cross to the UK generally have been falling: in July reports indicated that about 2,000 migrants were trying to access the Eurotunnel terminal every night, falling to about 150 in August.

Security has been increasing and the UK has committed millions in funding although police are often overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

As the attempts continue, much of the focus falls on the conditions in the camps which many volunteers are working to improve.

“Because I have been in Lesbos [in Greece where many refugees have been arriving recently] and various places before where I have seen distributions go very wrong, it’s better to co-ordinate things,” said Daly, of the supplies he brought from Ireland. He has witnessed similar situations where “the biggest and strongest” dominate crowds.

“Nobody wants to complain, but they are determined to get to where they are going. I suppose when they start complaining they lose hope themselves. So when they talk to you it’s not, ‘my life is shit’, it’s, ‘I need wood to burn to keep my tent warm’,” he says.

Direct provision

As a solicitor he was also asked by some for advice on asylum. He explained Ireland’s direct provision system and the often lengthy process it involves.

“They are surprised, very surprised. They have a benign view of Ireland and when you tell them actually the UK system is a lot better they are quite surprised.”

Daly found the general view, unsurprisingly, to be one where anything is preferable to where the migrants have come from, no matter how tough Calais might be. For instance, he spoke to a 23-year-old Afghani who fled his country because he had been kidnapped for ransom. He met people from Darfur.

“Why don’t they lose hope? Because what they are fleeing from is far worse.”

On Christmas Day he received an “emergency Christmas in Calais hamper” from his family which he shared with some other volunteers at the warehouse.

Later they returned to the jungle. “There was a beautiful vibe in the camp. Afghans, the majority of them are Muslim, but when they saw my face they were saying happy Christmas. It was a fabulous atmosphere, almost emotive. Incongruous,” he says.

“It was actually one of the best Christmas days I ever had. A beautiful feeling of community. In Ireland it’s such oppressive consumerism and I am not a ranting anti-capitalist but you are here with people with one pair of shoes and a tent.”