The Independent London Newspaper
23rd May 2019

FORUM: Culture shock in Calais

    Some people in the camp were demonstrating for more food

    Published: 10 September, 2015

    THE Calais refugee camp, known by everyone there as “the jungle” was actually worse than I had imagined. 

    The most shocking thing of all, perhaps, was that this was in Calais.  

    I honestly cannot believe that this is two hours away from us in France. It felt like walking into the third world. 

    Not, of course, that it is any less terrible if it is happening further away but here I feel certain that our government and the French government are capable of stopping it being like this. 

    We were told not to give donations out directly because people had fought over them the day before when others had come and done this. 

    In the warehouse where donations were being stored, they had so much stuff but seemed to have no resources to get the things to the people in the camp or to sort them in a way that meant they could do this. They said they didn’t want any jumpers at all and turned away a great deal, rather than adding to the mountains they already had but couldn’t manage.

    Yet in the camp the people were cold, wearing flip-flops, and sometimes shoeless. Children were struggling with adult shoes. 

    I didn’t want to give out anything because we saw the aftermath of when this had happened, but an old man who looked sick, and struggled to walk, was freezing and wanted my coat so I took it off and gave to him. Much later he found me again, he had followed me because I had left a packet of Tic Tacs and a pen in my pocket and he thought I had left them by mistake and might want them back and wanted to give them back to me... 

    I honestly cannot imagine how these people cope in winter and assume some must die. 

    I gave money that people had given me to buy things to the two different aid organisations that we went to. 

    At the second one we met an older French woman who has lived all her life in Calais and was working on the ground giving out food. She used to be a jeweller but now devotes her life to working here with her husband. She was tough and passionate about what she was doing and cried when I gave her the money. 

    The refugees living in the camp were friendly and happy to see us – they wanted to talk (even if they had little English) and said they wanted people to see where they were living. They were movingly grateful that there are people here who care and want things to be different.

    The chaos of the situation, including the lack of an effective way to get the aid to the people living there, was shocking. The fact that traumatised people, who have already lived through so much more than we can imagine, were now living here in this “slum” was devastating and we do need to know about it. 

    I felt that perhaps the tiny impact if any made was from just being there, talking, listening, seeing and showing solidarity.  

    The aid worker said that people ask her how to help.

    She said individuals could come, talk, spend time and then think about what else they personally could do “in the jungle” – to offer something. 

    They want and need donations, but at the moment, cannot actually manage most of them. 

    One young Englishman, who is staying out there, said he spends hours each day just clearing debris away from water taps to try to keep the water clean. 

    Clearly more than this is needed, including a way of effectively managing the donations that are in fact desperately needed. 

    It is important to add that I am not criticising the people who are working incredibly hard out there and have been for years. They were there long before this shocking situation hit the recent headlines and prompted the generous surge of people wanting to help. They have to consider how to give things out fairly so as not to lead to feelings of resentment and further deprivation, which in these extremely stressful living conditions can push people over the edge. 

    They are also in need of help with the organisation and distribution and we were told that they do not even have a van...

    The people living in the camp are given one very small, cold, packed lunch a day by the French government. They have very few toilets, and queue hours to use them. As they do to get food. 

    They also queue hours for medication, if needed, and are often just given one pain killer each. 

    This treatment of traumatised humans is happening on the border of the United Kingdom and in the European Union. How is this possible in 2015? 

    I feel like I’ve been gone a week rather than just a day and to another continent rather than to France.

    • Ruth Glover is a child psychotherapist who grew up in and works in Camden. She now lives in Haringey.