A new book on the notorious Calais 'Jungle' reminds us that behind the statistics are ordinary people longing for a decent life
We are in the summer season. It might also be called the sad season; for this is when thousands of migrants from North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan – to name the principal areas – try their luck in getting into Europe, often with tragic results, especially when they attempt to cross the Mediterranean in leaky boats supplied by callous profiteers.
These thoughts have arisen not just because I have just read an item in the newspapers about makeshift camps in Paris being regularly destroyed by the authorities, but also because I have been reading an affecting book: Voices from the Jungle: Stories from the Calais Refugee Camp (Pluto Press).
The editors have compiled the responses of many inhabitants of “the Jungle” between 2015-2016, before the camp was bulldozed and its population dispersed. By the time this happened in March 2016, it was home to 10,000 people – the size of a small town. What these stories do very effectively is to remind the reader that behind the statistics are individuals, ordinary people longing for a decent life and the chance to improve themselves.
What is extraordinary in the picture built up by this book is how “the Jungle” operated all the time on two levels: the first included poor housing, little food, inadequate water, sanitation and health services; the second included the work of volunteers, both inside and outside this vast slum, who distributed clothes, cooked food, built shelters and contrived opportunities for education, sport, culture and medical aid. In other words, a kind of normality asserted itself within an inhuman environment.
The “Voices” come from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq Pakistan, Libya, Syria and Sudan. They are economic migrants rather than refugees from civil war – though occasionally the two overlap. For instance, Mohammed Ahmed from Libya simply records that his country “is not safe and does not have a government. It just has militias and rebels.”
Mani, from Iran, relates that “The street in the Jungle is not just a street, it is a road of life with all its sadness, happiness, hope and disappointments.” A Sudanese man is equally affirmative: “People [here] will greet you and welcome you. That is what makes this a wonderful place. I don’t have good neighbours here, I have good brothers.”
Behind everything is the sorrow of leaving family behind, not being able to contact them, or being separated from other relatives on their trek across Europe, and having no news of them. There is also the worry of causing extra anxiety at home, where their families are hoping against hope that they are building new lives. Babak from Iran speaks for many when he states, “I don’t want to show my family what is happening here. I always tell them that I am good and that I am living in a house.”
Teddy, from Eritrea, speaks for all the restless, shifting population of “the Jungle” when he says, “We are human beings.”
The only long-term solution is to help make these countries, abandoned by their young and most able citizens, fit places for human flourishing. In the meantime, as Mother Teresa used to point out, thousands of desperate people need our help – today.