Friday, 25 December 2015

Une Baguette De Merde by Gawan Mac Greigair via Facebook: December 25th 2015


It's taken some time, but I've found some words to say about our trip to the camps in Calais. If you have ever had – or given an appraisal at work, you’ll know the concept of a ‘shit sandwich’ where the manager gives positive feedback, then some critique, then more positive stuff so as not to leave the employee too downhearted about any criticism.

Here, reporting back from our Calais trip, I’m going to do pretty much the opposite. I’ll call it a ‘baguette de merde’. I don’t want anyone who reads this to feel on finishing it, good, satisfied, pleased, mollified, reassured. It wouldn’t reflect or respect the reality, which is upsetting, angering and is a foul-smelling stain on our societies and our governments. 

I’ll get to the chinks of light, including the end-use of your very welcome donations, in a bit. 


The Jungle – named that by the migrant residents of the camp themselves – is a place of horrific squalor. It is the sprawling ‘home’ to around 7000 humans, perhaps more, and more arrive every day;men, women and children, including unaccompanied young teenagers.

The Jungle lies to the east of the port of Calais, and on one side is bounded by a motorway leading to the port. It sits on a former landfill site of mud, scrub and dunes.

Most people are living in flimsy, uninsulated tents, some in shantytown-style shacks, many with tarpaulins tied down across them for a little extra protection from the weather. Some have timber-framed and plywood-and-tarp-clad huts, which I’ll come back to. A small few – who must have been in the camp for a long time – have constructed impressive (in context) architecture from salvaged wood, pallets and tarps.

The site is filthy. Rubbish is strewn everywhere. There are large pools of water and deep, sucking mud which in places smells foul and suspect. In parts of the camp there is a moonscape of steep craters, where the ground looks as if it has given way, full of rubble and still more waste. Everywhere you go as you walk through the camp you pick your way through this cesspit, except for a few short stretches where a truckload of large gravel has, mercifully, been dumped and spread out along a roadway. All around is flapping, ripped plastic, discarded inappropriate clothes, half-collapsed tents. Find a rise in the ground and you can look out over an area the size of a small town composed of ridge, hollow, ridge and hollow of this scene, over and over. Traffic roars over the nearby flyover, where high fences and barbed wire have been erected (partly funded by the UK government). Police bristle in riot gear at the entrances, roads and boundaries, and now and then strut in groups through the camp, for no reason that is apparent unless it is to intimidate.

There are occasional rows of portaloos in the kind of condition you can probably imagine but would rather not – venture behind some of them and you will find deposits of human excrement every couple of feet, which gives you an idea of how bad the portaloos must be. The portaloos are only sited along the main ‘streets’ – I don’t know what people do if their shelters are far from these, but I’m sure you can travel there in your imagination.

There are a number of water stations for washing, brushing teeth and so on. At each, a low horizontal pipe carries a number of taps in a row, and people come to bend over to scrub their faces and clean up in a rudimentary way, balancing on loose platforms of sometimes rotting pallets to lift themselves a few inches above the mud that inevitably forms around the water stations. Like the portaloos, these stations are all located along the main streets, so washing is done in full view of everyone who passes by. There is no roof to protect people from the elements, no walls to protect them from view.

As you look out over all of this, it is impossible not to imagine how much worse and degrading this will become if and when heavy rain, snow and freezing temperatures arrive this winter.

There is a dire lack of firewood for cooking and keeping warm. Some people are so desperate that they burn plastic instead. The smell of it will hit your nose and throat.


Dunkirk, also known as Grande-Synthe, is a smaller, more recently formed camp about 30 minutes’ drive east of Calais. It is these days peopled overwhelmingly by Kurds. It is, inconceivably, in a worse state than the Jungle. The mud is deeper, and services almost non-existent. A kitchen has recently gone up but often runs critically low on supplies. The local government has supplied a few toilet facilities in portacabin-style structures, as well as a self-congratulatory sign telling residents – in many languages but not Kurdish – that they have done this and the facilities are free of charge.

Police have been very obstructive at Dunkirk, forbidding any vehicles from entering or leaving, and they forbid the entry of any building materials. Any supplies have to be carried in on foot from a nearby car park, where people gather waiting hopefully for vans to arrive with donations.


Because France refuses to recognise the Jungle and the smaller camps as official refugee camps, there is no UNHCR presence here, no Red Cross, no central overseeing authority, no hierarchy, no lines of responsibility, negligible government contribution and no accountability. (The British government, who refuses to provide any safe route into the UK so that people’s asylum claims can be made, is equally at fault.)

What there is is anarchy, in both its negative and positive meanings. In the negative sense this can mean mafia, exploitation, abuse, occasional scuffles as tensions boil over; duplication of, inefficiencies in or gaps in the attempt to meet needs. In the positive sense it can mean not a politically conscious anarchism of people sitting around discussing Bakunin but an anarchism of doing and action that hasn’t had the time or the slightest interest in stopping for a minute to think of itself or label itself as anarchism. (That said, Calais Migrant Solidarity – No Borders is a loose group of activists who take an explicitly political stance) I have heard someone at one of the warehouses say that “We’re not political, we’re humanitarian,” which is an attitude that troubles and disappoints me: how can you possibly not be politicised and political in a horrorscape that has been created by colonialism, capitalism and racism?

[Added later: Tom Tomski made an important response to this in a comment, and it’s worth including here: “If I could talk about where you mentioned "we're not political, we're humanitarian". I have used those words to describe the efforts of the group from Guildford with whom I work. We say this because we believe that there is a place for political discussion and a place for humanitarian discussion. Occasionally the two inevitably collide. I feel this is necessary but when political argument spill over and distracts from the work we are all trying to do then our already fragile aid procedures break down. I think we all would like to see a resolution to the issues faced by those we are trying to help but there is a time and a place for that kind of discussion. Through my efforts over the last year I have learned the importance of choosing that time, place and audience.”

I agree with Tom, and I see the logic of making the separation in the particular context of the warehouse and other donor operations. I was trying to describe what I felt in that moment, but I think what Tom expresses is probably what the person in the warehouse was trying to say. I’ve got huge respect for those who have been giving of themselves for so long under great pressure, and we tried to be mindful that we were newbies who were there to learn from their systems and outlooks and swallow any frustrations we would inevitably encounter, as these might spring from our own ignorance and inexperience.]

Where there are projects, organisations and collective or individual efforts to meet the basic needs of the camp residents, they are run entirely either by volunteers or by camp residents themselves, or by the two in collaboration with each other.

Volunteering and ‘aid’

The warehouses
There are two main warehouses, run by different organisations, in locations that are kept relatively secret and which are a 10-20 minute drive from the Jungle. One is l’Auberge Des Migrants, the other is Care4Calais. They have slightly different systems, but each accepts donations: of food, clothing, boots, tents, sleeping bags, blankets, building materials and other items. Before going for the first time it can be easy to get confused, and perhaps even turn up to the wrong warehouse. Their communications and online presences are often not clearly branded.

We delivered our vanload of donations to l’Auberge and spent much of the four days either working in the warehouse on sorting clothes or food, or putting our van to use by taking food or firewood from the warehouse to the Jungle and the Dunkirk camp.

The warehouse is swarming with volunteers in yellow hi-vis, beavering away, sorting donations into some kind of order that can allow them to be collated and distributed to the camps. This is a Sisyphean task – the mountain of clothes tripled in size during our time there – and is not helped by the large number of donations that are unsorted by gender, type or size, or utterly inappropriate (evening wear, high heels, large sizes – almost everyone in the camps is slim). It doesn’t take long working in the warehouse to lose your admiration for people’s generosity and to start to curse the thoughtlessness of those organising donations without checking the camp needs or considering the warehouse logistics. The fact is, inappropriate or unsorted donations DELAY the distribution of donations to people in desperate need.

The Auberge warehouse, nevertheless, is utterly remarkable, an extraordinary real-time experiment. Volunteers may be there for a day, a weekend, a week or several months – an unpredictable turnover with people constantly learning on the job and faces changing. Organisers wear orange hi-vis, but an orange vest has been known to be handed to someone with just a day’s experience if they seem to have their head screwed on.

Around the back of the warehouse is the building workshop. Here, the parts for timber framed and ply-and-insulation-clad shelters are constructed, then taken to the camp, where camp residents help to raise and finish them. They are very rudimentary, but far better than tents. There are now around 650 on site.

‘Independent’ Volunteers

There is a whole ecosystem of voluntary groups or individuals in the Jungle, many independent of the two warehouse operations. Anyone can turn up, try to identify an unmet need and then try to meet it. So there are other building groups, other distributors. Distribution is a tricky business, and the inexperienced can get into and cause considerable stress, so it is worth learning the tricks of the trade. ‘Line distributions’, where people queue up to the back of a van being unloaded, for example, can go badly wrong – if the line is not managed (or self-managed by assertive people in the queue) there can be a bit of a scrum, or people left empty-handed, disappointed and angry – and everyone left with their dignity lessened.

The mish mash of initiatives include a basic youth centre, supposed to give a place for teens (many unaccompanied minors) and younger kids a place to hang out safely and play. It’s not in a very safe neighbourhood, so the guys running it are fundraising to move it to a better spot, and to make a building three times the size to accommodate demand. We’ve spent some of your monetary donations on helping to ensure that this can happen.

Medecins Sans Frontiers have a presence on site (the first time ever on French soil), and there are other medically-oriented caravans and structures, including a vaccination centre, but all of this is pretty poor in relation to the need. Scabies and influenza are rife, and you will see many people with injuries: from barbed wire, falls, police beatings, accidents on the road or railway tracks, tear gas inhalation and pepper-sprayed eyes (the police again).

Foodwise, there are kitchens offering free food: One Ashram kitchen twice a day, Alice’s Kitchen on a seemingly rolling basis as and when supplies are available. A Belgian kitchen we didn't see but heard of.

An Information Centre is run on a shoestring offering guidance on rights and asylum in European countries, printed in as many camp languages as they can manage. They need lawyers to volunteer. They have none.

Community Initiatives and Enterprise

Before I left, one friend asked me why the job of meeting needs is done by volunteers rather than by camp residents themselves. I didn’t know then enough to give an answer. I thought perhaps some answers to this might be: ‘Their movements are restricted.’ ‘With what money?’ ‘They are traumatised after fleeing wars.’ ‘Their primary goal is to pass through, not to live long-term in the Jungle.’

Now that I’ve been, I know that while much of that is true, the most relevant answer is: “But they ARE doing it for themselves!”

Zimako Jones runs l’Ecole Laique du Chemin des Dunes, a school made of timber and tarp just inside one of the camp entrances  On the weekend we were there he was hosting a remarkable art exhibition in the school featuring migrants’ stories and casts of their heads and shoulders.

Another man (I don't know if it's ok to use his name) – resident in the Jungle – runs a shack from which he organises distributions – of boots, food, etc. He is – and has to be – a formidable character, but has a gentle demeanour when he’s not berating some people for selfish or unco-operative behaviour. He is very active in working to support existing community kitchens and set up new ones, often run by national groups in the camp.

The advantages of these are ease of food distribution, culturally appropriate cuisine that people actually want to eat, and of course hubs for people to gather. These need a steady supply of gas, which is in very short supply, so we are spending some of your monetary donations on paying for a three-month supply to help this project.

There are of course, many many more resident-led – and volunteer-led – initiatives going on than we could become aware of in a brief four-day visit, and of course there are national / linguistic / subnational groups in which the job of community leadership and co-operation must be going on in countless ways, overt and subtle.

There is also enterprise – humans are gathered here, after all. So the main drags are lined with shops selling foodstuffs, top up cards and more. There are cafes (I recommend Kabul Café), barbers, hamams. For those with money, of course.

There are too many other resident-run or independent volunteer-run initiatives to mention here. However, even this remarkable effort and energy and commitment and co-operation is not meeting people’s basic needs. People continue to go hungry and cold, inadequately clothed and shod, ill and in danger. This is why there is no place for congratulation or self-congratulation. Even those working hard and selflessly to clothe and ‘house’ people in the camp will tell you that They Should Not Be Here. That no one should be abandoned in this dead-end, stomach-turning mire. Donating is not the end. Volunteering is not the end. They solve nothing, they only salve for a short time.


With that in mind, the five of us had much more money in donations than we ever expected – more than £8000. A huge thank you to those who donated, as well as to those who were unable to donate but spread the word, and those who donated things like clothes, boots and sleeping bags. Here is how we are spending the money:


- Fresh food bought and taken to Calais: £120.50
- Dried food, oil, etc, bought and taken to Calais: £863.77
- Individual food parcels: £313.33
- More food bought in Calais: £206.08
- Kitchen equipment: £16.98
- Donation of £750 so gas canisters can be bought for community kitchens run by camp residents. 

This the first instalment of at least three. This will help get a large number of community kitchens up and running, run by and for camp residents. This will mean more self-reliance is possible, more culturally appropriate food, easier food distribution from warehouse to camp and a number of hubs where communities there will gather and share.

- Two more instalments of £750 to fund the gas supply for community kitchens

- £500 towards the resiting and expansion of a youth centre that is one of the few places where underserved and vulnerable teenagers can go, have fun and be looked out for, as well as younger children. Demand has outgrown the facilities there, and it is not in a safe spot, so the people running it want to have a building made in the UK that is three times bigger, then brought to the site, as well as proper fencing to make it safer. The £500 is being match-funded and allows the move and rebuild go ahead.


- Support one or more of the self-build shelter projects, which work with camp residents to build simple timber and ply dwellings (much better than flimsy, weatherbeaten tents). We are currently researching how best to do this.
- Donate towards the re-siting of the Dunkirk camp to an MSF-run camp


As well as some of those already mentioned above, we met some people in the Jungle and Dunkirk who just won’t leave our heads.

One of our group was approached by a young boy who asked for a blanket for his friend. Luckily we had one spare in the van, so we gave it to him and asked him to take us to his tent, which meant picking a way through a labyrinth of mud, craters, tents and detritus to a spot not far from the flyover, from where French police randomly fire tear gas into the camp each night. He showed us his tent and introduced us to the four friends and cousins he was sharing it with. All were from Afghanistan, aged between 11 or 12 and 15.

One spoke pretty good English. They had taken 50 days to travel from Afghanistan – fleeing the Taliban – to Calais, dodging wolves, wild dogs and violent adults. They were alone, now parentless, one had a painful persistent earache. They lacked boots, and they were cold at night in their tent, which was immaculately clean and tidy inside. They had arrived the day before, hungry, friendly, polite, open, sweet. They were children who had seen more than you and I will ever see, but so resilient and unbroken.

We showed them were they could get free food, found some information from them on asylum and rights in Pashtu, took them to the youth centre – who, incredibly, managed to get the timber and ply shelter they craved raised for them by the end of the same day.Later in the weekend we revisited; they told us how they had been scared the night before as they listened to tear gas being fired. Three of the five had ventured out, they told us. We worry every night now about where they are, what situation they are in. They are desperate to get to the UK, and they may do desperate things to get there.

On the day we were to leave we met another Afghan boy, Bader, 15 years old and arrived that very day, with no tent, no sleeping bag, utterly unprepared for the filth and chaos of the Jungle. He queued for half an hour for a tent, which turned out to be a beach windbreak instead, so we took him to Kabul Café for a meal while we sought him a proper tent.

Bader had fled Kunduz when the Taliban arrived, destroying schools and other buildings. His parents told him and his brother to flee. He doesn’t know where his brother is. He lost a friend who was arrested by Iranian police and had to continue without him. He came via a more official ‘Freedom Camp’ in Germany, but spurred by the myth that Calais is the stepping stone to the UK, he pressed on. Eyes wide and with a disbelieving smile and shake of the head, he said he had no idea that the Jungle was – well, as it is. We spent much of the last day looking in vain for a safe-seeming spot for him to pitch his tent, and eventually left him in remarkably cosy Alice’s Kitchen, where he would be allowed to doss for a couple of nights. We seemed more concerned about getting a roof over his head than he did: his priority was to find Afghan men to ask about ways of reaching the UK. Left to himself for 20 minutes he was already waiting for a call from an unknown man: a people smuggler? A trafficker? Someone who would charge thousands? Who would come through or not?

We went to Dunkirk to distribute firewood. Not allowed to drive in, we parked in the nearby car park and when we opened the van doors a crowd quickly formed. Firewood was gold dust, both here and in the Jungle. As we handed out sacks of wood, three or four tiny boys swarmed into the van. They were aged between four and six, perhaps, and they were determined to secure sacks of wood for their families. The sacks were heavier than themselves, and when the distribution had ended and the adults dispersed, these small boys were still with us, vainly trying to lift the bags. We locked up the van, took up the sacks ourselves and told them to take us to their families, wanting to make sure they were delivered. I have never seen such determination in anyone, child or adult, from one of the boys in particular – I can’t forget his eyes. There was no way in the world that he was not going to get that sack to his family in their pathetic, muddy encampment. He was serious and fiercely resolute. He looked five years old. I was ashamed in his presence.

The Jungle, Dunkirk and other, smaller camp are gatherings of human beings. That sounds obvious, and perhaps it sounds like it’s directed at your right-wingers and fearmongers. It’s also a reminder, though – for those sympathetic to their predicament - that the people in the Jungle must not be reduced to – and dehumanised as – victims. Some of the people we met are the last people you would want to reduce to that label. They are survivors and they are resisters. Some are good people, some are 'bad'. Some are peaceful, some rancorous, angry and lashing out. Some depressed, some irrepressible. Some wary and suspicious, some open, welcoming, friendly, at times inexplicably finding something to be glad of. None of them are only those things all the time. They have all travelled a long, long way. Many have faced the wrenching experience of leaving family and friends with the knowledge that the chance of ever seeing them again is very small.

I didn’t want to talk about how I, the privileged visitor, felt about the experience. I didn’t feel that this was important, and that it would be self-indulgent to navel-gaze. Others have said it’s important and helpful, and reaches some people in a way that facts might not. So:

The day after arriving home I felt flat, dull. As we went about our business, I felt I was seeing double in a way, but not seeing two of the same image; instead I saw what was in front of me, but overlaid with images of the camps. To cook a meal at home is to see people burning plastic because there is no wood, or queuing for food. To lie in bed under the duvet is to meet again the strangers who would wish you good morning (after a night of being gassed) and then politely ask if you could find them a blanket. To shower is to see the pallets and water stations. To hear the rain on the roof here in Kent is to hope to God and Allah and Vishnu and Pacha Mama and the isobars that it is not raining on the swamps that are the camps. To turn out the light at night is to wonder whether the boys we met are venturing out at night, risking their lives on motorways and railway tracks and being gassed by police.

On our way to the ferry I simply didn’t want to leave. I felt we were abandoning people who had already been abandoned so many times. On being home for 24 hours I almost – almost - wished I hadn’t gone at all, because the feelings of inadequacy are so strong. But we will be back, despite the doubts, because we’ve seen things that can’t be unseen, and so it’s too late to do otherwise. We’ll be back because the humans in Calais have been our best teachers. We’ll be back because there’s no excuse not to. And we’ll be back because in this country our comforts and riches have been built on the robbery and murder of people like those in the camps in Calais.

(At least I think, for now, that we'll be back. One thing we learned in the camps is to not make promises if you don't know for sure you can follow through.)

To see the shifting mass of people there is to see the personification of the consequences of so many of the world’s war zones – most of which our government or its closest allies have had a hand in creating or worsening.

There are Kurds, Sudanese, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Syrians, Iranians and a host of others. Perhaps you, like me, stopped reading the reports of explosions in Baghdad market places some time ago, feeling increasingly detached, helpless and ignorant. To go to the Jungle and Dunkirk is to be whacked around the head with the reality of the human consequences. Here are those consequences, on our doorstep, in the form of people like us, and if they must be anywhere we should at least in some way be grateful that they are here, so close, where it is increasingly difficult for us to look away, because we have no right to look away.

They are there because of centuries of colonialism, which continues today in the form of capitalism and its associated resource extraction and labour exploitation, because of historic European robbery and genocide, because of imperial game-playing and the catastrophic carving up of other people’s lands with random borders (everyone in the Middle East knows what Sykes-Picot is, why don’t we?). The comfort we have here is not random good fortune or the result of our hard work and industriousness, it is the result of a long-term zero-sum game with the odds stacked in *our* favour. The results of that injustice are now personified in their thousands just 22 miles from the English coast.


Even before we left for Calais, while gathering donations and making preparations, we were often thanked by people making those donations. Phrases were used like “Thank you so much for doing this”, “Thank you for going because I couldn’t”, "It's so good of you".

I have no wish to be ungracious about those words, and I take them at face value and I am grateful for them. It is hard, though, to express just how awkward it felt to hear them – not out of modesty or false modesty, but for a reason I couldn’t quite put into coherent thoughts and words they made me squirm with discomfort and unease. Part of it was the knowledge of the inadequacy of whatever we might do, but that wasn't what was bugging me. On talking to my mum when we returned to Kent, she was the one who was able to vocalise the discomfort.

It’s as if, she said, it expresses a belief that you have no obligations to anyone beyond yourself or your immediate family. It says something about where as a culture, as a society, we have set the boundaries of what constitutes the community to which we have duties. I think she’s right. And I repeat that it is not a criticism of any individual who might have expressed ‘thanks’, nor a questioning of their personal values. But that impulse to thank does say something rather dark about where we have collectively set the boundaries of what we think of as our community, our obligations and our brotherhood and sisterhood.

(I’d also add that, especially if you live in the south east of England, yes, you can go to Calais – unless you are in poor health or perhaps have two babies on your hands, you can do it. There is a useful role for anyone, there were elderly people volunteering in the warehouse, there were people who had left their families to go and some who had brought their families with them. And the ferries are cheap.)

On the subject of charity, as I said above, the people in the Calais camps should not be seen as victims needing our help. They are the most resourceful and resilient people currently residing in Europe. Their journeys have been acts of resistance against systems of oppression and against borders which block (and kill) humans but allow and celebrate destructive flows of capital, weapons and stolen natural resources. Their repeated and continued nightly attempts to cross to the UK are admirable and brave acts of resistance against a monstrous injustice and a moral outrage in which Britain and France have abandoned thousands of human beings in a squalid, purgatorial dead end. If and when we go to Calais again we won’t go as volunteers bringing ‘aid’ to victims, we will go to work alongside our new neighbours.

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