A Living Hell: The Calais Camp

Calais Camp, photo credits to Nicolas Nematala


Piles of burning rubbish, overflowing portable toilets, contaminated water, rat infestations, and more than 6,000 refugees and migrants squatting in decrepit tents. Welcome to Calais, France, the self-proclaimed “Country of Human Rights.”

As the world’s sixth largest economy on the richest continent, the French government and the European Union are doing shamefully little to alleviate the suffering of thousands in the camp known as the “Jungle” – or as one refugee described it to me, “a living hell.” This camp, home to thousands of refugees, is in the process of being destroyed by French authorities. According to Yahoo News, local authorities, who are demolishing the southern portion of the camp, have claimed that no one is to be evacuated by force and that between 800 and 1,000 people will be affected by the eviction (charities contend that several thousand will actually be affected).

The Jungle has existed in some form or another for the last 15 years, but the situation is worse than ever. France must register and process those who are fleeing conflict zones, and are refugees and give them legal status in France, as per international law. Unfortunately, economic migrants – those not fleeing from war – may need to be sent home.

The Calais camp has become a major public health concern as the water in the camp has traces of E. coli and coliform bacteria, which researchers say is “indicative of fecal contamination.” Several cases of diarrhea and food poisoning, as well as an outbreak of scabies have escalated that concern.

The refugees have been tragically unprepared for a northern European winter. As the cold sets in, medical problems increased dramatically, with pneumonia being a major concern.

Overstretched NGOs rely on private donations and an all-volunteer staff to provide the nourishment for thousands, with only enough resources to provide refugees with one meal a day. As the population of the camp increases, so does the desperation and competition for food; lines can take over an hour and fights break out regularly.

Providing food, shelter, and medical care to thousands of refugees in Northern France is not the responsibility of NGOs and private individuals, it is that of governments. France and the EU have the structure and resources to address a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude, they just lack the will. A cynic might believe that the lack of funding is a deliberate attempt to create miserable conditions, in a vile effort to deter future refugees.

Calais residents complain of being set upon by gangs of desperate immigrants attempting to steal money or food. The local police claim that petty crimes, such as shoplifting, have increased dramatically. The Jungle itself feels lawless, as the police rarely enter.

Calais Camp, photo credits to Nicolas Nematala
Calais Camp, photo credits to Nicolas Nematala

The situation is providing the extreme-right political parties such as the National Front all the ammunition they need to criticize France’s membership in the European Union. Weekly protests by the citizens of Calais have taken on a nationalist, maybe even racist tone. After the horrific attacks in Paris, questions arose to the possibility that at least one of the attackers may have hid among the refugees. The hard fact, however, is that at the time of this writing the only nationalities officially identified have been French or Belgian. Regardless, would we, as a society, expel thousands based on the actions of a few? It is important to remember that many of those living in Calais are fleeing the same savage violence the world witnessed in the recent Paris attacks.

France, with EU support, must construct a proper camp that complies with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) international standards. This means providing food, water, housing, and sanitation. Regardless of the cost, the alternative cannot be worse than the current situation: an anarchical shantytown filled with thousands of desperate men, women, and children. If the governments do not act out of compassion, let it be for the sake of common sense.

Turkey, one of the countries that bears the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis, has constructed 22 refugee camps serving more than 210,000 refugees. One of the camps, located in Kilis, provides the ideal example of how a refugee camp should be run: there is gated access where refugees come and go with ID cards, received after a fingerprint scan. Refugees run their belongings through X-ray machines and are monitored by police and private security as they pass through metal detectors. Refugees are lodged in heated housing containers—there are no tents, rotting garbage, or sewage.

In Calais, however, the UK and French governments continue to invest in more fencing at the Eurotunnel and ferry entrances, in an effort to stem the tide of crossings to England. And it’s working. The number of successful crossings has decreased. This, however, has had the adverse effect of causing the camp population to swell, and conditions to further deteriorate. What once could have been labeled a “border security” issue has now morphed into a humanitarian crisis of the first order in the heart of Europe.

Calais Camp, photo credits to Nicolas Nematala
Calais Camp, photo credits to Nicolas Nematala

The migrant crisis has shown how little solidarity there is on the continent. While Germany has taken in over 1 million refugees, others have closed their borders and refused to grant asylum to refugees. More than 100 years since the start of the Great War, Europe still finds itself unable to rise above nationalistic interests. The future of the European Union itself is at stake if member states do not come together to institute an effective common immigration policy.

Whatever those living in the Jungle expected when they fled from war and poverty, it likely wasn’t this – a putrid camp on Britain’s doorstep. Calais epitomizes a microcosm of misery and suffering around the world, it also symbolizes the tragic apathy and xenophobia that has consumed Europe.

From the ashes of the Second World War, when millions of Europeans were themselves refugees, the international community came together and signed the UN Charter. The preamble to the treaty lays out the reasoning for the founding of the United Nations: “To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

Seventy years later, and for all the vaunted speech about Western Europe’s affirmation of human rights, the Jungle stands as a tragic monument to insincerity. And the current attempts to clear the camp by the French police stands as an ugly attempt to wipe away the sin of neglect and hypocrisy from the veneer of the better future Europe promised… and failed to deliver.

Ryan Blum is an American freelance journalist based in Paris. He holds a B.A. in International and Comparative Politics from the American University of Paris. His writings have appeared in The New York Times and Foreign Policy. His Twitter is @ryanblum1 


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