Calais has been in the news lately as the city with the largest migrants’ camp in Europe, hosting between 5,000 and 7,000 people – although no official figure is available. I decided to go and to spend a week there, having been moved by three main feelings: interest, solidarity and a full load of questions and doubts about what the situation is in this town in Northern France.
The camp is not officially recognized, and is called “the Jungle”, as many say that people living there are considered animals, for the conditions and treatment they receive. After spending some time in the camp, I felt that this was only partly true. On the one hand the material conditions are indeed appalling but on the other, the people make you feel safe and part of a larger community.
Plenty of articles can be found (1) that describe the conditions of the Jungle, telling stories about its inhabitants, and describing its main elements, so I won’t spend too much time doing that. It is enough to say that I felt the Jungle was like a small city, or rather a neighbourhood, with its main streets, shops and restaurants, its church and mosque, even a theatre, a school and a library… However, this is constantly transforming due to internal and external forces. The Jungle could be seen as a microcosm [of human beings]: there are different areas for people who come from Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea and so on, although they all come together in the streets and in the available communal spaces. They share life, air and dreams in this limbo between hope and fear, between achievement and failure, between destination and nowhere. Out of law, out of time, out of space, but “in” the Jungle; these tensions between outside and inside, inclusion and exclusion are so palpable when walking through the camp and then back to the streets of Calais.
As a volunteer in one of the grassroots organizations that operate in Calais, I was tasked with different activities in the warehouse, ranging from sorting clothes and other donations, assembling tents, building components of the shelter kits. Whatever you do, you feel accomplished and rewarded as you can immediately see the results of your work and a vital atmosphere surrounds you. However, much of the work also happens on site. There I joined different teams: one distributing shelters, one doing waste collection, and another giving out men’s clothing at a distribution point. Once you walk into the camp, you start seeing faces and interacting with the residents, feeling an overall sense of welcoming and curiosity from them. Although coming from so many different and distant places, once you are in the Jungle you are somehow part of a community: as someone said, “we are all in this [mess] together”, after all.
This feeling was confirmed on a memorable evening that I spent in the camp’s theatre, the Dome, to assist at the performance of an Afghan artist followed by a concert by a French band. The space becomes a melting pot of languages and smiles, of dances and voices, you forget being in France and you are suddenly in the Middle East, then in the horn of Africa, then in Afghanistan and suddenly in North Africa. This is something unforgettable and hard to describe in words. It left me with a smile and the feeling of being part of something bigger, followed by the belief that trying to control and imprison this energy is irrational, as it would be trying to halt a stream with bare hands. Why raising walls to stop a flow that has no more borders, it is open and multifaceted in essence? Wouldn’t it be wiser to find ways to integrate and adapt?
On a rainy day, having lunch in an Afghan restaurant, sipping a milky tea, you can feel as if you were in Kabul, as long as you don’t look outside and realize that the streets are made of mud and the shops are thin tarpaulins wrapped around frail structures. You can travel around the world in a matter of minutes; just a few steps can take you from Iraq to Eritrea, from Sudan to Iran.
But who are the migrants? It is through the interactions with the residents of the Jungle that you can get the chance to learn their stories, understand them better. These are people who are so similar to you, yet so different, and who happened to live in a country at war, or without opportunities, and had to flee – leaving their homes, families and friends. One night we were invited to share a Sudanese dinner in a shelter – carefully set up and decorated to make it feel warm and welcoming – and we met a young man who left behind the country he loves to escape persecution and find hope for the future. We learned that he plans to complete his studies in the UK, while finding a job to pay for tuition. His English was very good and this lowered the barrier that sometimes language can create between foreign people. We had a long conversation, which for a moment made us forget where we were: in the Jungle of Calais. We were suddenly reminded of this when he mentioned one of his attempts to climb on the train to go through the Eurotunnel, and fell almost breaking his arm… He would say this with a smile on his face, as if it were a common thing to do, as if his life hadn’t been in danger.
Out of law, out of time, out of space (2)
The [concentration] camp in Agamben’s view is the embodiment of the state of exception, where the law is suspended: the “inmates” have no civil nor human rights, hence life becomes “bare” life, and they are “out of law”. The life of the migrants in Calais’ Jungle – as that of refugees in camps throughout the world – is indeed a bare life, made of pure necessities and basic needs, where biological existence takes over. However, the people living in the Jungle have their own agency, they are constantly feeling the push to try and escape, make the crossing.
As a refugee camp, the Jungle represents a discontinuity in the life of its residents, a parenthesis of anonymous suspension and waiting: they are detached from both their past and future lives, in a place of permanent temporariness, “out of time”. On the other hand, if compared to other refugee camps, the borders of the Jungle are much more permeable and undefined, yet this doesn’t make it less an “other” space, a “heterotopia” or space of alterity: although no clear gates keep the migrants inside the camp, the Jungle is clearly a discontinuity of the normal urban and social fabrics. In this sense it is “out of space”, since it represents an exclusion from the surrounding “normal” environment. Additionally, the fences and security forces are just outside relentlessly waiting to stop them, to push them away, and capture them. And there is more: the other main difference is that the Jungle is just five minutes away from the boutiques and restaurants of a first world country, at the doorsteps of one of the wealthiest nations in the world, in a continent where resources are abundant, only unevenly distributed, perhaps. The inhabitants, however, constantly fight this condition of outsiders, and struggle daily in their attempts to trespass, climb, gain the inclusion to what they believe could be a better world.
Is there a conclusion?
After walking in the muddy streets of the Jungle, and seeing where thousands of migrants live every day, I can’t help but being baffled and my mind full of questions that don’t find a clear answer yet. Visiting Calais didn’t solve my doubts, it just strengthened them and made them more tangible, giving colors and faces to the headlines of newspapers and the stories in the media. Why is the Jungle what it is? And who let this happen? How can humanity keep building walls and arming soldiers instead of building bridges and facilitating integration and mobility? How can political issues and interests allow that so many (here, but in countless other locations and countries in the World) are forced to live in such conditions, struggling to survive, carrying out what has been called a “bare life”. Is this situation going to change? Will this be written in history books so that generations to come will know what we were capable of doing? Or rather incapable? Or rather unwilling?
This passage is inspired by a reading of ‘Città nude. Iconografia dei campi profughi’ (Boano et al 2005)
by Alberto Piccioli