On the 31st of August I decided to go to Calais, to the Jungle, with couple of friends to offer basic foot care: fungal infections, splinters, blisters, socks etc. On arriving we realized that people badly needed first aid, so we also did that. The following article is an edited form of the notes that I took during my time in the Jungle.
Chaos and Disorder: Daily Life in the Jungle
There is only one medical organisation in the Jungle: Médecins du Monde. Amongst their few essential medical services, they will bandage and dress the wounds of the camp residents. However, residents must queue for hours to be seen, dissuading them from returning to have their dressings changed and resulting them being left on for weeks, highly increasing risks of infection; we spent a great deal of time cleaning wounds that had not healed as they had become wet and dirty. Furthermore Médecins du Monde request patients’ names and asylum status resulting in people not seeking treatment as they do not trust the organisation itself, and are thus leaving broken bones and wounds to fester and potentially become life-threatening. There is good caring medical attention available at the A&E in Calais, but this is inaccessible without a car.
People are going hungry and despite the fact that the French aid association Salam are supposed to be receiving €4 per person a day for one daily meal, hardly enough to survive on, even this is not being done.
On one of my first days a man came to me after someone in a fight had smashed a rock into his face. He badly needed stitches but refused to seek help because he didn’t trust the medics. As a result he will have a huge, uneven scar across his face, and that is if he is lucky and manages to keep away infection.
During my time in the camp I saw so many infected wounds many of which without immediate proper medical attention will result in people losing their limbs. There are vast groups of teenage boys under the age of fifteen, all without their parents. They look after each other; most of them have scabies and everyone have holes in their feet and hands from barbed wire, and huge splinters from the gorse that surround the Jungle.
Inefficient ‘Charity’ and Routine Dehumanisation
On Friday eighty trucks full of donations arrived in Calais from Belgium, three of which drove into the middle of the Jungle. People went going crazy over bags of broken toys, bits of wood, holey shoes and old party dresses – basically crap that would otherwise be thrown away. Knives and rocks were being used as weapons and everything started to descend into rioting, but it didn’t feel like a hand to mouth struggle so much as a chaotic response to being treated like animals. As an Afghani man said to the driver of one of the trucks, “You have done this – you have turned us into animals. Then you will take a photos and leave.”
There is currently a huge amount of flooding across the site, which is partly due to badly organised or unwanted donations blocking the drainage systems. The temperature is dropping and everyone is getting coughs and colds but there is a severe shortage of blankets, warm clothes and good shoes. Although Glastonbury festival has been collecting wellies, which are useful in the flooding, people really need shoes that allow them to run fast and to climb. Although donors mean well when they send their old things to the Jungle, it also feels that a lot of donations are being sent to assuage the guilt of those sending the stuff. Much of it is useless, as I have said above, and it has become clear to me that there should be much more advice given to donors about what the people here actually need. On a very real note, the donations also feel utterly useless: as a friend from Sudan told me, “We don’t need food or clothes, we need asylum, people keep coming and giving me biscuits, I don’t want this, I want to starve and never sleep until I have a safe home.”
News in the Jungle filters down through different groups of people, changing and mutating, creating an environment of confusion and sometimes one of panic. There was a rumour going round that 100,000 Syrians were to be allowed into the UK, but later we heard that the number was actually 20,000 over the next four years, a hugely insulting figure. We heard that a Sudanese man died on a train on Wednesday night. We also hear the news of the 700 drowned. You can see the impact of these catastrophic numbers on peoples’ faces; the fact that it could easily have been them is strongly felt.
The family of a friend of mine had sent some money to him via Western Union from Syria but he told me that he didn’t want to pick it up because he feels that he looks too dirty, that people will be scared and judge him. The residents of the Jungle are experiencing an enforced loss of dignity due to lack of washing or toilet facilities and no clean clothes. This process of dehumanisation seems to make the brutalities that they face from police appear more acceptable. Even on a cursory level it is impossible not to be reminded of the obvious similarities with concentration camps.
Leaving the Jungle: No Way Out
Some people here try every night to get on trucks and trains to escape the Jungle, the unlikely probability is addictive and I understand why… tonight could be the night. The fact that they are trying to escape at night also requires that they are hardly sleeping, meaning that people are exhausted and more likely to take increasingly dangerous risks out of desperation.
I became friends with a family who had escaped from Iran six months ago – a two-year-old baby, mother, father and grandfather. Imagine trying to keep a baby quiet whilst travelling by lorry or hiding in boxes in trucks – a near-impossible task.
A Kurdish friend who was a doctor in Syria, not a daredevil or even particularly radical, described the security to me: “There are three fences: I jump over them, but others cut through. They have barbed wire on the top of each fence and the third fence is the highest (3m). Now they have put glass and barbed wire on the ground after the last fence, so you have to jump even further, or get cut badly. Once you manage to get over these three fences you wait. You need to jump on the train when they are going fast enough so the police can’t chase you, but not so fast that you bounce off; this is the most dangerous part of trying.” So many people are terrified at the prospect of this inhuman violent and terrifying crossing that they are being forced to attempt, but they are given no other real option.
Brutality: No Respite
On my first day in the Jungle I was pepper sprayed in the face by the police. I was shocked by this but quickly learnt that this was simply the police ‘playing by the books’ – the real violence almost exclusively takes place at night. I was horrified by the brutality that my friends faced trying to cross the border.
We quickly we became familiar with specific sorts of wounds: skin on the top of the head being scraped off due to police intentionally scraping peoples heads on the doors of trucks. Bruising from batons across legs, bottom and ribs. Neck injuries caused by police rough handling boxes that they know people are hiding in. Sprained ankles and gashes on shins from being intentionally tripped up. Broken legs are common, and most people seem to have hands that are torn to shreds. Then there is the barrage of racist verbal abuse from police every single night; this will obviously cause long-term psychological damage.
Every morning we are overrun with traumatised, injured men. The police beat the shit out of these guys. It’s much worse if they are black. A friend came to me one morning with half the skin on his face hanging off, a result of being pepper sprayed at close range. He said they wouldn’t stop and that they were laughing at him.
No Borders, No Nations
There are moments of laughter and good things happening, but they are small and insignificant in the face of the Jungle’s cruel magnitude. This is not a humanitarian crisis but a situation brought about by extreme police violence, and by the callous and immoral decisions of politicians. My ferry back from Calais cost me €40, smugglers range from €500 to €1500 for crossing from France to the UK. Things are getting worse and more people will die as winter hits. None of this is necessary; none of the deaths are unavoidable.