"As I walked around the Jungle, I saw conditions that are as bad as any refugee camp I have worked in with MSF in Djibouti, Colombia, Rwanda, Kenya or Congo. But somehow the shock of seeing these living conditions is greater here in Calais. It simply does not belong here in a country so rich and with a tradition of social justice. Naively, I expected European states to help our fellow human beings in this hour of need, at the same time as finding sustainable political solutions. These people had after all fled brutal conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan, to name a few."
Authorities in France are preparing to shut down the "Jungle," a migration camp near the port city of Calais where thousands of migrants and refugees are trapped as they seek to cross the English Channel to reach the United Kingdom. It is still unclear what will happen to the camp's residents when the closure occurs. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides medical care for camp residents, and Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, a Canadian member of MSF's international board of directors, recently visited Calais and shares the following response to the humanitarian and moral crisis taking place in the heart of Western Europe.
By Rachel Kiddell-Monroe
The “Jungle” sits on a piece of boggy wasteland on the outskirts of Calais in Northern France. The informal camp heaves with ten thousand men, women and children who have fled war, violence and extreme poverty. People wait here to be resettled — or not.
It is not called the Jungle for nothing. It is a dangerous and squalid place, an insalubrious mess of ragged shelters and lopsided tents where fear reigns. It has been here for years, moving from an informal stop-over to being the place where migrants and refugees often live for months. As I walk around this slum with an Afghani cultural interpreter working for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the willful neglect and abandonment of these people is evident at every turn. We step over filthy piles of rubbish and open sewers of broken flipflops and ripped Converse sneakers. Rising above the health risks and the stench, Mohammed points out a two-story disco bar rising crookedly above the tents. “Women are forced to have sex for five Euros,” Mohammed tells me. “Women and girls are not protected. It is a dangerous place for them.”
An MSF centre set up to provide activities for youth and adolescents was dismantled the night before we came, by camp residents in need of wood to build shelters protecting them from rain and mud. We see the yellow plywood propping up shelters just 20 metres away from where the youth centre once stood. “We have nothing. Why don’t you care about us?” a father sitting outside one of huts asks me as he jiggles his baby daughter on his knee. Only volunteer pop-up community organizations and a few NGOs, like MSF, have come to help. But these humanitarian acts are only a drop in the ocean of needs.
Conditions as bad as any refugee camp
As I walked around the Jungle, I saw conditions that are as bad as any displaced or refugee camp I have worked in with MSF in Djibouti, Colombia, Rwanda, Kenya or Congo. But somehow the shock of seeing these living conditions is greater here in Calais. It simply does not belong here in a country so rich and with a tradition of social justice. Naively, I expected European states to help our fellow human beings in this hour of need, at the same time as finding sustainable political solutions. These people had after all fled brutal conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan — to name but a few. Governments promise millions of euros of foreign aid to help Syrians, Afghans and Congolese caught up in horrifying conflicts. Yet when they reach our shores, desperate for peace and a future for their families, those same states turn away, abandoning them in lawless open air detention centres with no dignity, no rights and no hope. “Where is human rights?” one camp resident has written on the side of a hut. “Just tell me where it is.”
Harder to bear is the disappointment of people who expected help and received turned backs. They are just left to fend for themselves in this terrible place. Forced to leave their homes, they trusted that they would go to something better, to find peace and refuge in rich Europe. But if they expected a welcome from fellow human beings who had been watching their wars from their living rooms, the Jungle embodied just how wrong they were. That is what makes Calais so hard to bear. With all our money and all our resources, we gave no more than a few camping tents and cordoned off a piece of miserable marshland. Shame on us.
A moral and humanitarian crisis
This is a humanitarian crisis. And this is a moral crisis – not just in Europe but for the world. The 65 million people around the world who according the latest numbers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have been forced to leave their homes are not just “migrants” or “refugees”, terms which serve to dehumanize and isolate. They are people for whom extremely dangerous migration routes were a better option than continuing to try and survive catastrophic situations. These people are among the most vulnerable people in the world and they have come seeking help from those of us lucky to live in peace. “We have been on the road for eight months,” four young men from Sudan and Eritrea told me. “We crossed Libya and Italy and France. It was too dangerous to sleep.”
Last month, the world’s governments signed a Declaration for Refugees and Migrants at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. It nobly “expresses the political will of world leaders to protect the rights of refugees and migrants, to save lives and to share responsibility”. A few days later, the French government announced that the Jungle will be closed down in December. Considering the disgraceful conditions people are forced to live in, that may not be a bad thing as such. But what happens next to these people who have already experienced more than a lifetime of suffering? For that, there is still no answer.
Rachel Kiddell-Monroe is a Canadian member of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)'s international board of directors.