The limits of giving things

There are two simple truths about the Calais camp of people who have struggled to, and across, the European continent. It is bleak. And it is here to stay.

This was my second trip, and a more sober affair than the first. In late August I cycled with around 80 others from London to Calais to show solidarity and donate the bikes we rode. I was only at the camp for a couple of hours in the end, and spent it being fed sweet coffee by jovial Sudanese men. The weather wasn’t gorgeous, but it was August after all. I didn’t return weighed down by a sense of despair. Maybe it was the novelty. Maybe it was the sugary coffee.

This time it’s late November. The weather, for the whole weekend we spend there, is appalling. It could be colder, but not much wetter. Or windier.

The camp sits amongst sandy scrubland, just next to a motorway fly-over. It’s only a few miles east of Calais town centre, and barely a mile from the ferry port, at the eastern edge of a collection of lifeless industrial estates. No-one but those who live in the camp walk these long, featureless streets. It is not an area built for people. The few HGVs that career off the motorway disappear immediately into the factories. This is where the second Calais happens.

We arrive late on Saturday and park the cars up on the perimeter.  We’ve already passed five police vans, with their blue lights flashing – a hostile landing strip guiding us in. They’re a constant, off-putting presence over the weekend, but rarely menacing (then again, I’m not the problem). Like the multi-million pound fences lining the roads that watch over this patchwork of neglect, these vans are the official recognition that any of these people exist.

The roads surrounding the camp are dotted with its inhabitants, some of whom gather around us we we pull up. People often bring donations to distribute direct (prepare for a scrum), as we plan to, instead of going to one of the warehouses. We gesture and repeat ‘not now, not now’ to the men (the camp is overwhelmingly male) asking us for different items. This is the first of many times I will feel guilty for having power over others this weekend.

We head in. The scene is muddier and wetter than last time. Piles of rubbish lie between tents and small living compounds, along the paths and in the bushes. Noticeably, amongst them are shoes, sleeping bags – clothes. Why would people discard these things? Wet possessions are useless, they don’t dry: these piles testify to living in the open.

The structures people live in vary, from a standard cheap tent to the pallet-built shops that line the ‘high street’, the first path you join from the camp’s main entrance. People are resourceful, but not everyone has resources. The majority still survive in tents. No-one has running water, no-one has electricity  (except for shops with generators outside). Make no mistake, this is a supremely deprived place.

But it is not squalid. People wash and share in playing barber for one another, faces are shaved – sometimes even clean cut. Shoes are still inadequate, particularly as winter draws in. But on the whole people are clothed decently, though they may not own more than what they wear.

We reach the One Spirit Ashram Kitchen – a completely informal volunteer-run space serving two meals to around 600 people a day. It’s a hybrid structure comprising a shipping container, a trailer, a lean-to and large tent. Staffed regularly by people who live in the camp, it appears to be coordinated and resourced through a small group from the UK who simply live here and do this. Washing up and chopping vegetables (or my finger) over the next two days we make friends. It’s an irregular affair, in the most basic conditions, but it just about works. Many who come to eat are friendly, easy-going, thankful. There is community here, forged out of the labour of maintaining life and dignity in an abandoned place. People joke and play, enjoying one-another’s company. But there is also strife and tribalism here. All part of surviving.

Later that night we head back to the camp after dumping our stuff in a small hotel in town. We walk down the high street and the remarkably well-stocked shops. We bump into Farookh, our Sudanese friend who we’d been cooking with at the kitchen earlier.

‘We heard there was a Sudanese disco tonight’
‘No – Eritrean. Over there’
‘Really? Someone said at the kitchen it was Sudanese?’

He points at his friend.

‘He plays drums, sings – but no disco’
‘He plays? Tonight?’
‘You want tonight?’
‘OK – this way’

We follow Farookh a few steps further down the high street to his home. We meet his friends who gesture warmly and animatedly for us to come in. Lots of Arabic. There are perhaps 15 of us now in the small pallet shack Farookh and four others call home. It’s not been put together too badly. With us all in there, it’s warm – even too warm. There is a soft red carpet. But it is still a temporary box next to a sand dune in the middle of nowhere a long way from home. Who knows what happens in the storms.

For the next two hours we’re treated to Sudanese folk songs played with two drums and many voices. A single small candle, in a Tesco chopped tomatoes tin, lights the room. At moments we don’t see coming, everyone joins in. People get up and dance in the small space in the middle – we’re pulled up too, politely encouraged to share in the spirit.

It’s a simple but very rich social experience, and not simply because it is novel. To sit with your mates and belt out beautiful folk songs is just a good thing to do. We agree to return the next day with a few items they need – jeans, shoes, a jacket. It’s an embarrassing counter offer.

The following afternoon, after our second shift in the kitchen helping with breakfast and prepping lunch, we need to give away our two car loads of donations. We bump into a man called Samir in the centre of the camp. He’s inside a caravan next to a large shed with ‘distribution point’ written on its exterior. He tells us we can drive our gear here and help him give it out in half an hour. We walk back to the cars on the other side of the camp (the weather’s really horrible now), and drive round into the front gate. I’m reminded of reportage from Kabul in winter filmed from inside a vehicle: muddy potholes, puddles, basic shops with exposed light bulbs, men all over the street.

We drive the car up to the distribution point, the last stretch through semi-bog. We form a farcical chain to get our donations into the shed – beset by personal applications for this item or that. A van arrives from the warehouse, wanting to unload other donated items which have been sorted more thoroughly than ours. We’ve crashed their system by filling the space in the shed. A queue has already formed, blocking our return path back onto the main track. Now we reverse the chain to return our gear back to the cars. Again, people emploring for this or that item (‘Please, I’m so cold’), some helping – thus earning credit with us perhaps – most just standing in line. Patience is waning, the queue is rumbling. I feel responsible. I imagine others do too. Are we helping? God knows.

We manage to reverse out, through the mudbath – surrounded by people. A pair of jeans finds its way to the cold young man, or old boy, with shorts on – one tiny attempt to make good on the vague promises made in haste to try and control unstable situations.

Our final stop is the warehouse, where our carloads are now finally headed. The scale of the place is reason for pause. There are mountains of unsorted bags, perhaps 50ft high. Vast shelving units stretch back hundreds of feet from the front entrance. There are piles and piles of bits that can’t be used – perhaps they’re women’s or children’s items, or simply unsuitable. People give ridiculous things sometimes.

Our car loads evaporate. We feel unimportant. And this is educational: the warehouse is a place where generosity is expressed in physical mass. It is a proxy for the genuine solidarity some people in the UK have shown with fellows stranded in Calais. But the cascading piles force you to consider more closely what you already know – material donations will not solve this crisis. There is a limit to the good they can do.

Just as you can’t buy happiness, you can’t donate justice.

This is what makes Calais – or, no doubt, the lesser-known and apparently far more desperate camp at Dunkerque – so fundamentally miserable to encounter. Everyone there is a victim in some sense of complicated, international and deeply historical injustices. Injustices that many people remain ignorant of – or, more precisely, ignorant of their ignorance of (I’d count myself among the former probably, but hopefully not the latter).

Before we left the kitchen earlier that day my girlfriend, who works in asylum and immigration law, patiently explained to a young, intelligent, blind Iraqi man that he could not make an asylum claim in the UK unless he was already there – and that he couldn’t reach the UK without a passport and a visa, neither of which he could obtain. He persists: ‘So, will you make an application for me?’. It’s too much to listen to – I have to walk away. Someone else has decided for him.

There is nothing fair in this. Worse, there is injustice here. His country no longer offers him a future because of an illegal and murderous war we started. Now we won’t let him in. He is one of many thousands.

And this, we are told, is the problem. There are too many of them. Europe cannot cope.

This is not the problem. The problem is that a camp approaching 10% of the regular population of Calais scrapes by, no thanks to any government, in a state of frozen hope and desperate poverty adjacent to a town with shops and Christmas lights and vacant hotel rooms and empty restaurant tables.

The problem is our refusal to accept that Western colonialism, neo-imperialism, resource wars, incompetent regional subversion and belching chimney stacks are twisted roots from which this dark, bitter fruit ripens. This is the new moral reality.

Our lifestyles beget it. We forget it.

We still think the problem is them. The sooner we wake up from this illusion, if we can, the easier this will be for everyone. I’m not holding my breath.


Some places to start looking

Calais Migrant Solidarity

Calais People to People Solidarity from the UK (FB group)


Caravans for Calais



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