Cleaning the Jungle

jungle waste

Photograph courtesy of Viv Dawes,

From the first day I heard about the terrible plight of the refugees in Calais (their real plight, that is, not the media myth of economic migrants desperate to come and sponge off what’s left of our benefits system) I knew I had to do something to help. I had some ideas of what would help, and discussed them with a like-minded friend. But it became apparent, from reports from volunteers at what has become known as the Calais Jungle, most of the things I had thought of were no longer needed. However, what was needed was a huge waste removal operation.

We appealed for help, and had enough volunteers to fill two seven-seater people carriers. We begged, borrowed and bought shovels, garden forks, rakes, litter pickers (lots of litter pickers), industrial quantities of anti-bacterial hand wipes, gallons of disinfectant and thousands of rubbish sacks. We turned up yesterday, along with about a hundred others, and were met by the wonderful team who had organised the entire event. We were organised into teams by Médecins Sans Frontières who had assessed which parts of the site were most hazardous and the top priority for clearance. My daughters and I were wearing wellies and waterproof boiler suits we had bought in B&Q and another friend supplied everyone with cut-proof gloves, which we wore over protective latex gloves.

waste managementSo what exactly were we clearing up? It mainly came into four categories – food waste, packaging waste, inappropriate donations and raw human sewage. Well meaning people have been turning up at the site with large amounts of western-style women’s clothing which most eastern women would find too immodest to wear, with stiletto shoes, and with children’s toys and clothes. There are, in fact relatively few women and children – a few hundred at most, with about four to five thousand men. People had donated foods like dry pasta. But the meagre fires the refugees are able to build do not heat the water for long enough to cook pasta, so packets of it had been discarded. People have also donated really useful items like thermal socks, but they have come packaged and the packaging has been discarded.

I was struck by a very great contrast between two things. The first was the question I was asked most frequently before I went, and the second was the question I was asked most frequently while I was there.

The most frequent question I was asked before I went was, “Why don’t they clean up their own rubbish?” and although I knew, from reading reports from people at the Calais Jungle, that the refugees were in no fit state to clear their own rubbish, it was hard to articulate exactly why. But it didn’t take very long on the site for the reasons to become crystal clear. I identified three reasons from my own observations.

Firstly, everyone I met was stick-thin. These people have walked hundreds of miles, with very little food, to get here. They are exhausted, sick and traumatised. Most have had to leave everything and everyone they love behind and are depressed, and sick with worry about their families.  All are facing a fearful, uncertain future which has completely demoralised them. That is the first reason.  (This, incidentally, is why many have smart phones. If you and your family had to flee at short notice and got separated, ending up in different parts of the world, what’s the one thing you would grab before you ran? I bet it would be your phone, with all their contact details in it, so you could find out where they were and indeed if they were dead or alive).

The second reason is that the French government appears to have taken a decision not to carry out waste management at the site. There is not one single waste bin anywhere to be seen – not one, between five thousand people. Some private donors have managed to rig up a few chemical toilets in cabins at one part of the site – about one for every five hundred people, and for many a very long walk from where they are staying. So imagine if you were living with five thousand people in tents and flimsy frames covered with tarpaulins, with not one waste bin between you. Where would you throw your rubbish? Imagine if you had a fifteen minute walk to a toilet you shared with five hundred others. What would you do when you were desperate? And if you had not one shovel, not one rake, not one litter picker and not one rubbish sack between you all, how much of your own waste would you clear up? There was evidence in some places of attempts to burn rubbish but most was far too wet to burn.

The third reason is that the British government, despite its austerity plans, has found nine million pounds to spend on the Calais Jungle. And on what, you may ask, has it chosen to bestow this largesse? A safe sanitation system just in time to prevent the inevitable cholera outbreak in Northern France which some successful stowaways will import into southern England? A system of waste disposal points and a fleet of waste removal lorries? Well no, actually. It has spent it on a triple-layer razor wire fence. If like me, you wondered what is the difference between barbed wire and razor wire, where barbed wire has merely spikes, razor wire has blades. So while the French government has set up insanitary conditions that make a cholera outbreak highly likely, the British government has set up the overcrowding that makes it pretty well inevitable.

We set to and began clearing the waste. My heart sank when I saw the huge mountains of it, and smelled the unbelievable stench. But I was astonished at how quickly a dozen willing, properly equipped volunteers can clear an area. It was really heartening to see the vast piles rapidly bagged up and stacked ready for the removal which, goaded into action by this day of volunteering, the local authorities had agreed to provide.

The most frequent question I heard while I was working at the site was from the refugees themselves, and it was this: please may I have some of your rubbish sacks? Inspired by our efforts, many of the residents joined in enthusiastically. One man of indeterminate age – anything from fifty upwards I would guess, of probably Syrian appearance, dressed in a thobe, the loose ankle-length garment often seen in African and Middle Eastern Muslim men and a kufi hat on his head, shod only in flip-flops, joined in tirelessly throughout the whole day. His English was limited but he communicated constantly in the universal language of a smile. My youngest daughter was struggling by herself to fill a rubbish sack using a garden fork and a litter picker. Two lads, probably younger than herself, came and gestured at her tools. When she hesitated, uncertain of their meaning, they smiled and gently relieved her of her implements, then set to with a will, filling sack after sack while she held it open for them. The reality is that, given the wherewithal, these people who feel the shame of living like this just as acutely as we would feel it, would keep their own site clean and tidy. But the governments have chosen to let them live like this, stripped not only of adequate shelter and sanitation but also of human dignity.

At times we were clearing the areas around the primitive water taps that had been erected. Regularly throughout the day, people in search of drinking water would vie with us for space on one side of the row of taps while on the other, devout Muslims performed wudu, the ritual washing that takes place before each of the five daily prayers. I was impressed by their devotion – my daughter used the word integrity – that even in this extreme situation they still kept the faith and observed their religion. I also felt a little awkward and embarrassed to be picking up litter from in front of them while they performed this duty – as though something mundane was impinging on something sacred.

At the end of the day we either threw away or thoroughly disinfected every implement we had used. We jettisoned our gloves and boiler suits. We took it in turns to stand in a bucket of disinfectant in our wellies before removing them and putting our shoes back on. We carried out the best infection control we could before bringing anything we had used back to the UK.

As I left I reflected on two things. Firstly, that if a farm was keeping animals in this condition, the RSPCA would close it down and prosecute the owners. And secondly, I was remembering an article I had read in which the author had calculated that if every single one of the residents of the Calais Jungle was allowed into Britain and given the allowance to which asylum seekers are entitled of around thirty-six pounds a week, it would cost every man, woman and child in this country fifty-seven pence a year during the short period of recovery before they found jobs and started contributing back to our economy. I believe this is a scandal. I will certainly be going back to Calais to do some more waste clearance, and I hope that between a few of us we can set up enough crowd funding to start to pay for bins and some kind of toilets.

If I had my way, I would love to invite the Foreign Secretary, the Right Hon. Philip Hammond MP to come with us on our next waste-removal trip. I would buy him a dictionary so he could occupy himself on the journey looking up the meaning of the word marauding.  In the meantime, those of us who went yesterday from our area, and a few others who are inspired by what we had to tell, will bless the Calais Jungle in word and deed, and hope to go on blessing it right out of existence, looking forward to a day when these people have a safe, clean shelter to live in and a dignified way of providing for themselves and their families.

Footnote: still thereThree days after we cleared the rubbish, the Calais Mairie has still not carried it away.  One almost begins to think the two governments have a reason for wanting to encourage an outbreak of disease – can it be that, as with the abandonment of Mare Nostrum, they want to use deaths as a cynical deterrent, “pour encourager les autres”?  If so, they are no better than the Assad regime or the ISIS fighters from whom these people have fled for their lives.  Closing borders is bad enough.  Engineering mass deaths is an atrocity.


45 thoughts on “Cleaning the Jungle

  1. Thanks for helping and for humanizing the situation. I hope the UK and France come up with a better solution in dealing with this crisis. If they are not going to help them, can’t they provide a way for them to return to their homelands? So sad. 😦

    • The sad fact is that most of them have come from Syria (where they face barrel bombs and chlorine and mustard gas attacks), Eritrea (where lifelong conscription into the army is compulory from age 17 and it’s illegal for more than 2 people to speak together in the street), Somalia and Sudan (where child kidnap and gang rapes are part of everyday life), Iraq and Afghanistan (where the social infrastuctures have been destroyed by war). Sending them back would be as inhumane as keeping them in these conditions in the Calais Jungle.

      • So people bringing in donations forget to bring in refuse sacks? Isn’t it time these gullible idiots were told that sacks are necessary?

      • Again, if you had read the article on which you’re commenting (I’m fairly sure now that you haven’t) you would see that I clearly state that one of the contributors to the mess is inappropriate donations brought from the UK by people who haven’t thought it through or bothered to find out what is needed. The best way people can help is by bringing ONLY those things which official groups like Calaid and Auberge des Migrants are requesting, to remove them from as much of the packaging as possible before they bring them, and not to turn up unannounced expecting to do the distribution themselves. And yes, you have fully grasped that black sacks are very much needed and would be a most welcome donation. Perhaps if you would care to join the next clean up you might bring a few hundred yourself?

      • Nigel, some ‘gullible idiots’ from our church went over to Calais last weekend with a lorry load of stuff and surprise, surprise, some of the things donated were unused refuse sacks.

  2. Hi Ros, I’ve an interview tomorrow, and it would be really useful if I could quote some of what you say here. Would you be OK with that? Could you let me know?.

  3. Hi I live in France and would like to help. Would it be possible to join you on your next clean up

  4. Can anyone quote back to me the bit in the article where the migrants were blamed for anything? That rubbish and debris didn’t get there on its own.

    • I’m not sure I follow you. Paragraph 3 explains precisely how the rubbish got there, and paragraphs 6. 7 and 8 explain why it hadn’t been cleared up by the refugees themselves. So I’m sorry, I’m not quite clear what you’re asking. Have I misunderstood you?

      • Yes, you did misunderstand me. I asked for a quote, not a vague ‘oh, it’s in there somewhere’. I want someone to quote where in the article it is stated that the rubbish/debris was on the ground due to the migrants failing to deal with it correctly.

      • It doesn’t state that because that’s not the case. The refugees are being, apparently wilfully, deprived of any possibility of dealing with it themselves. They have made attempts to pile it up and burn it, but there has been so much rain that it’s too wet to burn.

    • So you accept that the article doesn’t blame the people responsible for the rubbish (the inhabitants of the camp) for that rubbish being left there. I’m so glad we cleared that up 😉

      • I’m starting to get the impression that you probably haven’t visited the camp yourself, as you appear uninformed as to the true situation. I’m also beginning to wonder if you have even read the article you’re commenting on because you are making assertions which the article proves to be untrue, and gives evidence to the contrary. I’m not going to copy and paste the relevant paragraphs into this reply because you could just scroll up and read them. Have you read this post on which you’re commenting?

      • Nigel, these people have walked for thousands of miles to escape the most desperate situations that we can not possibly even begin to comprehend. Do you really think they carried all that rubbish to Calais to leave it dumped around their ‘homes’? It is clear from the beautifully clearly written article above that there are many issues that have contributed to the amount of rubbish and that there are many people and organisations responsible for it being left there. You’re right, that rubbish and debris didnt get there on it’s own, but the people living in the Jungle didnt bring it. And have no way of cleaning it and getting it removed.

      • Nigel has replied with another comment but as it simply reiterates what he said in all his other comments, and for whatever reason he appears to be unable to grasp who is really responsible for the rubbish, I have not bothered to approve it. I don’t want to get into censorship (apart from obscenity or hate speech which will not be tolerated) but I see no point someone simply making the same mistake over and over and clogging up the comments thread.

    • “as you appear uninformed as to the true situation.” I’m going on what YOU’VE written about the amount of rubbish in the camp. If you wishing to admit that you lied about the situation, then that’s fine, but don’t attack people for pointing out that the only people you haven’t blamed for the rubbish being there is the people who are directly responsible for it.

      • But as I explained in my last reply, I can see that you haven’t in fact read my article even though you are commenting on it. My article makes very clear that the only people who really can’t be blamed for the rubbish are the refugees themselves, and I have set out three very clear reasons why it is not their fault. You have clearly not read those paragraphs and so you keep reiterating something which, as my article demonstrates, is not true. I am always happy to encourage dialogue on my blog, and I never block people simply because they disagree with me, as long as the tone remains polite I will allow people to share their views. But this thread is becoming so circular now, that unless you have something new to say, or something that gives me reason to believe that you have actually read the article you’re commenting on, I will weigh up whether or not to approve each new comment. Happy to approve any that bring something new to the discussion, but there is no point continuing to reiterate something based on a mistaken premise.

      • Nigel Smith is the same guy that runs the ‘Exposing anti-ukip groups’ page. The one that banned people from his page after challenging his personal attack on this blog’s author

      • Well he has mistaken my motivation, I’ve never been a part of any political group whether pro or anti UKIP. I am motivated by my humanitarian concern and my Christian faith. I don’t belong to any political party, and would be shouting equally loudly at whichever one was perpetrating an injustice. His anti-me Facebook page has disappeared now, so I assume Facebook has taken it down. Either that or he realised that garnering massive support for me and none for himself, while driving unprecendented amounts of traffic to this blog was counter-productive and took it down himself! Bless him.

  5. I’ve often wondered why there is so much rubbish around the ‘Jungle’. Thank you for explaining the reasons and God bless you for your courage and humanity.

      • Anne, thanks for having an open mind and appreciating you dont know everything and letting someone explain the reality to you. x

      • Nigel, perhaps you could share some advice on how to magically make rubbish disappear (in general, and in particular when you have been imprisonned within a razor wire fence and have not been provided with toilets, bins, or even rubbish bags). The article shows how, once provided with rubbish bags – by ros and her fellow volunteers – people (I.e. The refugees themselves ) willingly stepped in and helped. Unfortunately, rubbish is a by-product of life, e.g. Opening a food packet and using the contents, but we all need bins to put it in and refuse collectors to remove it. Nobody would willingly live in such insanitary, degrading and undignified conditions.

      • Many asked not to be photographed because they were worried their families might see a photograph of them on the internet and they are ashamed to be living in such conditions and don’t want their folks to know. I can assure you they feel exactly the same shame and disgust we would feel if we were forced to live in those conditions.

  6. Well done!
    Just a fact check- it’s not MSF that is there, it’s Doctors of the World. Unfortunately, there are no large organisations helping these people- everything being done is through smaller organisations and UK and French volunteers.

    • Thank you – I had read that Medecins du Monde were there, but on the day we were told it was Medecins sans Frontieres who were organising us. If I can verify which it was I will edit the post. Can you point me in the right direction?

  7. As moving as this undoubtedly is it still doesn’t address what for many in Britain is the central question of why, if they’re genuine refugees who have fled their homelands in fear of their lives are they not content to settle in France or other Schengen signatory states – countries in which they can safely build new lives and futures.
    Until that question is answered satisfactorily their motives in living in these disgusting conditions as a price for the chance of getting to Britain will remain shrouded in suspicion, and the so-called ‘desperation’ of their plight will be considered suspect.

    • You make some valid points. My observations from what I saw on Saturday and from interviews I’ve heard refugees give on the BBC etc. are that some of them speak English and want to be in a country where they speak enough of the language to get a job right away, and some have family in Britain and understandably want to join them. We were told by people working among them that it takes a year before the French government will even begin to process an asylum application from them. Greece can’t afford to support them and other countries are turning them away. So many of them set to and worked with a will on Saturday, and many are setting up little businesses like hairdressers, repair shops and restaurants in the camp – there’s certainly no lack of work ethic. I’m fairly certain that, while many see Britain as the place to aim for, they would actually accept if any country at all offered them safe housing and a job.

  8. Such a sad situation. I do hope that other middle eastern countries can help these refugees and arrange for them to travel back to the middle east, they obviously don’t want to live in France.

    • Again, you make a really valid point. Sadly military adventurism by America and Britain has destabilised their home countries and made them unsafe. Some countries could be doing more – now that the Hajj season is over Saudi Arabia has a 3-million capacity tent village standing empty. At the moment they are being pushed from pillar to post and no one wants them. I have heard a number give press interviews in which they speak of their longing to return home as soon as it’s safe to do so. In the meantime there is no moral justification for keeping them in abject squalor in the richest corner of western Europe. Our governments’ behaviour is shameful.

  9. Hi Ros,
    Many thanks for this article.
    You mention a crowd funding campaign to try and get bins / toilets installed? Have you got some more information about this? If/when this is set up, please do let me know about it as I’d be really interested in participating and sharing.
    Kindest regards,

  10. Thank you for this. it has worried me all along the sanitation for those poor tired people. And I have been aware for a while that aid has to be appropriate to the situation. You have given us goog guidelines for both those situations. thank you

    • Apologies for the delay in approving your comment – I’ve been away without Internet for a week. I’m glad you found this informative. I hope it will be one voice among many that starts to effect change.

  11. A very good post, which I have posted and shared on Facebook. It eloquently answers many of the questions I’ve been asked from… how to call them?…. less than sympathetic members of the public.

    Thank you ❤

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