Cantabs in the Calais ‘Jungle’: Cambridge University Calais Refugee Action Group reports

French Authorities are about to bulldoze half of the several thousand strong Calais camp – PETER MARTIN, CUCRAG founder, describes a desperate situation

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The Calais camp, which the residents term ‘The Jungle’, has long been caught in limbo between Britain and the mainland Schengen zone: it’s too easy for a national government just to ignore it. When I learnt that no major charity such as the Red Cross works full-time in the camp, and that the grassroots charities are in need of helping hands, I set up a refugee action group here in Cambridge. 

Photo by Maria Krisch

Since the beginning of Michaelmas term,  we’ve run six trips to the refugee camp in Calais and so far have brought about eighty students to volunteer. It is difficult to describe the camp. I’ve walked in the sludgy mud that acts as the camp’s roads; a friend picking up litter on the most recent trip found a rubber bullet near the women and children’s centre; I’ve seen the stagnant water fouled with rubbish around the shelters they call home. However, on Sunday come 6pm I get on a ferry back to Dover. I cannot truly understand what it’s like to live there. But I’ll write what I’ve seen and heard on some of my trips to Calais and perhaps I can give an impression of its conditions.

The camp by the road. Photo by Berthold Wahjudi

Calais’ charity problem

The French police are in charge of the camp’s perimeter. Inside the camp, no major charity has a full-time presence. Instead it’s up to grassroots charities to help, such as the one we volunteer with (L’Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees). When we volunteer (Saturday-Sunday, 8: 30-5: 30pm) our time is not wasted: in the warehouse (a ten minute drive from the camp) we either sift through and box up donations or build wooden shelters; in the camp, we help with distributions, erect shelters or pick up litter. Some Cambridge medical students have volunteered in the ‘medical caravans’ on site. Yet all considering, I can’t help but think that the assistance of a major charity is sorely needed.

The warehouse. Photo by Maria Krisch

To give an example of the deficit in experience: on the first day of our first trip, I and another member of our group went on two distribution runs in the camp, handing out coats and shirts to the refugees. On the second day when a family from London came with their car full of donated toiletry supplies, we were put in charge of the distribution – our day of experience was deemed sufficient.

One of our groups from Cambridge. Photo by Alex Goldin

The November 13th Fire

On our second trip, we got the ferry from Dover to Calais on Friday November 13th, the same day as the Paris shootings. That night there was a fire in the Calais camp. We heard a rumour that the fire was started by Calais far-right groups. One long-term volunteer thought that a majority of the camp had burnt down.

As the day went on, we learned that 60 shelters and tents had burnt down in the Sudanese part of the camp – as far as we know, no one was killed. The fire was started when a man fell asleep with a candle burning in his tent. The high winds then spread the fire quickly. Given the lack of any official organisation systematically reporting what’s going on in Calais (or even collecting statistics about the camp: estimates of the camp’s population run variously between four and seven thousand), anecdote rules.

Photo by Maria Krisch

The next day our group of seventeen Cambridge students spent the afternoon attempting to patch up broken tents with bits of tarpaulin and string. Even once we had received a load of donated tents to hand out and set up, it was depressing work. The loose mud  (which is sand-like, on which many people in the camp live) and the high winds worked together to lift the tent pegs easily out of the ground. That day we helped a few families have a shelter for the night – many we failed to help.

A rubber bullet found during litter picking. Photo by Martha Aitken

Progress built on sinking foundations

There is progress: in the last few months the grassroots charities such as L’Auberge Des Migrants have done a lot of good. In October a majority of the shelters were tents. Now the majority seems to be the wooden shelters that take a day or two to build in the warehouse and are then erected in the camp.

Photo by Martha Aitken

And yet, as the material conditions in the camp have improved, the tensions have increased.

The French police more frequently than before use teargas and rubber bullets inside the camp. Three weeks ago police bulldozed a 100m area containing 1300 people. This week they plan to bulldoze more than half of the camp. Pas-de-Calais’ prefect Fabienne Buccio has promised not to destroy the schools, churches and mosque in this area. But we have heard that before: during the last clearing, despite their promises otherwise, the police surprised residents early one morning by bulldozing the Kurdish mosque and the Episcopal Church.

Photo from L’Auberge Des Migrants

Ever since coming to the camp in October I have been struck by its dynamism: there are shops and restaurants, churches and mosques, football games and art installations, all frequented by the camp’s residents. There is community. I can hope this spirit survives the bulldozing.

Photo by Maria Krisch

Far-right groups in Calais have become increasingly violent against refugees and volunteers. They have been slashing the tyres and breaking the windows of volunteers’ cars, focusing on those with British license plates. On our fifth trip, Jan 8-10, a van filled with donations, which was parked next to our cars, was burned down in the parking lot of the youth hostel we were staying in.


Inside the camp tensions are rising. Last weekend one member of our group was part of a distribution team giving out toiletry supplies. One refugee cut in front of another in the line. In retaliation, the one who was cut in front of got a shovel and hit the other over the head. The fight was broken up and luckily one of our volunteers had just trained in first aid so was able to bandage his head up before sending him to hospital. Who knows why things escalated. However, I believe we should not try to counter the pernicious lie that all refugees are criminals with its opposite, that all must be saints. By doing so, we set up an ideal that no large group of people, let alone a group living in conditions such as in the camp, can meet.

Photo by Maria Krisch

That same day in the women and children’s centre four of our volunteers from Cambridge were doing a drawing class with the boys and girls in the camp. Two boys, around the age of thirteen, started playing football in the back. One kicked the football into the paints. After being told off and sent outside of the drawing class – a scene like any other: boys messing around in class – they cut their way back into the classroom, using box-cutters to enter the tent. The children play-fought, but the play-fight was with knives. I was told that one child was an orphan; he had seen members of his family killed. The other had fallen, for however long I do not know, under the influence of extremists. Thirteen years old: for now we feel sorry for them. In only a few years they may no longer be objects of pity but rather of anger and fear. They need help between then and now – far more help than a drawing class run by well-meaning Cambridge volunteers can provide.

Some good can be done

All the same, especially during these tense times, we continue to believe we can be of help and so we shall continue to run trips to Calais every other weekend this term. If you’d like to sign up for our trips, please fill out this form:

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And you can sign up to our mailing list by emailing [email protected]

In order to continue running our trips, we’ve just begun a fundraising drive to raise £1700, which would bring around 70 more people to Calais. If you wish to donate, please use this link: