By Elisa Sandri

Images: Hummingbird Medical Clinic, Calais 2015 © Elisa Sandri

Calais, a dormant town in the northwest of France, overlooks the Strait of Dover, the narrowest point of the English Channel. It is not exactly what may come to mind when you think of the French seaside; it is grey and industrial and besides a port, the tunnel under the Channel, some big roads and a few small houses, there isn’t much there.

When you drive just beyond the edge of town, an unexpected sight emerges: a makeshift refugee camp, dubbed the Jungle. In this sprawling shantytown, refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries have been pitching their tents, waiting to cross the French border into the United Kingdom. Six thousand people are estimated to be living in this camp (BBC, 2015). With little to no access to basic hygiene such as showers and running water, minimal healthcare, inadequate shelter and clothing, the overall situation is dire. Winter-weather conditions—cold temperatures, heavy rain, and strong winds—are adding insult to injury. The atmosphere at the camp is rapidly deteriorating, although there are some examples of resilience and resourcefulness among the residents.

Feeling moved and shocked by the plight of these refugees, I started volunteering in September 2015 for the Hummingbird Project – Calais Aid and Solidarity. It’s a British grassroots organization that provides medical aid to refugees stuck in French refugee camps on the final leg of their journey. I am not a medic, so I usually work outside the medical clinic, making coffee and tea for people waiting to be seen by our doctors and nurses. It might sound like a trivial activity, but only when you start pouring hot water from the huge kitchen kettles do you begin to realize the importance of a hot drink. Refugees have nothing. They spend their days in the cold. But when they are offered some tea or coffee their faces light up, and they break into a smile. For many refugees, it is a reminder of home, of afternoons spent sitting down with friends and family before they were forced to flee. For me, serving in the camp is also a reminder of how much more European governments need to do to ensure that these desperate and deserving refugees have a real home, both physical shelter and psychic wellbeing.

Manageable situation turns into civil emergency

With the completion of the Channel Tunnel—a tunnel between France and Britain that carries high-speed Eurostar passenger trains and international freight trains—in 1994, large numbers of refugees began to assemble in the area around Calais, hoping to enter Britain through the tunnel. To do so, they1 hide inside trucks just before these get onto the freight trains, jump on moving trains, or, in some cases, walk the full length (30 miles) of the tunnel (Bilefski 2015). Besides not guaranteeing a successful crossing, as the refugees are often detected and sent back to France, these illegal means to enter Britain are also extremely dangerous, and sometimes fatal.2

To be sure, not all refugees in Calais are trying to cross illegally. Some refugees have all the proper documents to enter Britain. But as a result of complicated immigration policies and other red tape they are forced to wait in France.

Five years after the opening of the Channel tunnel, in response to the growing number of refugees in and around Calais, the French interior ministry asked the French Red Cross to open a refugee center in Sangatte, a town near the entrance of the tunnel. In the next few years the center, intended to house 600 people, was inhabited by up to 1,500 refugees, many of them living in cramped and unsanitary conditions (Guardian 2002; Fassin, 2005). The center in Sangatte was eventually closed in 2002. Since its closure, refugees have been sleeping rough in self-made slums built on derelict land. However, in the past few years conditions have radically worsened, and 2015 has been the most challenging year so far (BBC 2015). Throughout Europe, according to United Nation (UN) estimates, more than 1 million refugees arrived by boat and land last year (UNHCR 2015).

Images: The Jungle, January 2016 © Malachybrowne

Many of these refugees seek asylum in Britain. Sadly, they are faced with strict British border control and migration policies that have only toughened since the deadly ISIS attacks in Paris last November. Consequently, fewer people are allowed entry, leaving large concentrations of refugees stranded in and around Calais. There are currently another eight camps besides the Jungle, which is the biggest of all refugee camps. The populations of these camps are growing so rapidly that the UN, which initially stated that the situation was “manageable,” now refers to it as a “civil emergency” (The Local 2015). Even so, neither the UN nor the Red Cross have a presence in any of these makeshift camps, nor is anyone in charge. International organizations, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Médicines Sans Frontières (MSF), and Doctors of the World, are pressing the British and French governments to provide at least minimal support for the refugees. However, so far very little has been done, apparently at least partly because France and Britain are scared that this area will become a “magnet” for refugees (The Local 2015).

How much longer can French and English authorities close their eyes to this humanitarian disaster that is rapidly unfolding right in the heart of Western Europe?

The UNHCR, together with other big charities that normally operate in disaster situations, such as Oxfam and Save the Children, do not want to intervene directly, apparently because they believe that France has the financial means to manage this humanitarian disaster (Freedland 2015). The UNHCR, however, has adopted a more indirect strategy to support refugees stranded in Europe. The strategy includes influencing European Union (EU) policy makers, encouraging European governments to build a fair asylum protection system, and finding durable solutions for unaccompanied and separated children (UNHCR 2015).

However, while the UNHCR is asking the EU to respond to this situation with “access to protection, solidarity and responsibility-sharing,” municipal governments have toughened up on migration and are increasingly intolerant of migrant camps outside of the Jungle (Clayton 2015). Last year, on several occasions, local French police used tear gas and bulldozers to evict refugees who set up camp on the edges or just outside of the Jungle (Calais Migrant Solidarity 2015; Paton 2015).3 How much longer can French and English authorities close their eyes to this humanitarian disaster that is rapidly unfolding right in the heart of Western Europe?

A hell fit for Dante

The first thing you notice when you arrive in Calais from Britain are the tall fences that were built last year to prevent refugees from hopping on trucks and trains on their way to England. When I first saw these fences, I immediately turned to my friend, breaking a solemn silence that had fallen upon us at the sight, and said, “Doesn’t it remind you of the West Bank wall?” As I said those words, we began to see ripped pieces of clothing trapped in the barbed wire, abandoned shoes on the side of the road, and an increasing number of armed police patrolling the motorway.

As soon as you enter the Jungle, you realize that this refugee camp has a distinct European flavor. People are sleeping in camping tents donated by British holidaymakers. They wear shoes previously owned by German trekkers. And some wear hats sponsoring the British tabloid newspaper The Sun—unaware of its anti-refugee coverage. The camp has naturally divided into different sections based on the nationality of the refugees. For example, Sudanese, Eritreans, Syrians, Afghani, Pakistani, Kurds, Iranians all live in different sections of the same muddy field.

Images: A church, a school, and a shop in the Jungle, January 2016 © Malachybrowne

You can find pockets of pure squalor in all sections of the camp, a modern day Dante’s Hell: tents destroyed by fire, piles of rubbish, partial foundations of shelters destroyed by the wind, people limping in the mud, people begging for help. Suffering is everywhere.

If these living conditions weren’t appalling enough already, now winter has engulfed the camps, imposing the most critical threats--hypothermia and pneumonia.

The tents and the improvised shelters are not made to resist fierce Channel winds or temperatures that frequently drop below freezing at night. Resident refugees are getting severe colds and chest infections. Sometimes they refuse to be seen by doctors because fixing a rickety tent to ensure shelter for the night has become a higher priority than obtaining medical care. “The daily routine for those in the camps is spent trying to get their most basic requirement for survival,” said Sarah one of the Hummingbird Project nurses. “This continuous stress, along with poor nutrition, weakens the immune response and the ability to recover properly. A common cold can potentially result in pneumonia and death”.

Responding to these quickly deteriorating circumstances, MSF recently has stepped in to provide medical aid, a service that runs from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. It is a good start, but with at least 6,000 people in the camp and more flooding in each day, an “office hours” clinic is simply not enough. Since refugees can only access local French hospitals in an emergency, chronic illnesses go untreated. The volunteer doctors I work with in the camp have a limited amount of resources and medicines to distribute. Because of these shortages, it is difficult to ensure that patients with chronic illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, or heartburn, receive regular refills of their medications.

Another main concern in the camp is hygiene. MSF has installed 45 toilets, but many more are needed, as well as showers. The overall lack of hygiene has caused a surge in dermatitis and scabies. Besides that, rubbish has been piling up everywhere in the camp. It wasn’t until November last year that the French local government, under pressure by the French Council of State, installed a few water taps and began to collect rubbish around the camp. The situation has improved somewhat, although hardly enough to ensure sanitary living. Other than these minimal services, the wellbeing of refugees is in the hands of individual volunteers and a few international organizations, including the Hummingbird Project. Volunteers are trying to deal with a humanitarian emergency far bigger than what they can handle, both financially and logistically.

Volunteers, united in their compassion for the plight of the refugees, offer a diverse mix of professions and expertise: builders, medics, teachers, firefighters, university students, cooks and others. Unfortunately, not everybody shares the volunteers’ compassion. In the clinic, we’ve treated refugees who told us disconcerting stories about being physically attacked by Calais local residents.

The future of the Jungle

In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, refugees have been increasingly worried about repercussions from this tragic event. A few of our volunteers have witnessed refugees suffering from panic attacks and extreme states of anxiety at the thought that ISIS is attacking France too. Some of them are suffering from paranoia; they believe that terrorists will come after them in the camps.

Given that some of the refugees had experienced the brutality of ISIS in their homelands, most of them feel a strong sense of solidarity towards the French people. Two days after the massacre roughly 200 refugees gathered to pay respect and tribute to the victims in Paris.

The growing tensions around the refugee crisis have contributed to the astronomical success of the France’s far-right National Front in the first round of the regional elections in December. Nothing tangible has changed inside the Jungle, but outside, in Calais, local residents are fed up. Local militant groups such have formed and it is frightening to see that these groups get a lot of support on social media. Other locals feel that large concentrations of refugees might attract attention from terrorists and discourage volunteers to come over to help because, they figure, more volunteers means more refugees.

Fortunately, volunteers are not intimidated and continue their work at the camp. Their efforts are vital. Refugees in Calais are stuck; the majority will probably not reach the UK, and will have nowhere else to go. Some countries have opened their doors to Syrian refugees, but other refugees are increasingly kept out. They live in an impasse that, especially after the attacks in Paris, will not be resolved quickly.

Resilience and hope

Despite the overall appalling circumstances in and beyond the Calais camp, its resident refugees appear calm, friendly and respectful. They say “hello” when I walk by their tents, and everyone seems immensely grateful for the work volunteers do for them. Besides saying “thank you,” they also express this gratitude by making me tea and inviting me into their shelters to meet the rest of the family. When I am on a break from my duties at the clinic I really like sitting down and chatting with refugees. Sometimes we share jokes. I am Italian, so refugees who fled through Italy love to throw in a few words of Italian, like “Buongiorno!”, “Grazie” (and sometimes even a few swear words!). It is incredible to see how their sense of humor has not been lost, even in such a desperate situation.

It became very clear to me through my experiences in the camp that refugees are not just hopeless and helpless victims. Because they have received virtually no help from outside, the camp residents are forced to rely on their own resourcefulness. To create some kind of normalcy, for instance, they’ve built shops, restaurants, hairdressers, bars, art centers, and a Mosque and an Orthodox church that run regular services. Behind the label of “refugee” are businessmen, hairdressers, doctors, artists, husbands, wives, and religious devotees. What has touched me the most is people’s capacity to react and adapt—to build a church with a few pieces of wood, to find ways of feeling at home when ‘home’ is no longer there, to show volunteers pictures of their journeys with them posing in front of the Eiffel Tower as if they’re on a holiday, or to smile with a thumbs-up gesture just after arriving in Lesbos on a boat, still wearing a life jacket,. And, like everyone else, they enjoy the small things in life, such as eating out in a restaurant or playing a game of dominos in a bar drinking cups of sweet tea.

Babies are now being born in the Jungle. What future can you have when you’re born in a place like this?

Many of the refugees I’ve met have not lost hope. They are making plans for their future while trying to cope with their unspeakably cruel past in their homelands and their present uncertainty. If I were in their shoes, I would have lost hope a long time ago. Living in these conditions in an unknown country would be enough to dishearten many of us. On top of this, the public have increasingly turned against accepting more refugees in Europe, even without understanding that both the general public and the refugees are all fighting the same enemy, i.e. ISIS (Savage 2015). Nevertheless, refugees remain positive that their lives and their children’s lives will improve now that they have reached safety.

Moral imperative

European governments have the moral responsibility to give refugees evidence for hope. National officials must step in and work towards setting up a camp that at least follows minimum UNHCR standards, which Calais does not. Some people have lived in broken tents for as long as six months. Babies are now being born in the Jungle. What future can you have when you’re born in a place like this? Unfortunately, the future I wish for them is not the future I foresee coming in Europe. France and Britain need to stop this escalating humanitarian disaster right in the heart of Europe, and do it immediately. Only under international public pressure will governments likely take sufficient action. As ordinary citizens it is crucial that we raise awareness about what is happening in Calais. In addition, we should support volunteer organizations, such as the Hummingbird. Until then, refugees’ health and safety are largely in the hands of volunteers, who will need all the help they can get to make sure refugees survive the cold winter months.


BBC (2015) “Migrant Crisis: Calais camp population ‘doubles to 6,000’” 17 October 2015, (accessed on December 22).

Bilefski, Dan (2015) “In a First, a Sudanese Migrant Nearly Crosses the English Channel on Foot” The New York Times August 7, 2015 (accessed on January 20).

Calais Migrant Solidarity (2015) “Police Violence at the Jungle, November 2015” December 4, 2015 (accessed on January 5, 2015).

Clayton, J. (2015) UNHCR Calls for Comprehensive Response to the Calais Situation, UNHCR. 7th August 2015 [Online] Available from: [accessed on 5th January 2016]

Cupolo, Diego, “One-third of Calais ‘Jungle’ to be demolished” Deutsche Welle, January 19, 2016 (accessed January 26, 2016).

Freedland, J. (2015) In the Bleakness of the Calais Migrant Camp, a Light Shines Out. The Guardian. 25th December 2015. [Online] Available from: [accessed on 27th December 2015]

Fassin, D. (2005) Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France, Cultural Anthropology 20(3):362-387

Paton, Callum (2015) “Calais migrant crisis: 350 refugees evicted as police deploy tear gas and use digger to bulldoze tents” September 22, 2015 International Business Times ( (accessed on January 5, 2015)

Savage, Michael (2015) “Public abandons support for Syrian refugees coming to Britain” The Times November 18, 2015 (accessed on January 23, 2015).

The Local (2015) “Calais: UN urges France to draw up crisis plan” August 7, 2015, (accessed on January 5, 2015).

  1. It’s usually men and young boys try to cross in the tunnel, while women and children tend to stay in the camps but without a real option to leave as they don’t have the appropriate documents. 

  2. In 2015, according to Hummingbird estimates, 22 people reportedly died trying to cross the border, while in the previous year, the authorities reported 14 deaths (see: 

  3. Despite freezing temperatures, French authorities are currently creating a buffer zone between the camp and an adjacent highway. To do so 1,500 refugees were evicted from their shelters (Cupolo 2016).