In Calais, at the ass end of our sceptred isle, not a hop-skip over the channel from the White Cliffs of Dover, in the centre of Western Europe, is a floodplain upon which the huddled masses of North Africa and the Middle East have coalesced, and which has come to resemble a foreign country.
It is a vast expanse of sodden, soaking, gloopy, swampy land bristling with tents and shacks and caravans packed together like one of Brazil’s best favelas. Downtrodden men in torn jackets and ripped jeans from Eritrea, Syria, Iraq and a muddle of other countries slosh up and down the crude dirt paths, their sandaled feet mud-soaked. It is a pseudo-civilisation painted in graffiti: desperate English implorations to Cameron, quotations from the bottom of the Statue of Liberty, indiscernible Arabic, and a much-publicised picture of Steve Jobs in his iconic turtle neck, a bag of possessions flung over his shoulder. Within this microcosm of a foreign nation is an embryonic infrastructure: worried looking men and boys leaning on MDF counters, chickens rotating lazily on rotisserie spits behind them; smiling, kind looking women peering out from behind curtains further into the family section of the camp; fires burning in empty oil drums and hooded guys with smiles and rubbing hands huddled round damp planks that crackle and bubble black within; kids running out of the doorway of ‘Jungle Books’ – the library – with indomitable optimism in their eyes; and the plywood crucifix of the church standing erect, resolute over the tent points and the corrugated plastic roofs.
And although the people seem optimistic, insisting you needn’t pay for the tea they just made you, singing for you, sharing what pitiful shit they have; above, an oppressive grey lid of a sky bears down and a foreboding grey tsunami of clouds rolls by, and on the outskirts the silently flashing blue lights of riot vans are perennial. It is the people only that turn such a desolate wasteland, such a place of desperation and disgust, into something hopeful.
But enough has been written of the Jungle and its inhabitants, enough has been made of the poverty and enough journalistic voyeurism has been had.
A 10-minute drive from the camp is the warehouse of the charity, ‘Help Refugees’. It is a bustling bastion of solution and a testament to humanity within the drab, Soviet block housing of Calais and the endless roads speckled by lonely booze warehouses.
You walk in through the open double gates, and immediately the taste of a frenetic, joyful, furtive energy bombards one’s senses. Vans are backed up to the open mouth of the warehouse; high-vis guys and girls toss boxes out of them and trot them into the depths of the building, rotating round like a shimmering centipede, back and forth. A group of people stand off to the side sucking on roll ups and laughing and some girls run across the vista to the skip with a couple of black bin bags in their hands. There is purpose and meaning and drive in the air, but tinged with something you too rarely feel back in the City – friendliness, acceptance and collectivism.
To the right of the gates is a ramshackle MDF hut held together with nails and masking tape and topped with tarpaulin, and from within it a friendly looking hippie greets you. “Hey maaan; you guys new?” he asks; his tone pleasant, light and full of friendship. You say you are, and he gives you some forms to fill in. The hippies do bureaucracy apparently.
Once you’ve filled in your forms, the dude palms you off to someone else in an orange high-vis. There’s a hierarchy, you see: orange is a boss, yellow is a grunt.
She leads you into the cavernous warehouse. Past the vans ticking over are cages full to the brim with duvets and pillows and bed sheets – a few guys are sorting through them, removing whatever is stained or torn or generally useless. To the left is the break area, a couple tables where lunch is served, and beyond that the food: piles of tins and bags of beans and granola bars. But straight through forward is where prime time is. Below a cardboard sign demanding you wear a high-vis before going in (again, hippies do health and safety, apparently) is the entrance to a yawning chamber sectioned up by lines of massive metal shelving stacked with clothes and tents and sleeping bags and roll-mats and, down the far end, boxes of toothpaste and shower gel and shampoo and bandages and disinfectant.
The place is an ant colony: people stand over tables measuring the width of jeans and throwing them in the appropriate boxes, someone finds a pair of lacy women’s underwear in the pile and stuffs it in the charity shop crate; cages and trolleys are wheeled noisily up and down the corridors with bags of goods being taken to wherever they need to go; music blares from the speakers as a couple of guys throw bin bags full of clothes to the top of an Everest pile and, over in the corner, shoes get duct-taped together before being put in one of many size-labelled bins. “Mind your backs” is the echo and “where does this go?” the mantra.
At lunch a girl with a voice far too booming for her petite frame calls through the reverberating warehouse and a queue is formed as rice and beans and cabbage and coffee is dolled out into waiting bowls and mugs held aloft. People sit about, mill around, eating and chatting and discussing politics or TV or their plans.
The place is a maelstrom of diversity. Some of them are there for the weekend, professionals in PR jobs or the banking sector who felt it no skin off their nose to help out for a few days. Some are pure, unadulterated, unfiltered hippies with unwashed hair and who actually, thoroughly believe there should be no borders – because economics and the path of national development and international relations and resource disparity and cultural diversity can all be washed away with a hashtag. Some of them are just principled people who feel a connection to humanity and want to help, solely because they want to. Some were like me, there out of a mixture of curiosity and a feeling that our Governments are fucking up a long term plan and in the short term, were it not for the heroes that are those volunteers, those people in the camp, in disgusting limbo, would be fucked.
You see, whatever your politics – unless you’re a white-pride, Britain First troglodyte – you cannot deny that it is impossible to fault the people sacrificing their time and their jobs and, at least for the foreseeable future, their lives, to try and improve, at least fractionally, the situations of the desperate and the weary and the beaten.
When I sat in the local bar in the evening getting wasted, which was heaving with volunteers, I felt something I hadn’t expected to feel: an overwhelming sense of pride. To look around and hear so many British voices, as well as those of a multitude of other countries, and to know my compatriots had seen the undefended and come to defend them. To hear the passion and the urgency in their voices and to see them in the knowledge they were there to do a job, that they weren’t proving a point; they were there to try and dredge humans out of the shit and they were fucking well going to do it.
There is a dire situation in Calais. It is bearing witness to the fallout of man’s arrogance, it is suffering under the strain of human consequence, and the refugees there have felt the full force of governmental haymakers. But within it all, bursting through the gloom, there are the volunteers, and they are heroes with an utterly impressive organisation, and they need to be recognised.