With a scarf tied loosely around his head so as to cover his eyes, he sat calmly on a chair before one of his friends. I could not see what happened next as reporters, news crews and photographers enveloped them both, but his cries of pain — which cut through the air as the needle and thread pierced and passed through his lips, sealing them together — were like a punch to the stomach. As the ends of the thread were knotted together, a fifth man — who had lost what little he could claim as his own to the scoop of a JCB — began his hunger strike.
He is not alone. Following what many saw as a brutal decision to evict around 1/3 of the population of the Calais ‘Jungle’ in January of this year — a month in which frost routinely paved the muddy pathways that criss-cross the camp, and clothes hung out to dry were made brittle by ice — French authorities have redoubled their efforts and have begun clearing the southern half of the Jungle. The exact number of people this will affect is hard to determine — few, after all, see the Jungle as their final destination — but a survey conducted by Help Refugees suggests it could be as many as 3,500.
The following day, Actress Juliet Stevenson visited the camp alongside Director Stephen Daldry and Producer Tracey Seaward. But this was not a research trip for a forthcoming film. Instead, they had come to meet four Syrian boys — all under eighteen years old and unaccompanied in Calais, but with family in Britain. Over sweet milk tea in the Afghan Flag restaurant, the boys told of their exodus from Syria and journey across Europe. They had hoped to join family in the United Kingdom, but have instead found themselves trapped just across the English Channel. They are the first unaccompanied minors to take part in the Help Refugees and Citizens UK ‘buddy scheme’, which will see them paired with high-profile public figures who will cover the legal costs associated with the French asylum process and campaign publicly so that they may soon be reunited with their families in Britain.
The atmosphere of the Jungle is often hard to judge, and harder still to put into a single word. That should come as no surprise, for as tired as the cliche is, this place truly is a ‘melting pot’ — of languages, nationalities and cultures, brought together by exodus and a shared political precarity.
But if there is a word that has hung in the air this week, it is helplessness. For many, it was this that drove them from their homes, and often their families, in the first place. And in that sense, their journeys have come full circle. It is the helplessness they now feel in the face of the demolition of a place that for months, in some cases years, has stood in for home that has driven them to stitch their mouths closed, to sit on rooftops wrapped in blankets as riot police gather below, and to put a match to the walls of their shelters so as to exert at least a degree of ownership over its inevitable destruction.
What happens in the Jungle has often been relayed to the world as spectacle. Within the boundaries of that small strip of wasteland that lies in the shadow of a chemical plant, those that have spent time there have seen the best and worst of humanity. But the complexity and nuance that places both extremes in much-needed context is inevitably — and perhaps unavoidably — missing from the version of the Jungle that periodically runs across the pages of Britain’s newspapers. And so, with that in mind, in simple terms:
The British and French governments must be made to reckon with their woeful handling of this crisis — one that it is not new, and so has not taken them by surprise, but has existed not far from the southern shores of Britain since the late 1990s. But we, as citizens of Europe, must also ask ourselves this: how have we arrived at a place and time in which the continued existence of the Jungle, which is now reaching a conclusion born not of compassion but of brutality, is something to which we have quietly and collectively acquiesced?