A city of 7,000: Life inside Calais' refugee camp

A typical street in the camp. Image: Getty.

Back in July, the aid charity Care4Calais circulated a photo of its volunteers holding up signs in a near-empty warehouse. They were asking for more donations.

When I visit that same warehouse only weeks before, it feels plentifully stocked. There are piles of sleeping bags and blankets; boxes full of cleaning supplies donated by a church group; and an entire shipping container filled with the type of food – rice, cooking oil, biscuits – the volunteers hand out to the refugees every day.

And yet the charity is already feeling the pinch.

“The EU referendum has definitely had a chilling effect,” Alexandra Simmons, a lead volunteer with the charity, tells me. Politicians in favour of migrant rights went mysteriously quiet, in a climate where speaking out for refugees was seen to push people over to the Leave side. Meanwhile, the demolition of half the camp back in March convinced many in the UK that it no longer exists. “You hear a lot of ‘oh, is that still there?’” Simmons says.   

And in France, too, the authorities are blowing cold: Convoy to Calais, a march from the UK meant to remind the world that the camp is still there, was blocked from entering the country by the French government in June. With it, Simmons tells me, Care4Calais lost donations, but also the chance to raise public awareness that there are now almost 7,000 people in the Calais camp who can move neither forward or back.

Cleaning supplies ready to be handed out in camp.

Care4Calais was founded by Clare Moseley in September 2015, after what was meant to be a short trip to visit the camp. She still hasn’t returned to the UK. Back then, she tells me as we walk through the camp’s streets in the afternoon sunlight, it was “long hours, emergency conditions, standing in the back of a van throwing out food – just a sheer volume of aid”.

Now, almost a year on, between five and 20 volunteers arrive daily at the two warehouses rented by the charity. Between them, they co-ordinate the day’s delivery to the charity’s in-camp container, where refugees queue up for food, clothes, and washing supplies. “Use a tiny bit of masking tape on boxes,” a lead volunteer shouts out as volunteers sort and sort. “Treat it like precious china. Treat it like platinum!”

Volunteers put together food parcels. 

Acknowledging the needs of the camp at large involves acknowledging some awkward truths about its existence. The colours of clothes, say. Simmons tells me that most of the men want dark clothes and shoes, so they aren’t spotted when they try to attempt the crossing at night.

Most, too, want fashionable clothes that fit. “They tend to be small, not like us chunky Brits,” Simmons tells me as she shows me examples of the clothes they like – black and grey, in a close fit. “They use clothes to express themselves, just like all of us do.”

However, nothing is wasted, and most of the women’s, children’s, and large clothes received by the charity are sent either to charities in Syria, or back to Britain to the homelessness charity Shelter.

Appealing for the items refugees actually need is hard, especially when those donating might like to think they’re helping women, children, or those not attempting to board lorries as they prepare to cross the channel. Yet clothes for men in particular are constantly needed, as the camp has no laundry facilities, meaning that even once the right clothes get to refugees they don’t last long.

One wall of the sorting warehouse is dedicated to unusable donations. There’s a Minions toy, alongside a t-shirt reading "PLAYA" and a tiny, wedding-ready child's waistcoat. But some unrequested items are more welcome: for example, schoolchildren have sent letters of support to the refugees, especially the camp’s unaccompanied children. “I think David Cameron is rong,” reads one [sic]. “Every child must have a friend to care for them.”

The wall of shame.

Everyone I speak to agrees that the feel of the camp and its needs have changed since the early, more chaotic days. There are now much-documented restaurants, shops, churches, and a community centre in the camp. After the demolitions, Care4Calais carried out a survey in camp, and found that a major issue was boredom, which can lead to declining mental states and crime or violence. As a result, the group now offers art and English classes. As Moseley and I walk past an art class and a church, the camp feels almost placid.

But despite the camp’s apparent order, there is much lurking beneath the surface. Moseley tells me that the confident young men striding up and down the camp’s well-defined roads and visiting the shops are one side of camp life – but there are others. “There’s a young boy living in one corner of the camp who was brutally beaten at home in Afghanistan, and beaten here in camp,” she tells me. “He won’t walk through camp on his own.”

There are many like this boy, who cannot access aid when it arrives, or the boost that activities or social activity would bring. With time, what Moseley calls a “social scale” has developed in the camp, which divides those confident and well enough to run small businesses or access aid, and those too beaten down by their situation to work the system.

The perfect shoes.

“We’re not qualified to deal with the mental health stuff,” Moseley tells me. “And it’s a huge issue, both for refugees and long-term volunteers. The camp is dangerous. Everyone here is traumatised and damaged. Nobody is ever healthy or not tired.”

And at any moment, more demolitions could arrive, or aid could dry up. Teargas is a near-daily annoyance, and is sometimes thrown by police into the camp itself, where it can damage the temporary structures and tents where the refugees live.

And yet: “Imagine how someone in Britain reacts if someone’s tree grows onto their side of the fence,” Moseley says. “Here, people have no space. They are living on top of each other, and they come from all different backgrounds, from all over the world. It’s unbelievable the riots that don’t happen. The fights that don’t happen.”

The camp’s precarious status, and the uncharted territory for the few aid groups here, is inescapable – but so is the equilibrium somehow struck on a good day. Aid packages are handed out. Another carload of clothes arrives from a British youth group. An English lesson takes place. An aid worker buys a refugee a train ticket to meet an asylum officer in Paris, and his grinning friend translates as she explains when it leaves the station.

Where does it end? Sitting in a well-known camp restaurant where the football is playing on a screen in the background, Moseley tells about one family from Sudan. “Their daughter was killed before they came here, and they can’t go back because their other daughter would be killed too,” she tells me –another story among many. 

And then, abruptly: “I can’t leave here without them. I’m not leaving until they can, too.”

This article was previously published on our sister site, the New Statesman.

All images: author's own. 


Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook