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. 

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.