Calais and Dunkirk refugee camps – December 2015

NB: This post was written in December 2015. The camp described at Dunkirk was demolished in March 2016, and its inhabitants were moved to a new camp down the road.

Last weekend, a team of five of us visited the refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk. Here are a few of our reflections/observations.

There are two large refugee camps in France at the moment. One, nick-named ‘the Jungle’, has been in Calais for roughly ten years. Whereas it used to be home to a few hundred refugees, around 6 or 7 thousands refugees are camped there at the moment. Refugees in the Jungle are from all over – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and elsewhere. A huge majority of the refugees there are men, usually between the ages of 15 and 50. Women do live in the camp as well, but walking through the main roads in the camp you see very few. This is partly to do with the fact that there is a women’s area of the camp which has much higher security than the rest of the camp, set up by charities in an attempt to keep women safe. Even aid workers have to have permission to access this area of the camp. Another reason is that women are often intimidated by the number of men walking around. As a white British aid worker I was rarely harassed but it’s unlikely that female refugees would receive quite the same treatment.

The other main camp in France is located in Dunkirk, around a half an hour drive from Calais. This is home to far more families, women and children than the Calais camp. Roughly 90% of the refugees in Dunkirk seemed to be from Iraq, although we did meet refugees from Iran and even Vietnam while we were there.  It is also much smaller than Calais – probably home to around 2,000 refugees but considering how many people arrive and leave in a single day, it is difficult to keep track of exact figures at either camp.


When we arrived in Calais on Sunday morning we were all set to begin operations out of a caravan there. We’d been given the code to the caravan by other aid workers, and it contained a few basic medical supplies. We had also bought some supplies with us. Instead when we got there, dentists operating out of one of the other caravans suggested we would be more help at the camp in Dunkirk. ‘It’s a mess down there’, one of them commented.

And Dunkirk was much ‘messier’ than Calais. Whereas in Calais there had been make-shift shelters made from wood and metal sheets, shops, cafes, bins and even churches and mosques, Dunkirk was a mud bath with next to no sturdy shelter. Little brightly coloured 2 or 3 man tents were everywhere dotted around in the mud. As soon as we arrived we could tell that this camp was even less organised than the last. There were no police and no one who had been given any authority over the camp. We arrived with our rucksacks and supplies and were asked very few questions. We were directed to a girl called Maddie who told us we could do what we liked, but would be most help in the medical tent. We had a nurse and a medical student with us, but Maddie didn’t check these credentials. Apparently the week before a paramedic had arrived and treated people, before it was revealed that he was in fact not medically trained in any way. There was no one in charge to have called him out on this, or to direct the way aid was distributed in the camp.

Un-targeted aid

With ad hoc volunteer teams and no one obviously in charge, cars would turn up with random supplies which were then handed out by well-meaning volunteers to anyone they saw. Invariably this aid was not targeted and much of it was then thrown away. People took what they needed or wanted and left the rest in the mud. There were piles of trash everywhere in the camp – food left half-eaten, caked in mud, ski boots half submerged, children’s toys, underwear, everything covered in mud and essentially useless. When we arrived we were confronted with a patch of ground covered in around 100 loaves of Warburtons bread, also now caked in mud. Whereas in Calais there was somewhat of a food shortage, in Dunkirk it was clear that ‘things’ were aplenty. Although there were two containers in the camp, they couldn’t possibly have contained all the rubbish that was building up from rejected food, clothes and other items, even if anyone had been trying to bag it and put it somewhere. Piles of open waste just lay around. This has bought the camp a huge rat problem. The night before we arrived, there had been a fire, and one of the aid workers described how, as tents were pulled away from the fire, you could see hundreds of rats fleeing the flames.

Sanitary conditions

As well as the litter problem at the Dunkirk camp, there also seemed to be a problem with sewage. The French authorities had installed twelve toilet and shower facilities. Nine of these had padlocks on them. Apparently these nine facilities had not been connected to sewage systems, and no one had arrived over the past few weeks/months to solve the issue. Furthermore, the facilities that were supposedly connected to the sewage system had clearly not been done properly – there were inches of stagnant water and human faeces under the make-shift buildings.

The showers had no warm water. One of the men I spoke to on the camp said he hadn’t showered for sixteen days because the cold water made you freeze and there was no way to get warm on the camp. ‘We get lots of dandruff, you know’, he remarked wryly.

Below are some photos from the camps, with descriptions on each. The article continues below.

Women and children

Comparative to the camp at Calais, there were many more women and children walking around the camp at Dunkirk. The atmosphere was generally much friendlier. Speaking to aid workers who had been at both camps, the general opinion was that where the Calais camp was a ‘survival of the fittest’ situation, with men frequently stealing from one another and fights often breaking out, in Dunkirk families were much more willing to help one another. Having said this, the underlying political situations in the camp seemed to determine which women and children felt safe walking around. Gavin, a 50-year old Brit who had been working on the camp for a few months, said that one day he investigated a tiny 2 man tent which he’d seen no movement in or out of for weeks. He assumed the tent was empty and could be used to house people. Inside, he found two women and four young children. For one reason or another they had been too anxious to leave their tents, either to collect food or seek medical attention at the medical tent.

This is one of the main problems with aid on the camps. Most of those able to stand in queues for food or make their way to the medical or supply tent are those in relatively good condition. They are also the most confident, who have probably been able to collect provisions throughout their stay and already wear good clothes and shoes. This is why donating money or supplies is often less helpful than man power. What these camps need are people who are willing to give up their time and energy to cleaning up the camp, looking after the vulnerable, and helping to build a clean, healthy community there.


Another benefit of having aid workers on the camps is the lessened influence of smugglers, who effectively control the sites, especially at night. Speaking to Keivan, a 24 Kurdish computer-science student from Iran, he refers to the smugglers as ‘those fucking dudes’. He explains that a month ago refugees had to pay smugglers ‘taxes’ for things like phone charging. So far, he has not been approached for such taxes and it would seem that the practice is waning, at least in the Dunkirk camp. One reason for this might be an increased volunteer presence. Having said this, most aid workers leave the camps at night, and this is when the camps are most dangerous. There are rumours of knives and guns on the camp. Some aid workers confirm these reports, some don’t. But in Keivan’s experience, the smugglers are certainly in charge. In Dunkirk there are no police, and volunteers come and go. The smugglers are the only established authority. Recently the French authorities closed down a smaller camp in Dunkirk which led to an influx of refugees into the main one. The incoming refugees installed themselves at the very front of the camp. The entrance of the camp is directly opposite a nice housing estate, just 5 or so metres away. The unpleasant sight of families living in squalor so close to their comfortable houses somewhat upset the local residents. Sensing tensions, and anxious about the possible involvement of police if complaints were made, those ‘in charge’ of the camp forced the most recent residents to move their tents into the forest on the other side of the camp. Keivan was threatened by these smugglers and had no choice but to move, along with everyone else living at the front of the camp.

Getting to the UK

99% of refugees in both Calais and Dunkirk are hoping to get to the UK. The smugglers based on the camps help them to try and achieve this goal. For around ten minutes on Sunday I stood chatting to Justin, a British aid worker from Birmingham, manning the ‘gate’ into the Dunkirk camp. In those minutes we saw a family milling around the entrance with bags in their hands. Justin said we were unlikely to see them again, and indeed, five minutes later they had disappeared. In all likelihood they had raised the money to bribe smugglers to help them leave. A few minutes later a middle-aged women arrived in a small car, picked up two refugees and left. She was a smuggler, though I would have never have guessed it. At the same time, groups of young men wondered out with brand new sleeping bags on their back, clearly planning to try and make it on their own without the aid of smugglers. Smugglers charge a lot to help refugees get from France to the UK – between 2,000 and 3,000 euros per person. For this, they show them the best places to try and jump onto or into lorries which will supposedly take them to the UK.

The majority of refugees are middle-class, educated people. They are lawyers, accountants, teachers, students. They have no experience of jumping onto lorries and have to rely on crooked smugglers to advise them. Attaching oneself to lorries is extremely dangerous, risky and unlikely to succeed. In some cases, the French authorities clearly turn a blind eye. Stories of police opening lorries to find Syrian or Iraqi families and waving the lorries on are common. The refugee crisis is a problem the French authorities would rather not burden – if they can pass it onto the UK often they will. Making it through the French authorities doesn’t mean that families or individuals are safe. There have been horrifying stories of people suffocating in the back of lorries. Furthermore, having made it to the UK if they are then discovered they are usually deported or sent back. One man I spoke to had escaped the camp a total of seven times. Once he had been detained by French authorities at Calais; six times he had been sent back having reached Dover.

‘The UK is a good country’

Several of the refugees trying to make it to the UK have family there. One man I spoke to owns a shop and a house in the UK, which his brother now looks after. He lived in Swansea from 2005 to 2013, but went back to Iraq to see his mother before she died. Since then he has not been able to get back. This is a common story; many refugees have lived in London or other areas of the UK previously.

Others have never been to England. Keivan has never seen the UK, but says ‘for me, I love England. I dream of living in London’. Another man, a Syrian English literature student, says he wants to study in England. He has written to Oxford and Cambridge universities but not yet received any response.

When I ask Keivan, who speaks impeccable English with a perfect accent, what he would say to the British government, he says ‘I know you don’t give a shit about us’. When I ask what he’d say to ordinary people like myself, he says the thing he needs most is for me to tell him how to get to the UK. He also said that he’d rather pay me money or the UK government money to help him, rather than give it to the smugglers. A mother whose child was ill and seeing my nurse friend at the medical clinic, begged my friend to take her child to the UK.

Another woman I spoke to with a young baby said she wanted to make it to the UK to give her baby a ‘good life’. ‘Not for me, for my baby’.

The sad fact is that while people do leave the camps every day, a tiny fraction of them are likely to make it to the UK without getting deported. They all seem to have hope though, and treat the camps as transitory. A well-educated Syrian man at the Calais camp, who worked in Turkey as an English translator for several years, tells me confidently that ‘sooner or later, everyone here will make it to the UK’. A doctor working at Calais told me sadly that ‘these guys are here to stay. We need to help empower them to do things for themselves’.

The problem with this is that many of the refugees don’t want to invest in the camp communities/sites, because they don’t want to accept them as permanent homes in any way. Improving the camps, or clearing litter would be accepting defeat in some way. This doesn’t mean that refugees aren’t keen to help aid workers – many work as translators. Even two nine year old girls I spoke to in Dunkirk could speak fluent English. This is partly because a majority of the refugees who make it to France in the first place are relatively well-off and well-educated. The average cost of getting to France from their home countries is well over 10,000 euros – the poorest citizens of the war-torn countries couldn’t possibly afford to make it even to France, never mind the UK.

The French authorities

It is difficult to work on the camps and not be frustrated with the attitude of the majority of French people and the French authorities. At Calais, the government pay for three meals a day for 1,000 people. But there are between 6,000 and 7,000 refugees on that camp. In Dunkirk, they’re doing nothing to install bins, hot running water for showers, or effective sewage systems. At Calais, riot police often surround the entrance to the camp, raising tensions throughout the camp. In September at Calais there was an especially rainy few days. In response, some refugees camped under a bridge near the entrance to the camp. Unbeknownst to them, the French authorities had not wanted the tents to extend this far. Instead of asking the refugees to move, the police were instructed to bulldoze the tents, and use tear gas to evict the refugees inside them. A British aid worker had asked the police to give her charity five minutes to help the refugees to move before they went in – they refused her request.

Towards the end of the day on Sunday, when we had wanted to leave the Calais camp to catch a ferry home, a line of riot police had not allowed us to leave the camp. There had been a fight at the camp earlier in the day – in one of our caravans a man was having his head stitched up following this fight – and the police didn’t want anyone leaving. As we approached them they put shields up and brought their guns around to their front. We managed to leave by a side exit, but we could see as we left that tensions in the camp were rising.

These are horror stories, and I am not in a place to judge either the French government or the police. I am merely narrating my own observations and reports passed on to me. One of the worst I heard was a story from Belgium aid workers in the Dunkirk camp. Apparently they had discovered a 9 month old baby suffering from severe hypothermia. Understanding the severity of the situations, aid workers had driven to the baby to hospital. Having explained the situations, doctors at the hospital refused to help the baby because he was a refugee. ‘It’s a fucking baby man, do the doctors not have an oath?’, the aid worker I spoke to said. The money was raised to shelter this child and his family in a hotel temporarily. The child quickly recovered – all he had needed was warmth and proper shelter.

The Belgium charity had sponsored a number of families to stay in hotels, but as children recovered, they had to be sent back to the damp conditions of the camps. Even in several layers and warm North Face jackets, I spent the whole day feeling cold and damp. I could go back home, shower and get warm. For months on end, refugees on the camp stayed feeling damp and coldy.

In response, people light fires inside their tents at night. Understandably this leads to fires, and severe burns, which often go untreated for several days, or are not treated at all.

In November, a French court ordered the country’s authorities to improve conditions at Calais after NGOs, led by Doctors of the World and the Catholic Relief Services, highlighted to the court the ‘serious human rights violations’ at the camp.

French citizens

I was in Dunkirk for most of Sunday. At no point did I see a single one of the residents living in the housing estate opposite enter the camp. I spoke to Justin at the gate about this, perplexed. Justin said that French citizens rarely came and none of them stayed. ‘If this was my fucking doorstep, Anna, I’d be here every day’. I had to agree. None of the aid workers I met at Dunkirk were French either – and I met aid workers from all over.

On that day, an anti-refugee march was scheduled to take place near the Calais camp. I don’t think, in the end, this march actually took place. But that doesn’t mean it won’t, or that there isn’t a proportion of the population who would rather none of the refugees encamped on French territory existed. Cars driving past the Dunkirk camp would often beep their horns for extended periods of time, and two men even jeered as they went past.

Speaking to a young man from Ethiopia at Calais, he said that the refugees weren’t treated as human. ‘I don’t mind for me, but babies, pregnant women….and we call this government good?’

Other French citizens are simply ignorant of the true situation in the camps on their doorstep. A fifth year French medical student was volunteering at Calais on the same day as us. She said this was the first time she’d come, and she’d lived in Calais all her life. She was shocked by the conditions, and we knew from experience that Dunkirk, which she hadn’t yet visited, was in a much worse state than Calais.    

Having said all this, there were two French charities I came across at Calais – L’Auberge des Migrants and Secours Catholique Pas-de-Calais and I’m sure there are others. L’Auberge has been at Calais helping refugees since 2008, and tries to make sure that refugees are given the food and clothes they need which the government are failing to provide. However, since September, the number of refugees in Calais have doubled and their work has become exponentially harder.

What can be done

Long-term solutions to the refugee crisis are largely in the hands of politicians and the UN. But visiting the camps it is clear that there are also smaller things that can be done to make the conditions of camps much, much better. What these camps most need is proper shelter, a sorting out of litter, and more aid workers to map where the vulnerable tents are, so they can go to women and children with supplies, food, and medical care.

We visited Calais and Dunkirk for the weekend, bringing just ourselves and a few supplies. It cost virtually nothing. Anyone who wants to go, can. I met several volunteers who had come by themselves, were not members of any charity, and just went from tent to tent, checking people had what they needed, trying to clear walk ways, and rescue things from the mud.

The more people that go to help, the better off refugees living there will be. The more awareness we raise of the situation, the more pressure institutions and governments will be under to do something really meaningful for these people; install running hot water, connect toilet facilities to a sewage system, provide bins and waste disposal services, and build proper shelter that will protect families from the cold, mud and rain.




14 thoughts on “Calais and Dunkirk refugee camps – December 2015

  1. Our migration laws are not too strict, and even if they were, it’s the government that is responsible for upholding and managing them. Obviously if there were easier ways for migrants to be filtered into space across Europe that would be good. And ultimately it’s saddening that impatience to get to a ‘dream destination’ often leads to rash transportation choices and pointless loss of life.
    What can be done? It’s as much Europe’s issue as the UK’s. Sure it’s flattering that everyone wants to come here, and if I was in their shoes, I would too. But changes need to be made that spread the refugee load more equally around Europe and away from ‘hotspots’ where resources are spread too thin.


    1. It’s all so complicated. Part of the reason the refugees are taking such desperate measures to leave The Jungle is that they have no INFORMATION. At least if their human rights had been established, this would be somewhat appeasing to them. But everything is so up in the air. Limbo is a terrible place to be, psychologically. I know how it feels to be in a foreign country, not speak the language, and be penniless. Imagination and fear can can cause insanity. If, at the very least, they knew that people were trying to establish their human rights, it might stop many of them from acts of desperation. Who is trying to help establish their human rights? What is the UN’s position on this? Where are the pro-bono human rights lawyers? Apparently this issue is a hot potato. Nobody wants to get close to it.


      1. I completely agree about the lack of information RJ Bales. Every time I ask people what they’ll do when they reach the UK, whether they’d have a case for asylum, none of them know! Even some of the legal organisations working with the kids on the camp aren’t sure whether the kids will be granted asylum or how long the procedure might take. Everyone is confused and desperate to get across. Even those who’s applications are being processed can’t bear the wait and jump on trucks to try and get across


  2. Hi Anna,

    After having visited “The Jungle” a few weeks back (I’ll be back again in January), it is obvious that a large percentage of the newer arrivals (Syrians) are not being helped, simply because they don’t come out of their tents! They appear to be sick, dehydrated, in shock, confused, etc., and I think the aid workers tend to ignore this area because it is so quiet and unassuming. It’s like the story from your blog about the aid worker who kept passing by one of the tents–assuming it was abandoned–until one day (out of curiosity) he poked his head in and saw two women and four children crammed inside, quiet as mice, too afraid to come out. They may have perished had this aid worker’s curiosity not kicked in at the last moment.

    In Calais, the food queues are a joke. Only the fittest and strongest get the food: The Law of the Jungle prevails. I think there are gangs that patrol the streets and keep the weak from getting to the food queues. The warehouse people just shrug their shoulders, but if they changed the way they set up the queues and kept changing the locations, the food might get distributed more equitably. For instance, sometimes they should distribute from the bottom of the queue instead of the front. Or they could split it in the middle and form two lines. Also, they never go to the poorest area. It’s near the entrance that has the signs posted all over it in pigeon French and English with messages that say: “Forbidden”, “We are not animals”, “Prohibited”, “Death to those who come here”, etc. When I talk to others who have been to the camps, nobody seems to have even NOTICED these signs. It seems hard to believe. Do you know the signs I am talking about? If not, I will be happy to send them to you. This is where the sickest, poorest and weakest are camped out (most of them too sick to come out of their tents when calling by).

    I have just heard some good news, however, and that is that they have just built three new “kitchens”. I don’t know where they are located, but I’ll bet none of them are in the poorest area I just described. They also just built a Junior Information and Education Centre, but once again – that is in the Afghan-ville. It won’t serve the poor everyone.

    The refugee situation at Calais and Dunkirk is like a microcosm of the world’s war zones. People need to see that we are all connected to each other in one way or another. Ignoring this refugee crisis, as the French have, will only cause the problem to grow larger; a bit like a wound that has become infected and spread throughout the body. We, as a human race, are that collective body, and we all need to become active to solve the problem, compassionately. People need to understand that the wound has been festering for too long, and the infection has spread throughout the body. The “immune system” for that human collective is our compassionate wisdom in action. We may not always know how to be “wise”, but we can learn through our compassion. Compassion has many forms, but it all starts with Awareness.

    I noticed when I was in Calais, that even small gestures – like a smile – could go a long way. Even if what I was doing seemed ineffective, I knew that the refugees were grateful to know that there were people in the world who cared about their situation. I realised that hope can go a long way.

    There’s a lot more I’d like to say about this situation, but don’t have the time. But I would like to thank you for visiting the camps – for helping the refugees and for spreading awareness to the general public. If it weren’t for people like you, the real news would never get out.

    All the best,
    Renee Bales

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for what seems to be an excellent balanced account – I will be in Calais from 22nd-30th Dec – I have volunteered for the kitchens there, but will also try to get to the camp at Dunkirk.


    1. Hey Jane, sorry for such a slow reply. How did your visit in December go? What was it like working over Christmas? If you’re still visiting regularly, let me know. At the moment, we’re going out every other weekend


  4. There are so many problems in so many parts of the world it is understandable people are seeking refuge elsewhere. I feel this is a global problem and the world has not responded in a united way. Perhaps if each country in Europe mobilised their armies to set up proper camps for the refugees so they can be given the care they need, processed properly to find out why they are where they are, are they genuine refugees or not and help them to move on. I think it is short sited of everyone to think this problem is going to go away and we need to work together!! I would like to volunteer to help for a period at the camp for families. I used to be a health visitor and a children’s and general nurse.


    1. I think it is clear that our collective governments don’t WANT an equitable solution of any kind. That’s obvious.(Hegelian Dialectics.). I think people just need to do what they know is right – listen to their own conscience – and help others to understand the big picture here. You have much needed skills, and I know that the Medecins Sans Frontiere are looking for people trained in medicine and that they are desperate to get them working in Calais/Dunkirk. I would contact them and see if you can help. I have a friend who is a nurse going down on the 29th. Perhaps you could render-vous with her?


      1. Hi,
        I am looking into the volunteering process and I sadly think you are probably right about the countries of Europe not wanting to helpand even more so many of the neighboring Arabic States!


    2. Hi Rosemary, I was wondering if you did volunteer at any stage? I work for one of the medical charities in Calais and we’d be happy to help you if you were interested in doing so health visits!


  5. I have a facility that is a perfect operational base for refugees to come in to Wales none of our government is awilling to support the site . I been on at them for months and no one listens


    1. Interesting. I am sure there are lots of places these refugees could go, but clearly our governments don’t want a solution; it appears that the solution for them is in the actual chaos. The UN’s silence on this issue says a lot about them.


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