Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty Images.

The Indignity of Limbo

Lessons from Calais Refugee Camp


The internet offered me a preview of Calais refugee camp long before I decided to join a group of students from my UK-based university there for a few days of volunteer work in late March. I had seen its makeshift tents and dilapidated caravans; its muddy roads and abysmal portable toilets; the sometimes hopeful, sometimes frustrated graffiti on its walls; and, of course, its stern French police officers padded with riot gear, fingers gripping batons, standing out with their polished armour in a ‘jungle’ of dirt-crusted and dust-powdered bodies. As a native of Lebanon, I was accustomed to the sight of hollow-eyed refugees – their rough hands and browning fingernails articulating days, weeks, months of laborious attempts at holding shelters and families together; their stiff hair and ailing physiques revealing the inaccessibility of adequate hygiene facilities; their bruises, cuts and fractures supplied by local bigots, enabled by local authorities. And so, it was the smaller, more idiosyncratic details that caught my eye — the ones that told me I was in a partly Middle Eastern space, that I was in a hell populated by miserable but proud and steadfast people, who refused to surrender their humanity to the camp.

I first noticed the chickpeas. As my eyes continued to comb the uneven grounds — mounds of sand and rock protruding across the battered, neglected terrain of the camp —  I saw flattened rats and an abundance of waste. I also spotted the scattered shells of pumpkin seeds and the remains of garlic cloves. The smell of urine hung in the air, the rain carrying it to every corner of the camp, but the stench was sometimes interrupted by a waft of fresh baking bread. In between houses, there were modest stores that made me think of prison commissaries, but their names were inexplicably cheerful, like “Shop Paris!” in a Calais that felt, more than anything, like a dystopian reimagining of the French capital.

There was a “School of Darfur” and wooden signs pointing the way towards various “neighbourhoods.” There was a simultaneously terrifying and somehow whimsical house of dolls decorated with dangling toys, its walls humorously scribbled with Arabic translations of words like “hotel.” Young Afghani boys with apparent cigarette burns dotting their forearms did pull ups with a metal pipe they’d positioned between wooden beams. Sudanese men invited volunteers into their caravans for coffee. Ahlan be Lubnan, ahlan be Beirut, Syrians said to me, reminiscing about their time in the Arab world’s most romanticized capital. Canvases for both sorrow and hope, the caravans were painted and written on. Lieu de vie, or place of life, was scrawled on many a surface.

An aid worker mentioned that the camp had become an eating ‘hotspot’ — cheap, delicious and ethnic as the food was.

And there were the restaurants – businesses I hadn’t expected, serving crispy chicken and flatbread, sautéed spinach and the best fried eggs I’d ever had. That’s when I felt guiltiest, when I caught myself savoring a meal, indirectly deriving pleasure from the suffering of an Afghani refugee. An aid worker mentioned that the camp had become an eating ‘hotspot’ — cheap, delicious and ethnic as the food was. Nothing I saw in Calais highlighted the stark experiential disparity between the refugees and the Western populations hosting them more than this bizarre factoid.

This hell is temporary, I was told several times, but even an ephemeral nightmare can have lasting traumatic effects, and all around me I saw evidence of attempts at making the camp bearable. The illegal camp in Calais is populated mostly by refugees hoping to seek asylum in the UK, who often resort to hiding on British trucks before they board ferries bound for the country. Some pay smugglers as much as 10,000 pounds to facilitate the risky process. The night is for running ­­— for chasing lorries, sprinting, climbing and leaping towards a now almost mythical United Kingdom, the obstinate desire for which, in the ignorance that my privilege allows me, I couldn’t understand. Why aim for the impossible? Why risk everything for one of the countries with the strictest policies towards refugees? The UK or nothing; the UK or we go back, many said to me. Some had family there. Others wanted to settle in a country whose language they could speak.

I met a 23-year-old Syrian on my first day in the camp — unfortunately I can’t recall what city he’s from now (I heard the names of so many crippled cities in my handful of days in Calais – Aleppo, Raqqa, Deraa, Kuwait City, Nyala). I recognized my own middle class background in his clothes, in the hip way he wore his hair — the lower half shaved, the upper part tied into a small ponytail. He had family in Germany. He had family in Canada. But it was the UK or Syria for him. He was going to go to culinary school, he told me. All the men in his family owned pastry shops. He was going to go to school, and then he was going to open his own pastry shop in London. He’d already paid smugglers more than 10,000 pounds to get him out of Calais. Five months had passed in the camp. He’d been “everywhere” before France — Turkey, Greece, Croatia. But he was resolute.

I was sad to see him in the camp the next day, brushing his teeth by a public sink. I assumed he’d tried his luck, like so many, the night before. Mornings were for making do, for the micro-improvements that made the failure to escape survivable, that made another night of risks desirable and possible.

As a Middle Easterner and a student of the social sciences, I’ve long been suspicious of Western aid organizations, and trained to be critical of them. I’ve read plenty of scholarly works that point to the kind of violence aid workers, despite their often good intentions, engage in when they fail to question the universality and naturalness of certain needs, desires and values; when they uncritically decide on behalf of refugees what is important and necessary for them, and what does and does not constitute a humanitarian priority/emergency. In their determination to be sensitive to ‘cultural difference,’ they often end up essentializing culture and using it to mistakenly explain every behaviour, articulation or incident.

My fellow students and I went to Calais to work under the supervision of a small aid organization based in the city, and its team of long-term volunteers. On our first day, those who had volunteered as translators were sent into the camp with a list of prepared questions that a number of us found problematic. Why, we asked, was the first question about the kinds of “community spaces” the refugees would like to have? Was that really the most pressing of concerns? As we had predicted, many of the refugees responded with raised eyebrows, dismissive gestures or, in some cases, anger. “We just want to get out of here,” some said to me. The last thing a lot of them wanted, it became apparent, was to see the introduction of spaces or activities that implied the camp was being fitted for permanent or long-term habitation. Questions about schools and cultural activities provoked anxiety more than excitement.

There were no questions on the list about police brutality, something that came up in conversation time and time again. I met a group of young Syrian men who showed me the bruises caused by what they called ‘fascists.’ They were police officers in civilian clothing, they said, who came into the camp after dark to wreak havoc. I couldn’t verify these claims, but they don’t sound farfetched given the multiple media reports about the abuse being levelled against refugees by authorities in various European countries. I met a Kuwaiti Bedoon — of whom another refugee told me there are anywhere from 150 to 400 in Calais — at the medical caravans (Bedoon, which means “without” in Arabic, are described by Human Rights Watch as “long-term inhabitants who have been denied Kuwaiti citizenship and are now being rendered stateless.”). His arm was broken. He was jumped in town by a group of masked men while he was trying to make a phone call to his mother, he told me. He suspected they, too, were police officers, but he couldn’t say for sure.

Our list was also missing questions about why these refugees were so determined to go to the UK; about what they hoped to achieve there, what they wanted to make of themselves and their lives; about the number of times they had tried to get out; what their experience was like and why they failed; about the kind of legal advice that was or wasn’t available to them; about the success stories that had reached them and fuelled their pursuits.

Mornings were for making do, for the micro-improvements that made the failure to escape survivable, that made another night of risks desirable and possible.

The refugees I spoke to were tired of being accommodated and pitied. They seemed frustrated with what scholar Mayssoun Sukarieh calls ‘reactivism’ — with depoliticized NGOs that respond to crises but fail to engage their causes and exacerbating factors, that treat refugees as “people in need” rather than as “people with a cause.” Reactivist aid work risks infantilizing and even dehumanizing refugees, transforming them into mere receptacles for charity rather than people with narratives-in-progress, narratives that need help being defibrillated and continued; forgetting that these are people who have not only been dispossessed but humiliated by war and are, from what I saw, as desperately in need of regaining their dignity as they are warm clothing.

At the debriefing session that followed our first day in the camp, some of us tried to communicate our findings to the host organization and to emphasize the discrepancy between what they wanted us to focus on and what the refugees actually wanted to talk about. “We don’t need anything. We just need to get out. There’s nothing you can do to fix this camp. There’s nothing you can do to make it better,” one refugee told me. I communicated this and similar sentiments, as did others. But the conversation kept coming back to art lessons and football matches, punctuated by lamentations about the failure of the West to live up to its own promise of human rights and democracy. Many of the Western volunteers seemed to possess the shockingly naïve belief that most refugees had risked life and limb for the “Western dream,” failing to acknowledge the fact that a substantial number of them felt the West bore a responsibility to take in the dispossessed, given the direct and indirect roles that Western foreign policies have played in precipitating the disasters in their countries. As one Sudanese man told me, “I want to go to the UK because the UK colonized me.”

Perhaps what was most problematic about this discourse was the (unintentionally) patronizing tone with which the refugees were spoken about — as though they were infants — and how this language reinforced, rather than undermined, the notion of refugees as ‘others,’ as beings with radically different needs, wants and natures. ‘Culture’ was referred to in order to explain the strangest of things; a positive response, for example, to a donation of loud, gold underwear, was chalked up to cultural difference, when surely it would make more sense to understand it as a product of need or a lack of options rather than taste.

As our first debriefing session was coming to an end, one of the long-term volunteers asked, “How can we find a way to engage with refugees that isn’t patronising?” Her question was ignored, as it had been all along.