Standing to my left is a skinny young white woman. I don’t know her name. The two of us are stood facing a queue of mostly Eritrean, Ethiopian and Afghan men. She is worried, and so am I. The men are getting increasingly restless, and I’ve already stepped in between one queue-jumper and a man with a stone. I take a moment to breathe and notice her properly for the first time, taking in her little rucksack and wavy long blonde hair. I smile and ask how she came to be here. “Oh, I just came by myself,” she tells me nonchalantly, “I just came where the need was.”
We are standing in the New Jungle, a camp of around 3000 men and a handful of women and children, on the North Coast of France. A ten-minute drive away is the port commonly known as Calais, but hypermarchés and booze cruises seem a world away. Despite the handful of Brits and French scattered around, the place has no sense of official law and order. There is no official entrance or exit, no security, no proper bathrooms. One hundred women and children stay in a well-guarded centre at the edge, but it’s full. The Europeans milling around, like my blonde friend, have mostly come with small charities or just a few mates. A bespectacled woman comes up to me and tells me in rapid French that she’d like me to move over one of our three trucks so she can squeeze past in her Peugeot to give some bits out. A bearded Muslim with an East London accent comes and asks if we’ve got any helpers spare to help him distribute a van of medicine that him and his dad have driven down with. A bunch of enthusiastic teachers, council workers and others friends from Swindon decide to give us a hand with clearing our distribution area, quite literally, by holding hands to make a circle around our boxes of sleeping bags, jackets and shoes.
Every so often a little hired mini-van pulls off the motorway, and parks up where it can. Usually, the poor owners open the back the doors before a queue is formed and this happens: people surge, grab and rush, and within minutes the van is empty. The owners are left, perfectly unharmed but stunned, bewildered and perhaps a little harrowed. Far above, from the top of an overlooking bridge, the familiar Peter Pan peak of a French policeman appears from time to time. He leans against one leg, speaks into his walkie-talkie, and looks down at us. From there he must see only a sea of tents, brown people and rubbish piles. He seems to appear when new vans roll in. He must resent us who come down in our little piddly white minivans, stirring up trouble by giving out things. Some groups bring plastic barriers, some hold hands in a line, some give out coloured tickets… To him, I imagine, we are like awkward seagulls who have strayed too far inland, causing more trouble by picking away at a huge pile of rubbish. Sometimes, like when a camp resident shows me confusedly a yellow ticket given to him by someone, saying “Entitled to size 5 ½ orthopaedic shoes”, I feel like more of an albatross.
Part 2 coming soon. To read in French: