Calais: From Crisis to Community

Back in March 2015, the French authorities in Calais made a tactical blunder. They evicted the dozen or so migrant squats and camps dotted around the town, which had been home to 1-2,000 refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Syria, among others. Instead, they created a “tolerated zone” a few kilometers away, where the migrants could sleep and suffer until they decided that surrendering was better than staying.

The tactical blunder was to underestimate the response of civil society to this new tolerated camp. Then again, in fairness to the French, there was nothing in the air back then to suggest that civil society at large would give anything other than a flying fuck about the couple of thousand migrants squatting on their doorstep.

Migration on the Margins

In March 2015, not too many people were particularly interested in migration and taking direct action to support migrant rights. I know this because, since July 2014, I had been visiting Calais on a regular basis.

There were the No Borders activists, who were very passionate, very active, but very few in number. There were also a handful of local Calaisians who cared about the migrants in their midsts, donating clothes, food, or mobile phone charging facilities. And there were some small charities, including Salam, a kitchen that served one hot meal per day. It would be very hard to estimate numbers, but after two weeks in Calais, I felt like I knew everyone personally by name.

Calais was a niche concern of a small cadre of pretty hardcore activists. The Great British public were never that interested. I know this because I saw people’s eyes glaze over whenever I started to talk about the socially difficult topics of immigration and freedom of movement.

There was no warning sign that thousands of ordinary people would soon come to Calais, witness the horrendous conditions of the camp for themselves, and join forces with the migrants to create a new community. But that is what has happened.

The Mistake

When the tolerated zone in Calais was created, it was generally considered that the French would do absolutely nothing to make conditions bearable. This was very specifically NOT a refugee camp. Standards were kept well below the bare minimum requred by the United Nations for such a place.

There was desperately insufficient water (at first only six taps for the whole camp), food (one meal a day for 500 or so lucky people), sanitation (half a dozen portaloos, only after a campaign by local charities), and medical support (one part-time healthcare professional). The French provided no rubbish collection, lighting, shelter, pathways, or electricity.

They did, however, provide the 24-hour presence of riot police, who made regular use of their tear gas and riot batons. And, because they wanted nothing to do with the camp, not even its regulation, they did allow ordinary civilians to come and go.

That was their mistake.

The Rise of the Flying Fuck

Inspired by those hardcore activists, ordinary civilians started to come over to Calais, to see for themselves. The migrants showed their visitors a warm welcome, encouraging more and more people to come and share their hospitality. Donations were raised, stories were told, and, extraordinarily, lives were put on hold and dedicated to supporting the migrants with bike maintenance, cooking, or house building.

The camp, with its sensationalist squalor, also attracted journalists wanting to illustrate the rising migration crisis that otherwise felt long distant, a problem for Turkey, Greece, and Eastern Europe.

More and more people became aware of what was going on, more and more people came to know friends who had been, and who had returned changed. In this way, Calais became a mainstream concern. Almost overnight, those previously glazed eyes sparkled with keen interest: How can I get involved, what can I do to help?

Before they could do anything to halt the tide, the camp was totally out of any authority control. They had abandoned the migrants to their fates; but they never anticipated such a flow of support and resources. They never imagined that these people’s fate might be anything other than misery and loneliness.

From Crisis to Community

Today, the camp stands as a living monument to what is possible when communities come together to start a new, more hopeful life. Conditions in the camp are still horrific. There are some things that are difficult to install without a stable population and huge resources: sanitation, heating, good roads.

But the migrants, supported by volunteers and the resources that they bring, have built a small, but functional, town of 7,000 citizens. There are a dozen thriving restaurants and cafes, and countless shops selling everything from Coca-Cola to children’s toys. There is a theatre space, a hairdresser, several mosques, and a church.

Neither riot police nor marauding facists could not hold down the strength of ordinary civilian cooperation and solidarity. The camp is now a town.

(Photography by Amy Corcoran,

It is worth stating that the few hundred volunteers, mostly from Britain and France, didn’t make the camp what it is today, but they did provide untold resources, without which it would not be so established. The French authorities cannot act against the camp now: the genie is out of the bottle. Too many people have seen the careless horror for themselves, and are willing to fight the system.

It’s not a model utopia by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a frightening vision of a world without rulers. Frightening, that is, for the rulers. This new suburb of Calais is here to stay, as long as we continue to value their community.

Dunkerque: No Second Mistake

The French have recently announced the opening of a refugee camp in Dunkirk, built according to UN refugee camp standards, with heated tents, running water and sanitation. I fear that they have learnt from their mistakes in Calais, that they will not allow civil society into this camp.

If entry and exit is controlled, if the flow of resources is stemmed and controlled by the French authorities, then there can be no spontaneous outpouring of solidarity and compassion, of the kind that helps integrate new migrant communities into society.

Conditions in the Dunkerque camp might be better than in Calais: migrants might be warmer, better fed, and less likely to fall ill. But there will be no relative freedom, and no connection with communities in France and Britain. Migrants will be separated from the rest of us again, turned back into prisoners or animals, their human face erased.

Being a refugee is about much more than heated tents: it’s about finding a new home. That means integrating into your new local community, and finding an outlet for your talents as a mechanic, chef, barber, or carpenter, not just among your fellow refugees, but within your new society as a whole. That is all any of us want, and I fear that it will not be permissable in the new camp at Dunkerque.

We wait to see what will happen in Dunkirk. I have sympathy with those who feel that any increase in the material welfare of migrants is a good thing, but remember that happiness isn’t just a heated tent. If the French want a repeat of the Sangatte refugee camp riots of 2001/02 (and there is ample to suggest that this is exactly what they want, conclusive evidence that these people are sub-human), then they are going exactly the right way about it, by cutting migrants off from our community.

They thought that they could starve the migrants of Calais into submission. They were wrong. But they won’t make the mistake of allowing civil society such freedom again. So go now, do your work.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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