Michael Rees-Lightfoot & Jaz Blom have been active figures in the movement to provide support, aid and solidarity to the thousands of displaced refugees in France’s most notorious refugee camp, the Calais “Jungle”. The camp was recently demolished, relocating 6,000 asylum seekers to temporary reception centers or informal settlements near the ports of northern France. In the process, many migrants have found themselves stranded on the streets of Paris. These images document what life was like in Calais, exposing the squalid conditions endured by refugees today.
Rees-Lightfoot and Blom's photo-book, "Welcome to the Jungle," is available here.
The authors write:
The decision to volunteer in Calais arose mainly as a means of aid and support to the people living in the Jungle, but also out of curiosity for what life was really like on a day-to-day basis for these people. We were interested in knowing more about the issues they faced in the present, and for the future. Like many of us, we felt a sense of helplessness at Calais. Being documentary photographers, we felt that documenting our short time in the camp would help better peoples’ understanding about the importance of current government policies for refugees and asylum seekers within Australia and internationally.
Watching the beginning of the demolition of “The Jungle”, the notorious migrant camp on the outskirts of Calais, has brought many mixed emotions for us now, as did it during our time volunteering there in July.
There is no doubt that the conditions under which people lived in the camp were terrible, and getting worse, despite the best efforts of aid organizations on the ground. After all the state sanctioned slum was previously rubbish dump and migrants lived in wooden shelters, donated tents and under tarps through bitter and intolerable winters.
Life in the camp has been tough and miserable, so to have the opportunity to be relocated to proper housing and given the opportunity for asylum and integration in France is a positive development. However we think the French government is being a little naïve to think that migrants and refugees will stop coming to Calais in an attempt to cross the English Channel to the United Kingdom. Ultimately, the camp was composed of people trying to enter the UK, and for a lot of its residents that still hasn’t changed. The dismantling of the camp probably won’t stop refugees and migrants coming to Calais, especially with no sign of the global refugees crisis improving.
Most people living in the camp will now be relocated to various temporary housing around France, travel to different parts of Europe in hope of being granted Asylum or continuing trying to illegally cross the English channel.
Naturally we are worried about the people we met during our time in the camp. One of the most difficult things about volunteering was the fact that at the end of the day, you leave and go back to your normal life knowing that others stay on. And that’s one of the most heart-wrenching of feelings. No matter how much you help, sympathize and empathize with people, you can’t trade places with them and this makes you feel very helpless.
The feeling of helplessness was why we went to Calais in the first place. We had been very passionate refugee advocates for a long time. But always felt very powerless with regards to what’s going on in Europe. We were travelling in Europe and we found an NGO called Care For Calais, so we decided we decided to spend a few weeks volunteering there.
If you’ve ever volunteered for an organization in a crisis situation, you’ll always find yourself amongst a wide assortment of different personalities. Lost or broken, you’ve all got one thing in common. That’s what the long term volunteers joked about: ‘ people must be crazy to come here and volunteer in these conditions, “they must be either lost of broken!” But soon we too understood why people ended up there, and why some people ended up staying so long. Because everyone has the same common goal: no matter who you are or where you’re from, you’re there to help other people have a better life.
We soon discovered that the bonds our friends had made with these refugees were incredibly strong. And yes we were all there to help hand out food, help with visa applications and building shelters, which were all very important. But in reality, sharing experiences over a meal or simply taking the time to be a friend and listen to people was more important. We soon became aware of how much these people became like family especially to our fellow long-term volunteers. And the realization that anyone of this people was like you and me became evermore transparent.
It might sounds strange but we actually we enjoyed our time in Calais and found it very difficult to leave. Despite the overwhelming sad circumstances of why we were there. We met amazing people from all over the world including people living in the camp and other volunteers. There was something liberating about being there, everyone equal no matter your back ground or circumstances. And you forget about your dreams and ambition in our over-privileged lives.
Our time in Calais cleared up many misconceptions we had about what about the situation. As terrible as the living conditions and daily malaise were, it was amazing to see how resilient the migrants were, they had created a town out of nothing, a main street with restaurants and were always warm and hospitable. We thought there would be mostly Syrians living in the camp but in reality they were the minority, most people came from war torn countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea. Most had walked across Europe arriving with only the clothes on their backs, exhausted, distraught and terribly hungry. Up to 100 new arrivals each day. Of the estimated 9000 people living in the camp about 90 percent were young men, with around 800 children, half of which were unaccompanied. The experience led us to a fundamental realization that the people living in the camp were really no different to us. We ate, socialized, worked and became friends with the people we met. They were doctors, professors and students. However there is a difference between them and us. They were born in countries where bombs are being dropped in their children, they have lost their homes and all they want is peace.
One of the hardest things about our time in Calais was talking about how Australia treats refugees and our offshore detention regime. I don’t think it altered our opinion much on Australia’s refugee policies because we have always thought it was despicable, but we feel a greater shame and embarrassment than ever before. It’s really hard to tell someone how nice of a place Australia is, a country with supposedly the highest standard of living on earth. When we lock up innocent women and children in island jails who are just trying to escape war and poverty. It’s a sad day when you feel embarrassed to talk about the place you call home because it has the cruelest treatment of refugees on the planet. We hope in some small way our photos can open further dialogue about treating refugees more humanly and create social and political change.