An Imam and Rabbi Visit Calais

Imam Qari Asim (@QariAsim) reflects on his visit to the Calais ‘Jungle’.

Thousands of refugees have walked thousands of miles only to end up in ‘The Jungle’, a desperate camp in Calais. The Jules Ferry camp in Calais, also known as the ‘Jungle’, is the second large encampment in the area. The camp residents are mainly men; there seem to be only a couple of hundred women and children who tend to remain out of sight. The refugees are largely from Syria, Sudan, and Eritrea but also include young men from Afghanistan and Pakistan.  

I travelled with a Rabbi, Laura Janner-Klaunser, to Calais to help the refugees but also to showcase that faith leaders were united on the issue of finding an effective and sustainable solution to the refugees crisis. We contributed towards the food, clothing and shelter of the refugees. Our trip was not simply about taking donations to the refugees but rather to learn about the lives and motives of those in the camp. The plight of migrants matters deeply to many within the Muslim and Jewish communities in Britain. Therefore, it was a fact-finding trip so that we could better inform our communities. We visited the settlement, meeting the people and capturing a flavour of life in the settlement, alongside the risks many take trying to get across the border to the UK.

The condition of the refugees and migrants is unbearable and unacceptable in modern day Europe. Those conditions are not consistent with the kind of values that Europe has. People are living in tenants, burning wood and even plastic, outside their tents, to make food and a pot of tea.

As the crisis has grown and political situation has intensified, the Jules Ferry camp has developed flimsy social and economic structures. Local and national charities provide for the many cultural and religious groups who find themselves rubbing shoulders in a confined space. 

The Condition inside the Jungle

A mirage of infrastructure has been created. For most of its inhabitants, the Jungle is a transit camp, not a permanent settlement, but there are the rudimentary trappings of a community. There are shops, restaurants medical camps, libraries etc inside the encampment area. I learnt that a school has been providing French lessons to residents for several months; English classes and other activities are also included. Local French and English residents help out.

There are mosques and churches which offer regular services. Some residents seem to be devout individuals with a deep sense of spirituality. Muslims and Christians live side-by-side and are united in their suffering and humiliation. Their unity and solidarity was an inspiration to our faith delegation.

We same that the Camp residents sometimes queue for hours for food and other supplies, including medical aid. Physical ill-health such as broken limbs, as well as psychological problems (especially as a result of crossing the Mediterranean) are common issues.

Some of the locals bring several generators on site every day to help the residents of the jungle charge mobile phones, access Wi-Fi to make contact home and with their friends.

Refugees prepared to take any risk

The majority of the refugees had travelled for days, in dire conditions, risking their lives, paying substantial amounts to smugglers to help them cross the Eurotunnel, that connects the two countries, so that they could reach Britain.  Hundreds have died in an attempt to undertake this journey to Britain. The residents of Calais told me that out of desperation and frustration all methods are used by those who have got nothing to cling onto except their own life – they are clinging underneath lorries, travelling on dinghies, life-boats, walking along the rail-tracks for hours in the middle of the night, with sleeping bags in the hope that they can reach Britain. One of the refugees said:

“I had no choice but to leave and try and find something better.” I just want to leave peacefully and safely. I wanted to be treated as human and not an insect. None will choose to live in such conditions out of choice. We have no choice.”

Hospitable and courteous

Despite the dire outward human condition, the  refugees were incredibly generous, hospitable, funny, and energetic. Living in the ‘Jungle’ had not stripped them of their humanity; overall, they were neither destructive nor selfish, rather dignified and gracious.  When our delegation went to the tenant of three Sudanese young men, they were insistent that we share their meal with them. When we persistently declined the offer, they felt offended. This meaningful act of charity displayed human spirit at its best.

People were courteous and wanted to tell their story of fleeing from violence, and persecution, and now facing depravation and desperation.  The donations of British people were graciously received. One of the residents of the camp told that when he was in Macedonia, he was not fed at all. For three days, he had nothing to eat and survived on water, whereas in Calais he was receiving the bare minimum food, courtesy of British and other people.

We must not forget that these refugees have been pushed towards the EU; they are forced out of their countries by violence, persecution and war. Some of the residents are We met, accountants, engineers, teachers and lawyers. These people had a reasonably successful life-style in their countries but due to conflicts and violence, they had to flee their country. Their expertise, skill-set and hard-working ethics means that they want to contribute to the economy of a country, rather than become dependent on the state. However, lack of a co-ordinated international policy towards refugees has resulted in demonization. “I’m a human like you”, said one of the inhabitants of the camp.

The international community needs a new moral compass in the context of the growing number of refugees travelling to Europe. A new co-ordinated legal system of dealing with the refugees must be developed by the international community.



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