Life stories in the Jungle

Finnsperts logo

By: Aura Lounasmaa

Jungle houses dangerous animals, creepy crawlies and predators. In the Jungle there is no law, no order, no humanity. In the Jungle you learn to live like an animal. Jungle is dangerous, and yet intriguing. The media wants to get a look inside. Many want to go and help; visit; see; witness. Misguided, or perhaps deliberately misleading political campaigns were using the Jungle as a rationale for Brexit. For those on the outside, the idea of the camp as Jungle helps dehumanise the animals inside; only animals can live like this. This has been perpetuated by some of the media coverage from the Jungle, as shown in a recent report by Sumuvuori et al[i].

Zimako Jones, a refugee, an activist and founder of Ecole Laïque de Chemin des Dunes in the Calais unofficial refugee camp talks about the Jungle as a Forum, a new city, the true Calais. Choosing to call it by another name does not change the effect the Jungle has on forming public consciousness about the ‘refugee crisis’, the ‘swarm of migrants’ or the ‘benefit surfers’.

The camp in Calais is currently home to an estimated 5,000 people, including some 568 children, of whom 74% unaccompanied[ii]. During the winter these numbers were nearly twice as high. Fires, partly started as part of violent clashes between groups of residents, as was reported by the French police, but mostly due to the stun grenades used by the police themselves, are frequent. There is a shortage of food, shelters, clothes, blankets and clean water. Sanitation and waste control are intermittent. The camp sits on an old landfill with toxic waste. France is accepting asylum claims from the camp, but processing times are currently long and even after claiming, although accommodation should be provided, it is not currently available to all.

Most camp residents want to make their way to the UK across the channel on ferries, lorries or the Eurostar. Some want to come to the UK because they have family and friends here, others because they speak English and feel there is a better chance of building a life here, yet others because British involvement in the internal politics of their home countries has made them uninhabitable. People from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq are fleeing either Al Qaeda, ISIS, or both. Their question to us is: “Where should I go? If I stay in my country, the ISIS/Al Qaeda will kill me. If I join them to stay alive and keep my family safe, the British will bomb me. Yet, you don’t want me here.”

The recent Dubs amendment to the immigration bill means that unaccompanied minors from the camp can apply for asylum in the UK, although none have so far received one. A test case is also being heard regarding those who have served the British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and are thus persecuted in their countries. Others will have to make it across the channel to make a claim, as the UK fears that accepting asylum applications from the Jungle would create a precedent and attract more people to make the perilous journey across the Aegean Sea and through Europe to reach Northern France. At least this is the official story by the Home Office. For the residents of the camp the Jungle remains untamed, unclean and unsafe. It is a sore reminder of the empty words of Western democratisation and human rights discourses. Residents express disbelief to have arrived at these conditions in the middle of Europe, where they thought they would be safe.

Beyond the misery and squalor, the Jungle is also a place where more than 20 nationalities and different religions, most coming from areas of war and conflict, live together, build lives, cafes, libraries and schools, volunteer at distribution centres, work as translators, write, take photos, paint and draw, form friendships, miss their families – and dream of a future. Although the conditions are inhumane, humanity survives and thrives.

Stable governance is difficult due to continuous changes in people and structures; evacuations and demolitions of existing structures by French authorities and continuous harassment and violence by the police, the human traffickers controlling the routes to the UK along with local mobs. Clashes between groups of residents are not uncommon. Yet, forms of deliberative government have emerged, with representatives, open meetings and a body of residents who actively negotiate with volunteer organisations and state actors on behalf of the residents. A large number of volunteers, together with the residents, run educational programmes, children’s centres, art therapy sessions, photography and drama courses, provide equipment and training for a radio station, library, schools, distribute food, clothing, sanitary products, build shelters and service and cultural centres, provide legal aid and medical services. The Jungle is full of humans, refusing to be brought to their knees.

I am teaching a university course on Life Stories in the Jungle in Calais, initiated by Professor Corinne Squire and run as a short course through the Social Sciences in UEL. The course consists of reading philosophical, political and biographical texts, including writings by Mandela, Plato, Malcom X and Selvon. Life stories are understood in this context as multimodal, incorporating visual and oral forms of telling, and politically and socially situated. As part of the course we have organised photography workshops, led by photographers Gideon Mendel and Crispin Hughes, a poetry workshop and discussion by a UK based refugee poet JJ Bola and finally in June a discussion about access to refugees and asylum-seekers to higher education in UK and elsewhere in Europe. 19 students were enrolled on term 2 in 2016 and 11 of those completed coursework using photos, recordings and written text as their medium for storytelling. The submissions were done through handwriting, recordings and other medium as computer and online access in the camp is scarce. The course has given some students the tools and the drive to pursue further formal education, either through programmes opening up in different European universities for asylum-seekers or through initiatives such as Kiron University[iii].

UK universities have also offered opportunities to refugees in light of the refugee crisis, including some direct access education in UK institutions and various scholarship schemes falling under the Article 26 principle of education as human right[iv]. The scholarships are all offered in different terms and actual availability and take-up of offers is currently unclear. The UK is committed to admitting 20,000 Syrian refugees in the next five years, selected on the eligibility criteria of most vulnerable people[v], and are unlikely to be in a position to begin or continue higher education directly upon their arrival in the UK. The UK universities, beyond our short course, are out of reach to most of the residents in the Jungle, yet there is a will to open up and welcome refugees in our HE community.

The short course has inspired some students to pursue further education, but as their chances of arriving and getting asylum in the UK are small, one might ask, why should this be of concern to UK institutions. We come back to what the Jungle means. The Jungle is out there, in a different country, across a sea. Perhaps, some of us tell ourselves, if we are no longer part of Europe, the Jungle will move even further, across another border. In reality however, the Jungle is one hour away from London. I step out of the Jungle, get on a train and I am in St Pancras, on the tube. I am transformed by the ease of that journey into a human, whereas my students, whom I left behind, become the animals we made them into,  just because they stay behind.

So what am I doing? What is my contribution? What separates me from the dehumanising gaze of the press and other onlookers? The division is not easy. Volunteer organisations and individuals go to great lengths to fundraise, to build, donate and help make life in the Jungle a little more bearable every day. A great deal of development literature is dedicated to showing the problems of poverty tourism which, although may be inspired by good intentions, has the result of further victimising the recipients of such voluntary efforts and constructing the recipients as objects of Western gaze[vi].

The Jungle has brought poverty tourism within our easy reach and we can now enter, bravely, the squalor, the dirt and the smell, take our souvenirs, our photos and stories and show them at home. However good the intentions behind such charitable trips are, the effects are always conflictual. On one hand, meeting people, looking at another human in the eye and saying hello, is an act of humanity. Taking that act and making it part of the greater discourse about the Jungle will, on the other hand, always contribute to the discursive construction of the place as othering. The Dublin agreement can also bring legal consequences to those whose images, names or stories have been taken and shared with or without their permission.

There is no easy way to make change. There are stories that need telling, but telling them right is a difficult task. Life Stories in the Jungle aims to equip students to access higher education, but also to think about, and to tell that story themselves. One of the outcomes of the course will be a book, co-authored by our students and due to be published by Pluto Press next year, Voices from the Jungle. In addition, through the course we continue to meet students and tell them their thoughts, ideas and futures matter.  



Dr Aura Lounasmaa is a lecturer in the University of East London School of Social Sciences, a research fellow at the Centre for Narrative Research and part of a team of academics teaching an accredited university short course ‘Life Stories in the Jungle’ in the Calais refugee camp in France. The course will continue this year in Calais as well as in the UK with refugee organisations. Aura completed her PhD in the Global Women’s Studies Centre at the National University of Ireland, Galway, in 2014, funded by the IRCHSS. Her research focuses on women’s political activism in Morocco.  


[i] Sumuvuori, Vähäsöyrinki, Eerolainen, Lindvall, Pasternak, Syrjälä and Talvela (2016) Refugees and asylum seekers in press coverage, London and Luxemburg: Finnish Institute,

[ii] UK based Help Refugees and a French organisation l’Auberge des Migrants, both working closely with residents in the camp providing services, conduct quarterly census of the camp to keep track of official numbers. The last one took place in May. For more information see

[iii] Kiron is an NGO based in Germany allowing refugees to begin university courses online before their resettlement in any European country

[iv] 30 UK universities are currently offering scholarships for refugees and asylum seekers under the Article 26 network, coordinated by the Helena Kennedy Foundation

[v] Gower and Politowski (2016) Syrian Refugees and the UK response, Briefing Paper 06805, London: House of Commons Library

[vi] See for example


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: