The Economy of Line-line-line, Blankets and Chai

Written May 2016, reflecting on experiences in  January – March. I use the term ‘Jungle’ to refer to the informal settlement of refugees/migrants outside Calais town as it is nearly universally used colloquially, and has been for many years. It is increasingly acknowledged as an ‘unofficial’ refugee camp. French authorities plan to evict the entire place starting on the 17th October. It’s going to be grim. 

“Jungle no good, mushkila kibil, but jungle mafi mushkila, mushkila europeana, walai mushkila europeanos that don’t understand what it is to be a refugee but they think they know everything. And mushkila kibil zup abbas of course, I am with the afghan bambinos on that one”

‘The Jungle’ Economy in Calais is unique, shaped by its own set of intersections of local, regional and global socioeconomic and cultural forces. It generates its own pidgin dialects, borrowing from Londonese, Arabic and the exact enunciation of English as a foreign language speakers.

‘Line-line-line’ is a command that has been transformed into a verb. ‘Fancy a line-line-line, or shall we eat in resto?’ Queueing is, of course, a famous English behaviour, and when there is a scarcity of goods ready to distribute, the line is the simplest method to impose order. However, it is potluck what will be available at the end of the line, and refugees have to plan their day around distribution times, for which there is no centralised information point.

“No pushing. You must queue. If you want to come to HEngland hyou MUST learn to do this”. A middle aged woman’s voice becomes shrill and angry, her face reddens and her lips purse shut as humbled brown bodies shuffle back into a line after a false alarm at a distribution point. I sketch the incident in my notebook as a queue snaking back like the classic Thatcherite unemployment posters and caption it ‘be civilised and English, you must learn this to deserve our charity’.

Another morning it is raining. We are with our Sudanese hosts, and having touched on some heavy topics the evening before, are drinking sweet milk and coffee with distribution bread and talking about the weather. Someone knocks on the door, and their dripping wet head pokes in, saying ‘blankets? you like to have 3 blankets?’ “Chai?” our host invites them to cross the threshold. They peer in, refusing ‘oh no, I am working’.

The house is already insulated with blankets, with spare blankets stacked on every bed. These people are ‘machinas’ – they have lived in the jungle a long time. They accept three more blankets: they can be swapped for food or other goods. However, the refusal of chai exposes that they are given as charity, not as a gift exchange. Two volunteers are using their best camping gear, and the energy that comes from sleeping in a hostel bed and taking a shower in the morning, to distribute in the rain. Half an hour later another three blankets are delivered – this time the donor accepts a taste of stew, and indulgent chuckles ripple through the room – the joke being how hard these happy jungles work, without coming far enough inside a house or staying long enough to know what is needed.

Volunteers value the ‘dignity’ of refugees. However, where is the dignity when distribution takes place through ritualised forms of power play?  When ‘unsuitable’ suits are hung up on the refugee-free warehouse wall of shame? Where is the dignity when there is no place to clean dirty clothes – people’s bodies being the only washing lines? But why would people who have travelled across the world without papers look for dignity to be handed to them on a plate? Dignity is everywhere in the Jungle, in strength and patience and community and laughter. The jungle is not the real problem.

However, there is an undercurrent of well-founded anger and resentment, at the governments of Europe, at the fascists of Calais, at the swarms of journalists, and of volunteers whose actions make no sense. If someone claims to be working, who are they working for? If they are working for themselves, why don’t they stop to accept tea? If they are working for a boss, who is that boss, and where is the money coming from: France or England? Why is Europe, this so called developed country, displaying such poorly organised and un-coordinated services? The chaos of the ‘Jungle’ can look from below like a deliberately orchestrated effort to keep refugees as second class people, to maintain them living in conditions of ‘bare life’ while the state operates in an extended state of emergency.