Breaking barriers in the Calais jungle

Sudanese men singing in Calais, celebrating Eid © Hannah Kirmes-Daly

The origins of the refugee camp close to Calais, which became known as the ‘Jungle’ has a troubled history, which dates back over fifteen years. At that time, and as a result of the large number of migrants gathering around Calais hoping to cross to the United Kingdom, a holding centre run by the French Red Cross was established in a deserted warehouse in Sangatte. Very rapidly this facility became overcrowded and, with people living in increasingly squalid conditions, it was closed in 2002.

During the next decade, numerous small unofficial camps sprung up all around the Calais region. Where camps appeared the French authorities quickly bulldozed them.

The Jungle camp began as an open-air shantytown in early 2015.   By the time of its destruction in October 2016, it was estimated that close to 10,000 migrants were living there.

SOAS alumni, Hannah Kirmes-Daly (BA Development Studies and South Asian Studies) and Harriet Paintin (BA History) have been working on and off in the ‘Jungle’ since 2015 and spent several months in Calais before the destruction of the camp, recording the stories of the families and individuals who were living there.


Hannah and Harriet’s approach to journalism is focussed on making the process of listening to a story as collaborative and positive as possible.

They established Brush&Bow as a platform for creative journalism, using art and music as a way to connect with people and, through this, understand and represent individual and varied perspectives on contemporary social issues.

Hannah describes some of her experiences both in Calais and also in other refugee camps in Europe.

“Over the past year and a half we have worked in various makeshift refugee camps in Istanbul, Lesvos and Calais. We always carry with us our instruments, recording equipment, sketchbooks, and a drum to hand out wherever we go. This always seems to lead to curiosity and incredible moments of musical collaboration; or sometimes a personal story told reflectively whilst I sit and draw a portrait. Our methods continuously adapt depending on whether we are working with an individual, a group, men, women or children.

“Refugee camps in Europe often feel like a balance between extreme chaos and endless tedium.”

“Bringing music and art into these situations where there are often feelings of confusion, desperation and oppression can at times feel bizarre, but there are so many moments where it feels like it creates an island of normality, respect and humanity.”

Breaking down barriers

Hannah and Harriet’s approach has the potential to break down barriers of language, gender, ethnicity and class, in order to create an environment of shared confidences.

“Knowing that music can be a form of communication beyond language has opened up exciting opportunities for sharing and creation. The experience of being a refugee is incredibly disempowering, so having spaces, which acknowledge cultural pride and celebration is vital. Also, recognising that within traditional songs there are layers of history and identity, we wanted to create an environment to appreciate the songs and stories we carry with us. Likewise, reportage illustration is a way to slow down the process of journalism, so that sitting for 30 minutes to draw a portrait can be an invitation for conversation and a personal story. Often we will discover a group who have travelled together and I will sit and draw their journey, from their hometown to the present moment. It can be a strong experience of collective remembrance as they see their story reflected back to them through my pen.”

Putting theory into practice

Hannah’s time at SOAS was fundamental in teaching her to challenge and question many things, which she might previously have taken for granted.

“SOAS gave me a great foundation in the critical understanding of the political and social issues that cause migration.”

“However, on a human level, the combination of holding the label of being a ‘refugee’, and the journey of migration into an unprepared and unwelcoming environment is one of the most disempowering and disillusioning experiences people can face. There is so much variety in an individual’s perception of their lives: many would give anything to return to their home country, whilst others seek to establish themselves, their autonomy, their education, children and work afresh in a new country. Sitting with people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan, sharing sweet tea, the very human side of migration shines through; the incredible resourcefulness of people; the attempt to maintain a semblance of home, dignity and pride in their generosity and care. This is the strength of migration, which is often overlooked, that people are able to create a life and word hard if only they are given the opportunity.”

Looking to the future

Of the thousands of refugees who have been displaced from the Jungle camp a significant number have been taken to centres around France to be registered. However, a large number of former residents have simply disappeared, left to sleep rough in Calais and surrounding towns.

As Hannah concludes, the destruction of the Calais refugee camp has not brought about any kind of easy solution.

“The future is incredibly uncertain for most people who were living in the ‘Jungle’.”

“Those who have been taken to the various centres around France await the convoluted process of claiming asylum in France; many Afghani and Sudanese fear deportation. Others camp out in the fields away from the public eye, most likely to return to Calais after the French elections pass. The situation in Calais has been a constant for almost twenty years: evictions and deportations are no solution.

“Everyone who has experienced this process has valuable insights into potential solutions. Listening to individual experiences may lead to building a system, which does not disempower everyone who goes through it. European immigration structures need to develop to reflect an awareness that migration will always exist.

“Over the past 18 months refugees have seen incredible solidarity spring up across Europe, but also the disturbing rise of the political right and the ‘fear of the other’. I feel like it is more important than ever to be aware of what art and music can show us in breaking down barriers between cultural misconceptions; to shine a light on the gentle personal stories that allow us to connect, and the music which invokes the potential for collaboration and celebration.”

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