Insights from Calais: The Hungry Road


A makeshift library in the Jungle. Photo by Katja Ulbert.

People around the world were propelled into action at the sight of little Alan Kurdi’s body lying alone on the sand. The tragedy of displacement is often communicated by images of bodies on beaches and packed sinking boats. But if Alan Kurdi had been alive to tell his story, if he had arrived on that shore and spent his days with his family in a camp waiting for their next journey, would we have listened to them?

Today across Europe there are growing numbers of refugees who have survived dangerous travels in the search for safe ground. For many, their journeys have come to a stop at a refugee camp in Calais, France called the ‘Jungle’ by its residents. Now inhabited by over 6,000 refugees, the makeshift camp has become a site of violence, death, and desperate conditions. Lives are endangered during daily attempts to leave the camp and cross into the United Kingdom aboard trains, lorries, and ferries. Meanwhile, the UK and French governments continue to build stricter security measures at the surrounding border crossings.

Continuously the subject of media headlines and political fear-mongering, rarely are these individuals given the time and space to share their stories and ideas. The Hungry Road, a radio documentary by Bairbre Flood, addresses this neglect by handing the microphone over to camp residents to share their experiences arriving at the Jungle and the desperate conditions that they have been living in since. After reading a column by Flood in Refugees Deeply, where she wrote of spending four months in the Jungle to “to hear the stories without prejudice and to allow people to speak unfiltered,” I decided to give The Hungry Road a listen.

Flood meets a group of refugees in the camp on a hunger strike, who had sewn their lips shut in protest of the camp’s conditions. The catalyst, a spokesperson explains, was the demolition of shelters by French authorities. He clarifies further, “this is nothing special for themselves, the guys who are on hunger strike, they are thinking about the whole camp,” “they want everybody [to] have a better life.” It had been 13 days without food.

Others reflect on the threats to their lives that brought them to France. Flood meets a man from Afghanistan who fled after ISIS killed his father and the threat to his own life became imminent. “To be alive, that’s why I came here,” he says, recounting his migration through eight countries and rescue from a sinking boat off the coast of Turkey.


Bird’s eye view of the Calais Jungle. Photo by malachybrowne.

Several provide commentary on the media and the political impasse that have left them stranded. One man spent two years in Greece but was forced to leave when his papers expired and he was refused renewal. In a telling moment, one man explains why he does not want to interview: “It’s not working, this media thing,” he says, explaining that many correspondents had descended on the camp to fill news stories, but the resulting one-hour specials had not brought any changes to those living there.

Challenges to Britain and its refusal to accept more refugees bring government responses to the displacement crisis into focus. One man articulates the frustration: “People, you know they’re talking about human rights, human rights, and they say they are helping in the Middle East, we are just 30 miles away from them, just in the middle of Europe, nobody helps us here.” “It’s all about England because they are paying millions and millions of pounds to not let refugees enter England and they are paying for fences, for tear gas.” “It’s such a waste of money, if they spend just at least 10% of this money on refugees everyone gonna have a better life.”

These narratives are joined by voices of volunteers, workers, and advocates united in their disbelief over the treatment of the camp’s residents. They call into question the unwillingness of nations to accept the similarities between today’s global displacement and migrations of the past. The documentary’s title is a nod to the starvation and displacement in Ireland’s history during the Great Famine, where an estimated 2 million were cast into migration between 1845 and 1855.

Not all perspectives in the camp are reflected. Missing from Flood’s interviews are the voices of refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, and other countries that make up the camp’s demographics. The experiences of women are also largely unaccounted for. These are shortcomings that require attention here and in the broader media coverage of refugee migration. But the importance of hearing those we are introduced to should not be overlooked. Flood’s notably absent voice leaves the space to be filled with harrowing stories and insights from those often silenced.

The experiences and ideas of people forced to flee from their homes are often left out of the global conversation on migration but documentaries like The Hungry Road provide us opportunities to listen to them. The more we listen, perhaps the greater will be our capacity to think of refugees, as the ‘vanguard of their peoples’[1] rather than bodies on beaches. For those in The Hungry Road, all they are asking for today is to start again.

Claire Ellis holds an MA in Immigration and Settlement Studies from Ryerson University where she researched people-smuggling policy and the discourse surrounding refugee migration. She is coordinator at the ESPMI Network, an international network of emerging scholars and practitioners on migration issues. Find her on twitter @ClaireM_Ellis


[1] Arendt, Hannah. “We Refugees.” Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile. Ed. Marc Robinson. (1994).







One comment

  1. […] at risk across Europe. On Britain’s doorstep, 600 are estimated to be alone in the sand of the Calais “Jungle”. At least 129 children have gone missing from the camp since last summer. A local NGO recently […]


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