Dezeen Magazine

"The architectural community cannot remain apathetic to Calais' Jungle and the refugee crisis"

Opinion: last week, local authorities in Calais began destroying sections of the Jungle – the sprawling refugee and migrant camp that has become a symbol of Europe's immigration crisis. It's time that architects stepped in to help provide a solution that actually works, says architect Jeannie S Lee, who visited the camp with her London studio EVA.

After driving aimlessly through an industrial estate near the Calais channel tunnel in France, we stood in front of a nondescript gate outside a warehouse complex unsure if we were at the correct location.

Inside the gates we encountered a buzz of activity and there was music playing from somewhere. The energy was palpable and contagious. Dozens of volunteers were running about busy with various jobs. The initial appearance looked hectic and a bit chaotic but upon further observation the scene came into focus.

Every volunteer was clearly part of a team and each team was in charge of a specific task: one group was sorting through mounds of donated goods into perishable food items and non-food items, another team further sorted these piles into its designated storage area (duvets, jackets, shoes, etc). There were packers, loaders, cooks and drivers. An efficient hive of organised activities.

We were there to meet with Francois Guennoc, the secretary of L'Auberge des Migrants – a non-profit organisation dedicated to bringing humanitarian aid to the migrants of Calais. Francois was a gentle silver-haired man who welcomed us with open arms. He informed us that he had just returned to Calais after a month and half away at Lesbos assisting in the refugee camp.

He was talkative and energetic but the toll of the past months was visible. He was also nursing a violent cough, which he picked up in Lesbos. Prior to taking us to visit the Jungle, he gave us a tour of L'Auberge's operations at the rented warehouses, which are much more expansive than they would seem at first glance. He led us from one warehouse through back lots and doors into another.

The warehouse we arrived at was dedicated to the construction of shelters. L'Auberge has constructed over 1,000 shelters for the Jungle since October 2015.

At this point, before leading us into the construction area, Francois paused, turned to us and asked: "Why are you here?". This query was not judgemental or accusatory, just factual and honest. Why were we there? We took a moment and exchanged glances before answering: "We want to understand. We want to understand so that we may assist effectively."

For the past year our small London-based architecture studio has watched, with the rest of the world, the refugee situation across Europe escalate into a full-blown crisis. Given the magnitude and severity of these events, the lack of response from the architectural and design community has left us perplexed. Surely we, as architects, must have something to say and offer in regards to one of the most basic human rights: shelter.

Through our past and current work participating in the design and reconstruction of post-disaster areas such as earthquake recovery in Haiti, we have first-hand knowledge of how important architecture is to not only fulfilling the necessity of shelter, but also re-building and strengthening the spirit and identity of a community. So with a great desire to assist, but not provide a premature, self-serving design response that does not address the needs of the refugees, we have decided we must try and understand the situation in order to provide effective and informed assistance. Our visit to Calais was a crucial part of this journey.

We arrived at the Jungle in the afternoon. Nothing quite prepares you for what you find there. No amount of reading and research will provide the full picture of the complex organism that is the Jungle.

We approach the Jungle via Rue des Garennes, walking past visitors taking photos of the now infamous Banksy of Steve Jobs under the N216 flyover. The main entry path is more reminiscent of a high street in an early settlement than a refugee camp. The muddy dirt pathway is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants representing the many different cultures that make up the Jungle. There is even a barber and hostel amongst the churches and mosques. Mixed in with the refugees and migrants are aid workers, volunteers, members of the press and visitors.

Francois explains the Jungle is made up of areas or enclaves occupied by different nationalities and religions, mini communities within the larger – no different to any modern-day city. It takes us several hours to walk around the entirety of the camp. It is currently estimated to host 3,455 residents, with new refugees arriving daily. The camp has more than doubled in size in the past six months, experiencing a population explosion since the summer of 2015.

Given this rapid growth, the level of community organisation and existing infrastructure, although not adequate, is impressive and a testament to the residents' resilience and resourcefulness as well as the dedication of aid volunteers and organisations such as L'Auberge des Migrants and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Halfway through the tour we encounter what appears to be a storage lot for the world's cleanest, whitest shipping containers. This is the new camp recently constructed for 1,000 refugees, who will be relocated from the Jungle.

The sight of the containers is alien in the surrounding setting. The many problems of the container-housing plan are plainly evident. They are set up in dormitory style, sleeping up to 12-14 per container. There are no social or communal spaces and no cooking or kitchen facilities, instead ready-made meals will be served. It looks and operates like a detention centre.

It is disappointing to witness such a misuse of resources and wasted opportunity. It does not take a huge leap in one's imagination to know there could have been something different, something better. The only thing the container plan has accomplished is to demonstrate an utter lack of understanding of the situation at Calais.

Prior to our visit we had a desire to direct our attention to those most in need, and struggled with the notion of prioritising help for refugees fleeing war and persecution before able-bodied men who are economic migrants searching for opportunities. Both L'Auberge and MSF have a vetting process to try and give shelter to those most in need first (women, children and the sick).

This is a difficult task, and as with any social community there are those who take advantage and exploit situations. For example they have learned through practice that smaller shelters are best as the larger ones are usually taken over by organised gangs and beds are let out for a fee. Our visit, however, has brought about another level of understanding of human occupation and displacement. Should the distinction between refugee and economic migrant, although an important and legal one, really play a significant role in deciding the fate of the Jungle?

We have come to understand that the Jungle is a living, breathing organism with an energy of its own. It is above all a humanitarian cause that needs our help – but it is also an anthropological phenomenon of human space occupation.

It must be accepted that the Jungle is not just a temporary settlement but also a growing thriving village. The fear and reluctance of the local authority and surrounding residents to provide a permanent solution has perpetuated the indecent slum conditions in the informal settlement.

There must be a fundamental rethinking of what it means to provide emergency aid and temporary facilities for refugees of conflict and natural disasters. And architects must play a role in the challenge of finding a successful solution that bridges political acceptability, economic feasibility and humane decency.

The key may lie in seeing the transient population as a temporary community of people rather than individuals awaiting formal processing. The issue is not to provide permanent residence, but rather permanent humane infrastructure to house temporary residents.

There is also a need to recognise human nature's desire to appropriate and personalise space. Any plan must allow for this organic occupation within a regulated structure or it will fail. There are many examples of this failure in history, from the housing reservations for American Indians to Modernist attempts at social housing in the mid- to late-20th century.

We ended our tour with a lovely meal at one of the most popular restaurants in the Jungle, newly renamed Kabul Café. Francoise and Sikander, resident of the Jungle and owner of the café, shared a warm hug as he kindly ushered us to a large corner table. The café’s tent interior was warm and inviting and everyone inside, volunteers and residents alike, were smiling and conversing over amazing food. We left with our bellies, minds and spirits full.

After our visit, we heard rumours that the Calais local authority intended to clear portions of the camp. In the past few days this threat has materialised into action. The local authority has started to clear a large southern section of the camp near the entry. The residents were given notice, but hardly sufficient to move and relocate one's home, even if it is a temporary shack.

It is disheartening to see images in the media of the clearance. Books, bedding and clothes, the meagre personal possessions of camp residents abandoned in the evacuation now lie tangled in piles of rubble that were once homes. This last week has also seen unprecedented clashes between refugees and authorities across Europe.

It is an unsustainable situation that has started to reach a boiling point. It is time to develop a workable, permanent and humane solution to this issue. The architectural community cannot remain apathetic.

Jeannie Lee is co-founding director of EVA (Emergent Vernacular Architecture) with Andrea Panizzo. EVA is an architectural design studio dedicated to social and humanitarian architecture, and is based in London with a field office in Haiti. Previous to EVA, Jeannie was the director of the London office for Rafael Viñoly Architects.

More information about L'Auberge des Migrants can be found on the organisation's website and Facebook page.