Emptiness and Refugee Camps

From the Series: Emptiness

Image by Ricardo Hernandez.

The so-called “Jungle” in Calais, which existed between 2015 and 2016, was constructed on a former city dump, located next to a large highway, beyond an industrial area on the eastern edge of Calais. Like many empty spaces, this land was already far from empty: filled with trash and the remains of consumer goods buried under a layer of earth, with birdlife and a small lake surrounded by long grass and sand dunes, with the sound of lorries thundering past and tall chimneys that overlooked the site from a neighboring chemical factory on the western side.

Sand dunes, fence, and a nearby chemical factory. Photo by Tom Scott-Smith.

The name Jungle derives from the Pashtu dzjangal, referring to a hidden spot, often behind branches and around the edges of town, where migrants camp away from the sight of the police. Since the early 1990s a number of these jungles had come and gone around Calais, periodically cleared as their inhabitants were detained, deported, or moved to formal “humanitarian” centers like the one at Sangatte in the early 2000s. The Jungle of 2015 was just the most recent and most spectacular of these settlements, created after a round of other jungles being cleared. The police pointed to this large patch of marginal land and labeled it a “tolerated” zone for settlement, and an empty land began to be filled with people (Agier 2018; Hicks and Mallet 2019).

Refugee camps are often built on barren lands like this, located near borders and away from cities. They usually begin with a cleared space, which is then filled with shelters, services, fences, and then people fleeing elsewhere. The common idea of the refugee camp is a place created by the state, designed to care and contain refugees until some kind of “durable solution” has been found. The classic media image of a refugee camp involves long lines of identical tents or shelters, a sterile and ordered zone. Camps, however, are diverse in form, architecture, governance, and origins. Many—like the Calais Jungle—are not created by states in order to maintain the “national order of things” (Malkki 1995) but are the result of refugees trying to subvert that very order.

The Calais Jungle was like this, built from the bottom up by refugees and other migrants with waste wood, tarpaulin, nails, and wooden pallets. These materials were made not just into simple shelters but also more elaborate buildings such as mosques, libraries, cafes, schools, and a large church. By the end of 2015 the Jungle had become a settlement of around ten thousand with a vibrant social scene, populated largely by people who spent their nights trying to reach the United Kingdom from France. At the same time, however, the camp was surrounded and monitored by police. It was a site of resistance to borders, but also a place where noncitizens could be monitored by the authorities.

Graffiti near the site of the Jungle. Photo by Tom Scott-Smith

There is a tendency to frame refugee camps theoretically as technologies of power, generating some version of Agambenian “bare life” (e.g., Edkins 2000), or alternatively as vibrant social spaces that incubate resistance, agency, and new identities (e.g., Owens 2009). Often camps have elements of both, but they are always inherently temporary places (McConnachie 2016). Camps may last for years—even decades—but they are intended, at the moment of creation, to be impermanent. Whether constructed from the top down or the bottom up, they are built on lands deemed to be empty or marginal, and they often return these lands to emptiness.

By the middle of 2016, local pressure was building to clear the growing settlement of the Jungle, which was becoming increasingly crowded. At its height I had sat at the very center of the camp on the battered sofas of refugee-owned restaurants, speaking to people from all over the world while looking over a pond framed by carpeted decks. The Jungle had been built from nothing, and it had an attractive vibrancy, but its form always had the air of a ruin. By the end October 2016 the police finally moved in to completely bulldoze the site. I visited the camp for the last time, on a crisp December morning in 2016, and saw the ruins. The camp was now empty of people but littered with objects joining the remnants of the dump beneath the earth. Machinery churned away in the background, and by then all that was left were a few fragments of shelter, buried and burnt, some pens and pieces of jigsaw where a school once stood, sandals and sleeping bags showing what remained of people’s homes. The Jungle had begun with emptiness, and it ended with emptiness. Artists had begun collecting some remnants to tell poignant stories of those that had moved while their possessions remained behind (e.g., Mendel 2017).

Pens and pieces of jigsaw buried in the sand. Photo by Tom Scott-Smith.

The bulldozers worked for days to bury the remains of the Jungle, and eventually the site returned to something like its previous form. By early 2017 the material conditions of emptiness were similar to before, with the old city dump now covered with another layer of ruined objects, but the symbolism of the site had changed. On the surface it was just sand dunes and long grass once again, but the site was still used by many migrants, who had retreated into the neighboring countryside and were now living in smaller groups in hedgerows and fields. They would sleep in bushes, meet in verges, occasionally gather in the long grass, but would always be ready to disperse with minimal material traces at any sign of the police. Maria Hagan (2020, 112) described this as the “contingent camp”: a camp that still existed in the margins, but had been “denied material consolidation.”

Meanwhile, the site of the Jungle was repurposed by the authorities as a nature reserve. From being neglected urban wasteland, it was now designated as properly empty of people. The land had always been filled with life of various forms, but now it was designated as a temporary home for wildlife, and in particular a coastal reserve for migratory birds. This was a purpose, as Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet (2019, 24) observed, that was seemingly decided upon without a hint of irony.

Bulldozed land repurposed as a nature reserve. Photo by Tom Scott-Smith.


Agier, Michel. 2018. The Jungle: Calais’s Camps and Migrants. Medford, Mass.: Polity.

Edkins, Jenny. 2000. “Sovereign Power, Zones of Indistinction, and the Camp.” Alternatives: Local, Global, Political 25, no. 1: 3–25.

Hagan, Maria. 2020. “The Contingent Camp: Struggling for Shelter in Calais, France.” In Structures of Protection? Rethinking Refugee Shelter, edited by Tom Scott-Smith and Mark E. Breeze, 111–22. Oxford: Berghahn.

Hicks, Dan, and Sarah Mallet. 2019. Lande: The Calais “Jungle” and Beyond. Bristol, UK: Bristol University Press.

Malkki, Liisa. 1995. “Refugees and Exile: From 'Refugee Studies' to the National Order of Things.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24, no. 1: 495–523.

McConnachie, Kirsten. 2016. “Camps of Containment: A Genealogy of the Refugee Camp.” Humanity 7, no. 3: 397–412.

Mendel, Gideon. 2017. Dzangal. London: Gost Books.

Owens, Patricia. 2009. “Reclaiming ‘Bare Life’: Against Agamben on Refugees.” International Relations 23, no. 4: 567–82.