One Onion

Jeremy Harding

How many asylum seekers have returned to Calais since the Jungle was dismantled in the autumn of 2016? A year after the camp’s residents were dispersed across France, nearly half opted for asylum from the French authorities and got it. But there are still people mustering in Calais – perhaps one thousand – and Grande-Synthe (near Dunkirk), hoping to reach the UK, where they have relatives and networks that can help them resettle, after arduous journeys from points east and south. The Calais Jungle had a poor press in Britain, and the recent arrivals on the Channel coast are faring no better. They also have a local enemy in the mayor, Natacha Bouchart, who rose to prominence during Nicolas Sarkozy’s bling-and-markets presidency. Last month Bouchart announced to the Daily Express: ‘They have smartphones and nice clothes. They’ve been told that they have rights, but no duties. They drink themselves senseless – they down litres of vodka – and get into fights.’ Well prepped, you can’t help thinking, for rapid assimilation in their dream destination, Brexit Britain.

If Bouchart’s generalisations are anywhere near the mark, we shouldn’t celebrate the destruction of the Jungle: despite its awfulness, it was run along consensual lines, which restrained the power of big men, gangs and predators. Residents from Darfur, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Syria, Congo DRC, Somalia, Pakistan, even Palestine helped to shape that consensus with the British and French volunteers. However rickety and flawed, the Jungle was a system: taking it apart was an invitation to new kinds of disorder.

There was addiction in the camp for sure. Ruthlessness also had its place. But as Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson show in their play The Jungle, until 9 January at the Young Vic, if the smugglers and fixers had the power to determine who went where and when, they didn’t always make unilateral choices. One character’s ‘good chance’ – his night to attempt a Channel crossing – is negotiated along with his crucial right to an onion. Onions, which deflected sniffer dogs as border patrols inspected trucks, became symbolic tickets to ride. In the play Safi, a Syrian steeped in Eng Lit, gives way to Okot, a young, vulnerable Darfuri. Their smuggler explains that there is only ‘one onion’ that night. Okot’s ‘good chance’ is driven by a volunteer teacher and supported by influential residents. Exhaustion has driven Safi, a spokesperson and moderator for a dozen different nationalities, to the end of his usefulness in the camp. Even so, he cedes his place.

The Joes – Murphy and Robertson – began working in the Jungle in 2015, where they set up Good Chance theatre in a fit of naive solidarity. The Good Chance tent came down with the rest of the Jungle’s makeshift infrastructure in 2016. It was one of the great volunteering successes in Calais. The Hope Show variety evenings were well attended by residents, and Good Chance clung on to life as a heap of plastic and aluminium poles and unfinished ideas after the Jungle was taken apart. The run at the Young Vic resuscitates the energy of Good Chance with a superb and lengthy retrospective of the Jungle’s heyday, casting three actors who came through Calais, and four or five other asylum seekers who arrived by other routes. It is also the prelude to another project from the Joes in Paris next year at La Bulle, a reception centre for migrants and refugees in Porte de la Chapelle, approved by the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, after Calais was closed down. Good Chance will be setting up two geodesic domes at La Bulle on 23 January and staying till the end of March, with theatre workshops, art, music and performances, including a weekly return of the Hope Show.

Police and CRS have regularly harassed migrants and asylum seekers around La Bulle. Those who register at the centre must have their fingerprints taken at a nearby police station: anyone who claimed asylum earlier, in another EU member state, could in theory be deported. So could those who believed they had claimed within the time limit (120 days after arriving in France), but are now discovering that prefectures hundreds of miles from the capital maintain that they never did. Last September, Utopia56, an NGO working with migrants and asylum seekers, decided to pull out of La Bulle and operate beyond its confines, helping migrants and asylum seekers on the streets of the 18th arrondissement. It would make sense for Good Chance to assemble one of its domes outside the fence that surrounds La Bulle. But the police wouldn’t allow it. After their success in Calais, Good Chance will have to think through the challenges in Porte de la Chapelle, where the line between support for a well-advertised state initiative and collusion with opaque forms of triage is a fine one.


  • 30 December 2017 at 8:06pm
    blueruin says:
    Are sniffer dogs really confused by onions? A quick google search turns up only the story of a Nigerian Prince (yes, really) who tried to conceal cocaine inside of hollowed out onions.

    "Max the sniffer dog" managed to detect this despite there also being dried fish along with the drugs.