This is Jungala Radio: In Calais, refugees find a new voice

The station first broadcast on New Year's Day. Around the world, refugees have tapped into radio to take control of their image – and pass the time.

Michel Spingler/AP
A man walks past containers at the entrance of the Calais refugee camp, in northern France, last month. Approximately 130 containers will be converted to shelters.

From the outside, the Jungala Radio tent looks like any other in Calais’ 6,000-strong refugee camp – plywood slats, flimsy blue tarp, a large rock serving as a front stoop. But while it offers a respite from the biting winds of this northern French town, it is also becoming a growing channel for battling the loneliness and uncertainty of refugee life.  

Inside, refugees and migrants operate amid a jumble of laptops and recording equipment, building a budding but important medium to connect with others, and most of all, productively pass the time.

“I do the radio because it makes me happy – I’m not afraid of talking to anyone,” says Alpha, who hails from Mauritania, whose deep voice, easy laugh, and perfect French and English make him a great choice for the radio. He's gained fame in the "The Jungle," as the camp is known, for creating his own thatched hut covered in signs promoting equality – not to mention a 10-ft. high Eiffel tower made out of cans. “The radio combines the three things I like the most: culture, art and talking to new people.”

Alpha is one of around 30 camp residents participating in Jungala Radio, whose first broadcast ran on New Year’s Day. Relying on a crowdfunding campaign and a growing listener base on Sound Cloud and Facebook, the initiative joins a host of other refugee-run radio stations around the world working to give a voice to the voiceless and letting refugees have control over what is said about them.

From indigenous villages in Latin America to refugee camps in Africa, community radio projects have become an effective empowerment tool, not only in disseminating information but also providing a sense of purpose and teaching job skills that could prove essential to integration, regardless of a person’s final destination.

And as increasing numbers of migrants continue to stream into Europe, it could become a positive model for other camps looking to improve communication and autonomy. 

“Historically, radio began with amateurs and those who had the desire to communicate with others,” says Isabelle Veyrat-Masson, a media specialist at the CNRS research center in Paris. “So in Calais, we’re seeing an old model that has been applied to modern-day camp life. Refugees there have created an object that they can take full ownership of and control what is said about them.”

The stations' reach can be substantial. In 1996 in the former Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), the UNHCR funded a radio station run by refugees in a Hutu camp that broadcast to 1 million people. In Mexico, community radio helped combat isolation and facilitate information exchange in the state of Oaxaca, which counts 15 indigenous populations. And today in Kenya, Dadaab 107.5 FM broadcasts to the some 500,000 people living in the world’s largest refugee camp.

In Europe, refugee-run radio is becoming increasingly popular on a continent only just beginning to understand the complexities of welcoming thousands of new people through its borders. One such project is The Refugee Radio Network, which runs out of Hamburg, Germany. Larry Maccaulay, a Nigerian refugee in Germany, founded the radio to break down barriers and empower refugees to tell their own stories. 

 Bringing a sense of order

Already, Calais’ Jungala Radio has the potential to bring a sense of community and cohesiveness to a place that has always lacked unity. Despite the continuing flow of volunteers on site, there is still no single organizing committee of the Jungle when it comes to distribution of resources, medical care, or communication.

Ciaran Henry, a British media graduate who founded the radio with Irish fundraiser Kathy O'Hare, says it can help camp residents feel that they have some say in how they are perceived. “The media has a tendency to paint a tiny picture of what’s happening here. It’s oversimplified,” says Mr. Henry. “We’re helping people become aware of what they’re producing and how to create a narrative so they’re in control of their own voice.”

While a majority of the mostly Sudanese, Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi Kurdish camp residents hope to make it to the UK – by sneaking into ships and trucks or clinging to trains – many have applied for French asylum, and the wait can be interminable. Projects like Jungala Radio can ease that strain, says Maya Konforti, a volunteer with the NGO Auberge des Migrants.

“It’s absolutely crucial for people to have that because it allows them to continue with a normal life,” says Ms. Konforti, who adds that all the cultural initiatives in the camp were refugee-led. “Having schools, a library, and a radio is really important to keep their dignity and mental sanity, and allow them to create their own reality.”

It can also give refugees a sense of building toward a future life, providing skills that could foster eventual integration. Alpha says the technical aspect of radio is something that could be beneficial to him in the long run, once he receives French paperwork. “I’ve learned how to use the recording equipment and how to ask the right questions,” he says. “I don’t know, maybe someday I’ll want to work in radio.”

But Jungala Radio shares a key characteristic with camp residents: a sense of impermanence. A majority of residents here either make it to the UK or move elsewhere, with average stays of only a handful of months. A recent action to clear a portion of the camp has increased fears that the camp is being slowly reduced, with a plan to do away with it altogether in the near future.

“There’s something ephemeral about radio stations like these. When the people leave, the radio station will go away as well,” says Ms. Veyrat-Masson. "But that's also the power of radio. It's inexpensive, ethereal, and pretty much anyone can do it."

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