Tuesday

13th Apr 2021

Stranded in Calais, thousands make 'Jungle' their home

  • Asylum seekers headed for the UK are stranded in the Jungle (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

As darkness falls, the “Jungle” livens up.

After dinner, migrants and refugees in the camp near the northern French town of Calais, gather in groups and linger around the barbed wired fence separating them from trucks headed to the UK, looking for an opportunity to get on.

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Meanwhile, dozens of French gendarmerie descend on the street at the camp’s entry in riot gear, trying to intimidate and stop them.

“This is the routine every evening,” said an aid worker on a recent visit to the camp.

When the weather is clear, the shores of Britain seem like an arms' stretch away.

Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front topped the first round of regional elections here on Sunday (6 December), demonstrating that the fear of the “other” is once again gaining political ground in the heart of Europe.

The Calais camp, nicknamed "the Jungle" because of its location close to a forest, and because of the slum-like labyrinth of tents and makeshift homes, has been here for years. But the number of inhabitants swelled since the summer as hundreds of thousands made their way to Europe.

Now, aid workers say there are about 4,500 people looking for asylum who call this unforgiving muddy patch of land their home.

They are stuck in the bottleneck, escaping war and poverty, trying to make it to Britain to find work and safety.

The camp is a strange distillation of wars across the globe, and has become a symbol of Europe’s inability to deal with the mass wave of people running away from the conflicts.

'Shame'

Policemen are on guard in the street surrounding the camp, sunk in ankle-deep mud. It is a whirl of makeshift tents and tiny huts.

It has become a small town, which resembles ones in war-torn Afghanistan rather than in France. It has barber shops, small groceries, and “restaurants" - counters with wooden benches around it under a tent. They vary from courting Kurdish to Afghan tastes.

There is no electricity, but generators are humming in a few places. There is no place to wash or shower, but a few dozen, putrid mobile toilets were recently set up.

NGOs have said circumstances in the camp violate human rights and have called on the French state to act.

In November, a court in Lille ordered the government to install 10 more water stations, with five taps each, and 50 latrines. Heated tents are being set up to house 1,500 people.

As in so many other places along the migration route in Europe, aid groups are trying to fill the gap left by the state in providing help.

Here, they serve 2,500 warm meals a day, and, among other things, provide first aid and dental check-ups.

Ako, a 47-year old Kurd from Mosul in Iraq, which was taken over by ISIS in 2014, says he has been in the camp for 36 days. He says the UK and Europe should be ashamed of themselves for the conditions in the camp.

Aki, an English teacher, says he couldn’t find a smuggler who would take him with his three children.

“We hope European countries will come here to help, they should be ashamed,” he says.

A Kurdish flag flies high at a makeshift restaurant where tea is served for 50 cents.

“If you pay, it's safe, if not, then it's dangerous,” says one of them, Dani, a 35-year old Kurd, about the trip to the UK.

Depending on the trafficker, and how much people are willing to pay, smugglers can go from pointing out holes in the fence around the highway or the port, to arranging rides to the other side of the channel.

The rates can go from €1,500 all the way to €5,000.

Some people spend only two days in the camp, others get stuck for months, even years.

Standoffs between police and migrants resulted in violent clashes in November.

Among the migrants roughly 400 are women, half of them without a husband or male relative. Alone, they are more exposed to violence and, aid workers say, even rape.

French dissuasion

Meanwhile, there is little sympathy for the migrants from the French authorities.

Jacky Henin, a former MEP and a French communist, said the reason the French state is not interested in creating liveable conditions in the camp is fear that the Jungle would attract more migrants.

“Why is the EU financing humane conditions in camps in Turkey, when it is not creating the same conditions on its own territory?” he said at a meeting in Calais, held when a group of MEPs from the European United Left and Nordic Green Left group travelled there last Tuesday (1 December).

“The French government’s policy is to dissuade people from claiming asylum here,” said Philippe Wannessonn, an activist who regularly blogs about the Jungle and migration issues.

“Legal papers are most needed for these people here,” he added.

The crisis seem to have benefitted the far-right, as Le Pen focused repeatedly on the migrant camp in Calais in her campaign for last weekend's regional elections.

But the people who fled thousands of miles will not give up on reaching Britain.

Christian Salome, of the "L’auberge des migrants" aid group described a telling scene from the Jungle.

Every night there is a movie on show in the camp, and one particular evening James Bond’s Skyfall was on. “When the caption said ‘London’, 5,000 people screamed jubilantly. They want to go to the UK,” Salome said.

French migrant camps to get upgrade

A new camp with heated tents will be built near Dunkirk as house containers are made available in Calais, where thousands of migrants headed for the UK are stranded.

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