Can Europe Make It?

The refugee camp that nobody wants

Right in the middle of Europe, thousand of refugees are living in disheartening conditions, without any help from local governments. An insight from the Calais refugee camp known as the Jungle.

Laura Stahnke
24 February 2016

The first thing that one notices about Calais is the mud. Mud everywhere, and puddles. Who has lived in the camp for longer knows which are the trails with hidden holes filled with water; yet anybody living in the Jungle can be recognized by shoes always covered in mud, leaving wet marks at every step.

Spread across this mud field there are thousands of tents. For some reasons the prevalent colour is blue. A few wooden structures and caravans can be noticed among the multitude of camping tents.

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Life in the Jungle is characterized by waiting lines. The first of the day starts early morning, when people line up to fill water tanks. Right now around 6000 migrants live in the refugee camp of Calais that has become famous as ‘the Jungle’. All of them fetch water from the few taps that can be found around the camp.

Drinking water, street lights and barbed wire at the border of the camp are among the only investments realized by the French Government in the refugee camp right at the heart of Europe.

The population in the camp is fluid. Some have lived there for a few months, others just for a couple of days. Up until last summer, the population of the Jungle exceeded 3000 people, but in only a few months the number of inhabitants has doubled. Nobody arrives there with the idea of staying for long time, and everybody has the same destination in mind: the UK.

Calais is the closest French city to the English Channel, which marks the border with England. People coming from Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Kurdistan, Pakistan get there aiming to cross the border to reach the final destination of their long journey.

For those that were provided with a powerful passport by the Fate, crossing the border just takes a few minutes. For those living in the Jungle it takes months of attempts, hiding in the back of a lorry, jumping on trains, or sneaking on the ferries that go back and forth from Calais to Dover several times a day.

In the Jungle everybody is waiting for their chance to cross the border without being found by the police.

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The camp is divided in several national communities: Kurdish, Afghan, Eritrean, Sudanese, Iraqi. It is rare that the inhabitants of the different communities mix with each other, often due to language barriers.

Despite this, the Jungle is quickly becoming one of the most cosmopolitan villages of Europe. Up until the end of January, just a few steps from the Eritrean church there was the Cafè Kabul, the heart of the Afghan community. Around the corner there was the Restò du Monde, where it was possible to buy the nan bread typical of Central and South Asia.

French authorities recently destroyed most constructions that rendered the Jungle a hub for several communities, in an attempt to stop its further expansion.

The church and the mosque have been bulldozed away, as well as thousands of tents and the constructions that had been in the Jungle for the longer time.

Thousands of people have been evicted, and French authorities are putting high pressures on the camp dwellers to move into converted ship containers. Concurrently, there is a plan to evict even more people and tear down a whole section of the camp, as the official aim is to bring the population of the Jungle down to 2000 people.

Migrants are resisting the order to move into the containers, as they are worried that once there they will be forced to claim asylum in France, without being able to continue their journey towards the UK. At the same time, people are worried that if they will move from the Jungle they won’t be able to access its social life, community hubs, small cafes and restaurants.

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Who was a businessman or owned a restaurant back home brought his entrepreneurial spirit with himself and opened small businesses around the Jungle. A part from providing hot meals or basic merchandise, these restaurants serve the purposes of bringing together people from the same communities. TV screens hanging at the walls constantly show music videos, while countless mobile phones are connected to multiple sockets.

Apart from these restaurants, in the camp there are community kitchens set up by volunteers offering free meals to hundreds of people every day. Food donations are constantly arriving to the Jungle: these are sent in by individuals or organizations from different countries, and they mainly originate from the UK.

Volunteers in two warehouses collect and sort the donations arriving to the Jungle: man windbreakers S size on the left, M in the center, L on the right. Waterproof boots size 41 on the bottom shelf. And so on and so forth. These donations are regularly distributed within the camp.

Those living in the camp and volunteers collaborate together in the community kitchens, in the library and in a theatre where at night music brings together people belonging to different communities. Everybody dances following the same rhythm, in an atmosphere not different from other discos and concert halls around Europe.

French and British civil society organizations offer refugees with legal advise. Many of the migrants in Calais have family members legally living in the UK as refugees, and therefore have the right to a family visa. It seems sarcastic that they are going to be able to obtain their visa once in the UK.

This system counts on volunteers and single donations. Neither French nor British public institutions collaborate in providing who lives in the Jungle with food or essential products. Apart from some rare exceptions, major international NGOs and the UN agencies are not to be found in the camp. Many are raising the issue of what will happen when the time, attention and availability of volunteers and individual donors will come to an end.

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What the French and the British governments are hugely investing on are new systems to keep the inhabitants of the Jungle far from the UK. London has already invested more than 15 millions pounds to build fences topped with barbed wire around the Jungle and the port of Calais. At the same time, the UK has pressured the French government for the implementation of stronger border controls.

The result is that in the Jungle it is possible to perceive the presence of the State just when walking away from the refugee camp. Policeman in heavy gears are constantly patrolling the streets leading to the train station, the port and the Eurotunnel, giving the impression of being in a conflict zone.

When migrants are found hiding in the back of a lorry or on a train, they are treated with disproportionate violence. Use of teargas is a widespread method of rendering migrants unable to see for a while, thus limiting their chances to successfully cross the border. Some of the people living in the Jungle tell that the police forcefully brought them to Spanish border, in a clear attempt to persuade them to change their route.

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More than constituting a real threat to the UK, Calais has become the symbol of the British closure to extra European migrants. Data on migration to the UK can prove it: in August 2015 there were more than 600.000 Italians living in the UK for studying or working purposes. One hundred times the number of the refugees of Calais. EU residents in the UK are more than 3 million, 500 times the number of those blocked in the Jungle. Looking at these numbers, it is hard to give credit to the apocalyptic visions of Cameron depicting refugees as hordes of migrants who are just waiting for their chance to invade the UK.

The refugees stranded in Calais have become the scapegoat and focus of nationalist hate speeches from across the UK. The Jungle and the Calais-Dover borderland are now the display of British power and of its willingness to keep as many migrants as possible far from the UK.

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