CALAIS, France—“This place is not called The Jungle; it’s The Forum,” Zimako Jones, corrects me without looking up from painting a piece of chipboard a bright inviting blue.
“[I]n Calais, the term [Jungle] takes on a pejorative connotation: exotic, wild, dangerous or unhealthy, because of ignorance and intolerance,” reads Jones’s manifesto. “Our public space is open to all; it is a place of meeting, exchange, fraternity among peoples, where everyone has the right to speak, a space of freedom.”
Jones is talking about Calais’s migrant camp, an informal settlement which is currently home to around 6,000 migrants as they wait to try to get to England illegally. While the camps on the Greek islands and now across Europe have claimed the global spotlight since last year, in Calais there has been a migrant encampment of one form or another since about 1999. At that time, the French government established a reception center there, but then-President Nicolas Sarkozy closed it in 2002. After that, people would sleep rough under trees or under whatever shelter they found in the scrubby drizzly landscape. Over time, as more and more people thronged to the edge of France, hoping to hop a bus, train or car across the channel, an informal settlement sprung up. Since the war began in Syria and with the larger refugee waves last year, Syrians now make up a significant proportion of the camp’s population, though the largest group—about a third—are from Sudan. Other nationalities include Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian, Eritrean and Pakistani.
The place has a very bad rep. “[W]orse than the slums of Mumbai” proclaimed a recent Guardian article. “A war zone” or “natural disaster” area, said a French journalist in February: “we’re not used to seeing this sort of thing in France.” And it’s true. Conditions in Calais, particularly during the winter months, are deplorable. Yet given the grim descriptions, I was surprised by some of the camp’s more pleasant features. And one resident at least is an outright booster.
A year ago this month, Jones, a charismatic resident originally from Nigeria, set up a school in the camp. The “Ecole Laique du Chemin des Dunes” (the secular school of the dune path) offers free classes in English and French to the children and adults who live there.
The main commercial “street” of Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp is called the Champs Elysees because of all the shops and services it boasts. Here the main drag is even more pleasantly decorated than Zaatari’s. Two peacocks adorn the doors of one building, on which is pasted a hand-made sign: “Germany vs. Slovakia, 6pm.” There is the Khyber Darbar restaurant, an Iranian restaurant, an Ethiopian church two stories tall, complete with its own icon painter, in addition to Jones’s school. And of course, several nods to the reason the migrants are all here: there’s the British Hotel, the London Bread bakery (1 Euro, 3 naan), and there’s six-foot high graffiti proclaiming, “London Calling.”
Yet the name “The Jungle”—adapted from the word “zdhangal,” the Pashto word for forest, which was what some residents called the place, according to activists who work with migrants—has connotations of squalor, sinister wildness, and criminality. We could look at this place, as Zimako Jones does, as a vision of multiethnic cooperation and co-existence. There are, after all, young men here from all over the world sharing their experiences, as well as their meals. We see in it instead the repository of the Europe’s collective nightmare.
Jones sees the people here another way: “This place is the land of heroes who have crossed thousands of kilometers to find peace and to escape the terror of the militias and terrorists.”
Not to say that the “land of heroes” is a safe or idyllic place: in March, aid workers reported a number of instances of sexual assault of boys in the camp, and residents say petty theft is not uncommon. For women and children, in particular, the camp can be frightening. Ninety-five percent of residents are men and the median age is 25. This is a very different kind of camp than the others I’ve written about in recent months. For one thing, it’s a lot older and has been a place where people waited, trying to get into the UK to seek asylum or greater economic opportunity in the UK, for nearly two decades. As such, it’s not part of the normal migrant tale per se, though many who have taken the boat from Turkey to Greece fleeing war have ended up here. I’m told by residents that many families either choose to remain in continental Europe, reluctant to attempt to climb aboard cars and trains with children in tow, or if they come, they pass through quickly, choosing to pay steep smuggler fees, rather than expose their children to the dangers of the camp.
Earlier this year, the French state constructed a new camp abutting the existing settlement, hauling in shipping containers, stacked one on top of the other, surrounded by a forbidding wire fence. Looking through the mesh, it is odd to see these structures, designed to cross borders, stockpiling people. Here there are containers of human beings. An architectural historian recently remarked to me that one reason the container camp is so bleak is the layout. He suggests that the campaign designers should arrange the containers in horseshoe shapes to simulate courtyards. He has a point. Many of those who live in the containers are women, who feel safer in its more robust shelters.
But the Jungle/Forum has come along way. In 2007, when Qudratullah Sadaat arrived here from Laghman, Afghanistan, it really was “a jungle” he says, by which he means a wild space with no built structures. He and other refugees slept on the ground under the trees. His father had been a fighter in the militia of the notoriously brutal warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. When his father was killed, men came to his house, and informed him he had to take his father’s place, or be killed. He fled his village late one night to Pakistan, and on to Iran and then Turkey, and from Turkey along the route that has become familiar to people around the world, to Greece. On his first attempt to reach Greece, his boat sank and he was the only survivor, having taken empty plastic bottles with him for flotation. Eventually, taking a land route this time, he arrived in Calais.
He lived in the woods for three months with about 200 other migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. But, he says, in 2007 it was easier to make it to the UK. One day, he went to a gas station near the border, and waited for a large truck to pull in. When one did, he hopped underneath, lying on his side above the axle. The truck stayed parked all night. All night, Sadaat stayed underneath. In the morning, the truck began to drive toward the border. It was winter and there was snow on the ground. “I almost froze,” he says.
When they arrived in the UK, his body was too cold to move. He had to call out to the driver to help him out from under the car. Once Sadaat was safely upright, the driver ran away for fear the authorities would think he had knowingly helped Sadaat come to England. He remained in the UK for several months and opened an asylum application. But in 2009, he was deported back to Afghanistan. When he got back, he was questioned as to why he went to the UK. He joined the Afghan army and worked with ISAF forces. One night, men broke into his house and shot him four times in the leg with Kalashnikovs for being a member of the armed forces. So, in January of this year he came back to Calais—and to the Jungle.
This time he doesn’t even want to go to the UK; he has applied for asylum in France instead. But by some glitch in the bureaucratic system, his file in the UK was never closed, even after his deportation; as a consequence, under EU regulations, he is supposed to continue his asylum proceedings in the first safe country in which he arrived: the UK, nine years ago.
A number of the camp’s residents have claimed asylum in France. Sadaat says he doesn’t want to leave the Jungle for a government-built camp for refugees awaiting asylum rulings because he has heard they are sterile places with few of the amenities the Jungle offers. There is a cultural element too that several people I speak with allude to.
“You see? Here it’s a little like Afghanistan,” Sadaat says smiling as the call to prayer rings out from a makeshift mosque.
Sadaat has an unusual view of the Brexit decision and its impact on refugees: “When the EU residents leave, maybe the refugees will have a chance to work.” He also hopes it will be easier for those who want to cross: “With England out of Europe, France won’t check very hard. France will say, ‘I’m Europe, you’re not Europe, you check.’”
Other refugees fear that Brexit will hurt their chances of making their way in the UK.
Alaa, 20, left his home city of Aleppo four years ago when the shelling began and went to live with his father in Saudi Arabia. But after he finished high school there, he was not accepted to university because he was a Syrian and was only on a visitor’s visa. So he flew to Turkey, where he met up with his aunt’s family. They traveled together as far as Calais. But three months ago, his aunt and her children paid a smuggler to take them to the UK, where they were reunited with her son. A smuggler costs anywhere from $1,000-$8,000, I am told. Migrants tell me that smugglers are of all sorts of nationalities: Albanian, Kurdish, Afghan, Egyptian. Alaa didn’t have the money to go with them. Like most of the people here, Alaa already has family in the UK: “Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool, Birmingham,” he rattles off the names of the cities where his relatives live. Alaa says that four or five months ago, it became a lot more difficult to get to the UK without the assistance of a smuggler. People try to jump onto trains or under trucks. He says he’s been caught many times. So for him, the Brexit decision has dealt a blow to his hopes.
“Now we’re afraid that since the pound has gone down, maybe there will be fewer jobs. Maybe things will be worse for our future. The UK is now a country on its own, maybe things will get worse there; factories will close; procedures for refugees might change. The right to a residency permit might be granted only until the end of the war. But it won’t be the end of the war for us—Jabhat el Nusra and Daesh will still be there.” Nevertheless, he says he’ll keep trying.
He hopes to one day become a biomedical engineer and to make prosthetics. “You know in Syria there are many injured, I want to go back and help.”
For Muslims around the world early June to early July was the holy month of Ramadan, a festive season in Muslim countries when people meet often with family and friends. Alaa says it’s hard to get excited about the holiday here. “There’s nothing good here,” he shakes his head, “even the weather’s bad.” It had drizzled and poured on and off all day. It was late June.
“I don’t agree,” says Ahmed, his friend, from Samarra, Iraq. “The thing that’s good here is my friends.” He goes on to list their various nationalities. Ahmed left Iraq last Ramadan when his other two brothers were abducted by a Shia militia. His family has not heard from them since. While links within national groups are strong here, many of the young men I meet report having friends from other nationality groups as well.
Many young men would gather in the evenings to eat the iftar meal or in the early hours of the morning for suhour, before the fast began. The holy fasting month over midsummer meant long days—the sun doesn’t go down here, signaling the breaking of the fast, until after 10pm. Many are not fasting because of the miserable conditions.
At one of several communal kitchens originally set up by a Malaysian couple, three young Malaysian men are volunteering. On holiday from their studies in Islamic law at al-Azhar university in Egypt, the men came here to help. Speakers of Egyptian Arabic, they communicate easily with many of the refugees from Syria, Sudan, Iraq and other Arab nations.
“Mostly, we make Arabic food,” says Izzat Ibrahim, the kitchen manager.
“Man, you make Malaysian food!” says Alaa, who volunteers at the kitchen.
“That’s because you eat in the kitchen with us,” Izzat laughs. Izzat and his friends are not alone. There are volunteers from all over Europe, the world, and Calais itself.
Relations between citizens of Calais who don’t volunteer at the camp, and camp residents are often tense. The camp is a kind of extraterritorial zone—almost like an embassy or a foreign military base. Police are stationed at the entrance, next to a highway overpass with high metal barriers on either side, but they don’t penetrate it.
A local taxi driver says that there have been skirmishes between Calais residents and migrants that have stirred up tensions. He also says, however, that many people in Calais understand that the migrants have a very difficult life.
“Those that don’t are just plain racists,” he says. “You know,” he adds conspiratorially, “most of us around here have family members that work at the border.” He tells me about his cousin who works there and that about seven months ago there was a new directive from the government, telling workers that if there were migrants smuggled aboard buses headed to the UK, to simply make sure they were not in physical danger and to let them go; he claims it is because it would take too long to thoroughly check all the buses that go though. I have no way to verify this but the idea that French authorities might not be too fussed about migrants transiting to Britain is an interesting possibility.
Alaa from Aleppo has a theory about one of the sources of tension between refugees and residents.
Nightlife in Calais seems to end around 10pm. “Most of the attempts [to cross the border] are at night,” Alaa says. He explains that it’s possible that these groups of young men moving around when most Calais dwellers are in bed perhaps makes them think that they’re up to no good.