‘We are the dogs of Calais’: Life as a migrant in the ‘Jungle’

Former French vacation camp now houses hundreds of people, many of whom risk their lives to enter UK illegally

CALAIS, France — Migrants tend to keep an eye out for trucks transporting food in a bid to avoid detection in this French port, a springboard to illegal entry to the U.K. “This way, the dogs can't smell your flesh,” explained Youssef.

He had traveled to the coast of northern France to escape bloodshed in his native Sudan. He left when his hometown when he was just 15, driven out by violence, he said. He hasn’t seen his family since.

Now he sleeps along the motorway closest to Calais’ train terminal, waiting for a chance to make the final leg of his intended journey to England.

Youssef, 28, who would give only his first name, described a life of constant struggle and risk. “Last night five of us got inside a Polish truck, but there wasn't enough air,” he said. “We started screaming and banging on the sides to let the driver know we were inside.”

But instead of letting them out, the truck driver locked the doors and told them they would “die and rot in there,” he said. The men called an ambulance and were rescued, but the Sudanese man said he had fainted by the time help arrived.

Such animosity against the migrants is not uncommon, nor is their feeling that they are treated more like animals than human beings

“We are the dogs of Calais,” Youssef said.

Calais en Colère, a right-wing organization with a name that translates to the Angry Calais, describes living alongside migrants as “suffocating and disrespectful” on its public Facebook page and on the numerous flyers its members post around the city; the metaphor of “cleaning Calais” is often used. 

The group claims that locals in the town experience violence and harassment from the migrants.  

Calais en Colère refused requests for comment for this article, replying simply, “Go to the ‘Jungle’ and see for yourself.”

The “Jungle” is how migrants and locals alike refer to Jules Ferry camp. A former children’s camp, it opened its doors to refugees and migrants in mid-January — a move that symbolized to many the permanence of Europe’s migrant crisis.

Jules Ferry is now home to around 1,300 migrants, mainly from Syria, Sudan and Eritrea. Most have fled conflict and oppression at home. Many came to the camp after being evicted from squats within Calais.

The “Jungle” operates largely as separate entity, with a growing informal economy. Everything from deodorant to canned tuna can be purchased in shops owned by migrants.

Individual showers and phone-charging points are available until 9 p.m. at the entrance to the camp. Bicycles provided by nongovernmental organizations are available for sale for 20 euros ($22) each, and local and foreign volunteers teach vital repair techniques.

Meanwhile charities provide a variety of services, ranging from medical assistance to legal aid and asylum inquiries and medical assistance.

The hope of many within the camp is to settle in France, but statistics suggest few do. In 2014, just 16 percent of the 52,053 asylum seekers in France were granted asylum, according to the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People.

The failure to find a solution to Calais migrant crisis has led to fissures between French officials and the U.K. government.

“For too long, Calais and its population have been handling a situation which they are not responsible for,” Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart tweeted in July. She has publicly requested 50 million euros from the U.K. in compensation for the 15-year-long migrant situation. She accuses the British government of shirking its responsibility in regards the security situation in Calais. Fingers have also been pointed at the U.K. over its employment laws, which allow for people to work without an identity card.

Many in Calais blame the ongoing presence of migrants for its sluggish economy.

The port town has barely resurfaced economically since the recession, and its unemployment rate is now among the highest in the country — 12.6 percent since 2013, according to National French Institute of Statistics.

Laurent Roussel, president of the Merchants' Union and a member of the Calais City Council, said “fewer people travel to Calais for commerce, due to fear of migrants.” 

“Businesses have lost around half of their turnover; butchers are forced to throw away meat,” he said.

But leaving Calais is not easy for the migrants in Jules Ferry camp. Security has been tightened recently after repeated mass attempts to stow away on the Eurotunnel that runs beneath the channel to England.

In spite of the increased police presence and an additional 7 million British pounds ($11 million) pledged by the U.K. government toward efforts to tackle the crisis on French soil, the number of fatalities is growing. At least 10 people have died in the attempt to cross into the U.K. since June, compared to 17 in the whole of 2014.

Recently installed fencing along the motorway leading to the ferry terminal has attempted to isolate the Jules Ferry camp. To circumvent the problem, migrants say they often walk for an hour-and-a-half to reach trucks lining up for the Eurotunnel on the other side of Calais.

The Eurotunnel terminal offers a better chance of passage for the migrants. Trucks are parked on the Eurotunnel shuttle trains, where the drivers leave their vehicles. This allows for unhindered access inside the trucks. 

French border police with dogs and equipped with flashlights patrol the entrance to the terminal.

To prevent migrants from attempting, up to four police vans patrol the Boulevard de France, which runs parallel to the Eurotunnel entrance.

“You can't go there alone. You need to find a group of 35 people minimum. If there's enough of us, we can distract them and cut the fence with scissors,” Youssef said.

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