Welcome to the ‘Jungle’ in Calais

Vibrant refugee camp in France – with schools, eateries and theaters – is scheduled to be partly demolished this week

Migrant children attend a lesson in a makeshift school on Feb. 10, 2016, in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, France. Inaugurated in early February, the makeshift structure, which can accommodate only 20 children daily, was installed next to the adult classroom opened last July.
Philippe Huguen / AFP / Getty Images

CALAIS, France — Saturday is beauty day at the women’s center in the “Jungle” of Calais. It is a forest of tarps, tents, caravans and wooden structures, this camp that is home to an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 refugees. They come from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea and other war-torn countries. Calais, in the north of France, is the last stop before the English Channel. Winter here is often bitterly cold, with biting winds and driving rain. 

The women’s center is a dry and colorful cocoon, a refuge from the gray-brown mud of the camp. Inside, carpets and pillows colonize the floor, a woodburning stove gives off heat, and snacks and tea are on offer. Open strictly to women and young children, the center distributes female and infant supplies twice a week and holds a “beauty day” each weekend, during which residents and volunteers exchange massages, haircuts, threading and makeovers. 

At noon, the camp is still relatively quiet. For many of the residents, particularly those who spend nights making dangerous and often futile attempts to get to the United Kingdom, late morning is prime sleeping time. “Every week we hear of some people who succeed and others who die jumping onto trains or hanging onto ferries,” says Philli Boyle, the Calais manager of Help Refugees, a British aid group. 

A few minutes’ walk from the women’s center is Jungle Books, a free lending library, and nearby is a children’s library and art center. Next door is an all-ages classroom where French and English classes are offered, and several yards away is Jungala Radio's studio, where a refugee-made radio broadcast is produced. With help from volunteers and aid organizations, the camp has become a place of learning, art, music, theater and intellectual exchange.

These sanctuaries in the Jungle help create a sense of community for refugees fleeing violence and uncertainty, but security is fragile and elusive. No one is officially running the camp, and it can seem anarchic and volatile, with internal fights, clashes with police or attacks on residents by right-wing extremists. That the Jungle operates as well as it does, with the presence of cultural, religious and social organizations, commerce and schools, is a testament to the hard work of volunteers and the resilience and initiative of residents.

But all these places will be razed starting this week if the French government proceeds with a planned evacuation of a southern part of the Jungle, which officials say now houses too many people. Other buildings in the bulldozers’ path include temporary homes, a church and three mosques, two other volunteer-run schools, legal aid and vaccination centers, three food distribution centers, cafés, shops, restaurants and a theater. 

A makeshift restaurant on Feb. 23, 2016, in the camp.
Denis Charlet / AFP / Getty Images

“All of these places offer a sense of dignity, normalcy and psychological well-being that will be destroyed if the camp is bulldozed as planned,” says Boyle. Last week, eight organizations working in the camp, including Doctors Without Borders, sent an open letter to French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve, urging him to reconsider the demolition.

The area of the camp slated for demolition is home to anywhere from 800 to 3,500 refugees. The government estimates there are 800 to 1,000 people currently living in the area to be leveled, but a census conducted by Help Refugees last week found that the number is closer to 3,500, which includes 445 children and youth, 305 of whom are unaccompanied. 

The presence of the makeshift refugee camp in Calais has become a source of heated debate in the city, where the Jungle’s presence has intensified already heated discussions over immigration. Early this month, Fabienne Buccio, a top government official in the region, announced plans to raze half the settlement. Though it is difficult to count the exact number of people in the Jungle, early last summer, an estimated 1,500 people were living here. By November, that number had quadrupled.

The growth of the camp and the transformation of Calais — the town is now heavily patrolled by police, and miles of barbed wire and fences have been constructed around highways, fields and the city’s port — are sources of much tension in the region. Some residents living in houses across from the Jungle complain of feeling unsafe, and the situation has lent fodder to right-wing extremists and neo-Nazi groups. Earlier this month, dozens of people were arrested at a protest organized by the extremist organization PEGIDA (the acronym in German for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West). There have also been allegations of attacks on refugees by vigilante and extremist groups in the area. 

There is a chance that the bulldozers won’t come, or at least not so soon: A judge from the administrative court in the northern city of Lille visited the camp this morning to evaluate the situation and is expected to give a ruling concerning the evacuation sometime tomorrow or Thursday. For now, orders to residents to leave today by 8 p.m. have been suspended

The Jungle is a forest of tarps and tents.
Denis Charlet / AFP / Getty Images

The government has said there are two options for Jungle residents: Either relocate to one of the 102 reception and orientation centers across France or move into the nearby block of housing made from converted shipping containers that was opened by the government last month. The government-run housing block, designed expressly for refugees and located on the edge of the camp, has 1,500 beds (12 bunk beds per shipping container), heat and electricity. As of Feb. 22, only 200 of the 1,500 spaces remained. While the container housing is sturdier than tents, it lacks kitchens and running water. Surrounded by fences, the container settlement is reminiscent of internment camps during World World II. Perhaps most worrying to potential occupants is that they are required to have their palm prints taken to live here. 

Local French authorities say they want to house up to 1,500 of the Jungle’s refugees to converted shipping containers.
Philippe Huguen / AFP / Getty Images

For many residents, leaving biometric data in France is the last thing they want. While the European Union is still grappling with how to deal with the massive increase in asylum seekers over the past year, generally someone who passes through a country where he or she could have sought asylum can be forced to return there to make a claim. 

And most of the Calais camp’s residents are headed to the U.K., not France. Job prospects are perceived to be much better in England because many refugees already speak English or have family in the U.K. One of them, Naqib Lodin, 24, worked as a pharmacist in Afghanistan before fleeing his country six months ago. During his four months in the Jungle, he volunteered as a librarian at Jungle Books and dedicated himself to learning English. “I’m alone, and I’ve found some friends here,” he says. “Language classes gave me something to do. Thinking too much isn’t good — it’s better for our mental health to have something to do.” 

Several posters drawn by Lodin decorate the walls of Jungle Books, including one that advises, “Didn’t make it to England — keep calm and come to English classes.” The message is autobiographical, he explains, describing how he hid underneath a truck to cross the channel, making it as far as Brighton before being sent back to France. He is not confident about trying again to reach England. “It’s too dangerous,” he says.

British actor Jude Law, center, during a visit to the Jungle, Feb. 21, 2016. He and other celebrities went to draw attention to the plight of refugees facing imminent eviction.
Philippe Huguen / AFP / Getty Images

In recent days, aid groups and residents have been doing all they can to urge the government not to destroy the camp. The Good Chance Theatre, a U.K. arts project that organizes classes and events in the Jungle, has been instrumental in bringing attention to the camp. Earlier this month, actors from London’s Shakespeare’s Globe theater performed in the Jungle’s geodesic dome playhouse. On Sunday celebrities — including actor Jude Law, singer Tom Odell and playwright Tom Stoppard — visited to show their support and read letters, including those written by refugees living in the camp. 

“Dear People of Europe,” begins a letter written by a man who gives his name only as Hossein. “Children, women, fathers and brothers just want to live. Now they are fleeing from their home and countries, you call them refugees. They are humiliated in Europe. Children, instead of drawing sweet childhood memories, are drawing the cold of winter, lack of water and food, disease and standing in the camp’s long queues. This will put the history of the 21st century to shame.” 

Another letter, hung in the entryway to the theater, tells the story of Muhammed, a 26-year-old civil engineer from Afghanistan. The letter describes his past working as a translator for British troops and the subsequent threats he endured from the Taliban. He appealed to the British government, which, according to the letter, offered him $1,075 in aid to help him hide from the Taliban. After traveling through Turkey and Greece and finally reaching Calais, he has been unable to reach the U.K., his final destination, despite several attempts. 

The Sunday letter reading was performed in English and translated into Arabic, Farsi, Pashto and Kurdish. In addition to guest appearances by celebrities, the afternoon featured artistic performances by refugees living in the camp, including one by Ismail Nazari, a musician who fled Afghanistan after being tortured by the Taliban. 

During the performance, Nazari played his handmade dombura, a delicate, long-necked stringed instrument that survived the trip from Afghanistan to France. The 29-year-old currently lives in the Jungle with his wife and three children and sang a song dedicated to his mother. 

Actors from Shakespeare’s Globe perform “Hamlet” at the Good Chance Theatre Tent in the Jungle, Feb. 3, 2016.
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

In addition to communal spaces and social services set up by aid organizations across the camp, there are popular venues set up by refugees themselves. Lunch in one of the locally run Afghan restaurants features plates heaped with steaming rice, fried eggplant, spinach and chickpeas and warm rounds of chewy bread. Plastic cups of hot, milky tea are passed around, sweet on the tongue and warm on the fingers. Across the road, bags of lemons and oranges hang in front of a shop run by a refugee. There are several such stores scattered throughout the Jungle, selling snacks, drinks, toilet paper and cigarettes.

Despite these suggestions of normalcy, it doesn’t take much to remind one that life in the camp is anything but. On Saturday afternoon, panic breaks out and people carrying a wounded man run through the mud-slicked thoroughfare of the camp. According to reports published that evening, an Afghan man was hit by a bullet in his spinal column during a fight that broke out between several camp residents and was taken to a local hospital for treatment. 

This, too, is life in the Jungle. Kathy O’Hare, one of the founders of Jungala Radio, a broadcast made for and by refugees, describes daily conditions as extremely challenging. “To put a deadline on a story wouldn’t function at all,” she says. “You have to remember that everybody comes in to work that day thinking they’re leaving tomorrow.” 

There is also the question of logistics. Internet connection is poor, and everyone is cold this time of year. “We start late in the day because people are so cold during the night that it’s hard to sleep. You also have the constant tear-gassing by police in the night, and that all contributes to lack of sleep and general psychological well-being,” says O’Hare.

A performance in a makeshift theater on Nov. 25, 2015, in the Jungle.
Philippe Huguen / AFP / Getty Images

Despite the temperature, insomnia and tear gas, several artistic projects and cultural initiatives have thrived in the camp. Art in the Jungle, a collective of artists living both inside and outside of the camp, runs classes, workshops and exhibits. On Saturday, the art school run by the collective is filled with the sounds of piano music and rain falling on the plastic roof. Shoemaking is the art project of the day, led by Sudanese refugees who are fabricating shoes from salvaged rubber.

“There’s a whole world here in Calais,” says Bruno Boucly, a French volunteer with Art in the Jungle. “Everyone is of a different ethnicity, a different country, and they manage to all live together. We should take it as an example in communal living.” 

As the threat of an evacuation looms, the question of what will happen to the camp’s children becomes all the more urgent. On Sunday afternoon, Jamil, a 12-year-old from Afghanistan, here without his family, steals the show from Jude Law. He takes the stage shyly while Liz Clegg, a British volunteer who runs the women and children’s center, reads a letter she wrote to him. “I can’t promise to solve this, but I am trying … I will fight to the bitter end to keep you safe,” she says, her voice breaking. She begs him not to get into a refrigerated truck, no matter what; in December, a 15-year-old Jungle resident suffocated in the back of such a vehicle. Jamil listens, wide-eyed and quiet, looking at once incredibly young and very old. Yet every night, he tries to make it to the U.K. under cover of dark, not knowing if morning will find him at last in the country of his dreams or dead.

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