What Life Is Like Inside A Refugee ‘Jungle’ Camp

By Liz Smith

In a squalid French camp, 5,000 people—including 400 children—await their fate.

The UN Refugee Agency recently stated that the growing refugee crisis needs solving. Record numbers are being displaced by war and conflict, an estimated 50% of whom are children. In Calais, in Northern France, some 5,000 people, including over 400 unaccompanied children, according to UK charity Help Refugees, are living in a squalid makeshift camp known as the “Jungle.”

Recently, I went as part of an aid mission from my home city of Leeds in the UK, organized by Leeds Coalition Against War, to take donations of food, clothing, and prayer mats to the camp and find out what life is like for the some 5,000 refugees living there.

In Calais, some 5,000 people are living in a squalid makeshift camp known as the ‘Jungle.’

The presence of asylum seekers in Calais is nothing new, having started in 2001 when a Red Cross camp was opened in nearby Sangatte. Despite the demolition of large parts of the main “Jungle” in March 2016, few refugees accepted offers to move to other centers in France and they remain there, living in donated tents, shelters constructed from wood and corrugated plastic, and shipping containers.

Although there is basic shelter, sanitation and hygiene are a problem. When you go away from the main thoroughfares, there is an overwhelming stench of urine. There is no rubbish disposal system here; occasionally volunteers do a cleanup, but otherwise piles of rubbish are just left to rot, attracting rats. There are some portable toilets and showers, I’m told, but queues are long. With people living in such close quarters and access to resources limited, tensions often run high. A Sudanese refugee, Mussa Mahdy, says there were clashes between Sudanese and Afghans, resulting in fires and fighting.

Mussa, 65, has been in the camp for three months. He’s happy to talk, but like most of the refugees here, doesn’t want his face to appear on camera, because they fear that speaking to the press may harm their asylum claims. Mussa, previously a textile engineer in Darfur, fled the authoritarian al-Bashir government’s ethnic cleansing.

Many people in Britain imagine that everyone here wants to come to the UK, which has fueled a lot of fear. Although there are many here who do state they want to come to the UK, either because they have family there or believe they will be safer, others, like Mussa, say they want to remain in France. Some even want to go home. Mohammed*, 27, who works in one of the kitchens on camp, says he wants to go back to Kabul, because he has had enough of being here and has lost hope of gaining asylum in the UK.

Some here say they came via other European countries who would not accept their asylum claims, especially refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan, and Eritrea. Sam, 20, fled religious persecution and forced conscription by the repressive regime in Eritrea. “They can send you to prison for practicing your religion,” he says. Ali*, 22, from Afghanistan, came via Norway, but says he was told there that they only accepted Syrian refugees, not Afghans. Sixteen-year-old Hassan, whose family sent him out of Afghanistan fearing conscription by the Taliban, was trafficked via Russia, where he and his friend spent six months in a trafficker’s home in Moscow.

Upon arrival in Norway, they were denied asylum, he says, so now he wants to either stay in France or go to the UK. He learns French every day in a school on the camp, where he also gets food. He says he feels safe here and has had no trouble with the authorities, but Ali disagrees, saying he has seen people being beaten with sticks by police.

Twelve-year-old Ikram, also from Afghanistan, is one of the unaccompanied children here. His English is broken, but he manages to tell me that he made his journey by walking and using trains, through Iran, Turkey, Serbia, Hungary, and then Germany. Ikram’s parents are no longer alive and his uncle paid for him to leave, believing he would have a better life in Europe, but Ikram seems to know very little about his options or rights. Lone children risk falling prey to traffickers and criminal gangs if they remain here too long. I worry what will happen to Ikram and whether he will ever get to realize his dream of becoming a doctor, or whether the “Jungle” will simply swallow him up.

A recent report found that 73% of women felt unsafe in the camp.

Although the residents are mostly men, there are women here too. Most of the women are housed in the nearby Jules Ferry centre, but there are around 200 in the main camp. Twenty-four-year-old Hannah, from Eritrea, a vivacious young woman with bright pink and blue hair, has been in Calais for a year. She says the Jungle “is a bad place for women.” She doesn’t elaborate other than saying that the men drink and there is abuse and fighting, reflecting a recent report by the Refugee Rights Data Project that stated 73% of women felt unsafe in the camp and 43% have experienced violence. Hannah was on her way to one of the smaller camps, hoping it would be safer and easier to get to the UK. She thinks her mother is in England, but she doesn’t know where or even if she is still alive.

Just as the situation with the camp’s residents is complex, so are the relationships around them. Much of the aid effort here has sprung up through grassroots movements, which has its advantages. Aid gets through quickly and with little bureaucracy, but it also means that volunteers don’t seem to be vetted and there are no formal procedures for dealing with issues. There are also few safeguarding procedures in place for volunteers in some of the camp’s schools, raising questions about access to children, young people, and vulnerable adults. The aid work community is also rife with rumors about sexual relationships between volunteers and refugees, which would be unthinkable in a more regulated environment.

Amid a climate of fear surrounding the growing refugee crisis, nobody in Europe seems to be taking the lead to solve the Calais problem; governments only seem to be interested in showing a hardline stance to placate public opinion. The situation has now been further complicated by the European Union membership referendum result in the UK, which voted narrowly in favor of leaving the EU. Nobody knows yet what the consequences will be for the Calais camp and for the UK. Until the terms of the UK’s exit are determined, which could take several years, it’s unlikely to make much difference to the Calais refugees, but the debate and its associated anti-immigration rhetoric has certainly had an effect. Last Monday, there were clashes between residents and police, resulting in tear gas being fired. It might be reasonable to assume that with a fractured European community, it will be harder to reach a consensus on how to solve the problem.

Amid a climate of fear, nobody in Europe seems to be taking the lead to solve the Calais problem.

Meanwhile, around 30 new refugees arrive here every day. The French government blocking aid from the UK, as they did last Saturday, just seems spiteful when you look at the conditions inside the camp. It’s clear that aid alone isn’t enough, however — in the words of Daniel*, a refugee from Sudan who spoke quite angrily about the situation, “Clothes and food does not mean help.” Until the European community works out exactly what “help” does mean and how to solve the problem, thousands of displaced people here face an uncertain future, either trapped in the squalor of the Calais “Jungle” or taking matters into their own hands and trying their luck elsewhere.

*Some names have been changed to protect identities

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