France Refugees: Life Inside Calais After Paris Attacks

The fragile life inside France's largest refugee camp after the Paris attacks
Markus Schreiber—AP Tents are reflected in a puddle with waste inside the camp known as the 'Jungle' in Calais, France, on Nov. 3, 2015.

The fragile life inside France's largest refugee camp after the Paris attacks

It had been one of the warmest Novembers on record, and for a while, the thousands of refugees in the French port city of Calais almost counted themselves lucky. But the luck didn’t last. By the middle of the month winter was on its way, bringing the lashing rains and icy chill that everyone had feared.

Yet sprawling migrant camps on the outskirts of Calais remain a hive of frenetic activity: dozens of people line up to buy scarves, hats and gloves in an impromptu marketplace; others huddle for warmth around wood-smoke fires, sipping sweet milky tea. Even as darkness falls, the sounds of hammering and drilling fill the air as migrants and refugees mount tarpaulins to makeshift wooden structures—anything to avoid another night in a flimsy tent. It takes only a single gust of wind for the people here to find themselves homeless, again.

But the estimated 6,000 migrants and refugees in Calais are not just bracing for winter. After terrorists connected to ISIS set off suicide bombs and gunned down Parisians in the heart of the French capital on Nov. 13, the migrants here knew they might face a tide of anti-refugee sentiment—especially when a passport registered to a Syrian migrant was found among the attackers.

So two days after the Paris attacks, a couple hundred migrants gathered together in the Jungle, as the Calais camps are known, to pay tribute to the dead. Many of them knew all too well what the families and friends of the Paris victims were going through, having lost relatives and loved ones to violence in countries like Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, and Sudan.

“I was afraid,” admits Adam, a 32-year-old from Khartoum who says supporters of Sudan’s ruling party killed his wife. He has been in the Jungle for four months and applied for asylum in France in October but is still waiting to hear on the status of his application. “People say Daesh is here in the Jungle. There is no Daesh,” he says, referring to ISIS by the Arabic acronym considered derogatory by the militant group. “But it will make it harder for refugees in Europe if people think that.”

At that vigil and in the days that followed, the Jungle’s residents made artwork and wrote messages of solidarity with Paris. “We are very sory [sic], we know how do you feel when your poeple will die because we come from that country that this accident was every day in there,” wrote an 11-year-old from Afghanistan. “So it wasn’t our falt and we never want that it happen agian in Pareis. We will pray for you in front of god.”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker urged a calm response to the Paris attacks, saying there were no grounds to revise Europe’s refugee policy. “Those who organized these attacks and those that perpetrated them are exactly those that the refugees are fleeing and not the opposite,” he told E.U. interior ministers on Nov. 15.

Calais Migrant Crisis
Yoan Valat—EPAMigrants argue with French riot police at the ferry port

But the backlash towards refugees was almost instantaneous. Even as officials cautioned that the passport found near the Paris attacks could be planted by ISIS or might be a fake (Serbian police recently arrested a man carrying a Syrian passport with the exact same details as the one found by the Paris bomber), many politicians argued that terrorists were infiltrating the migrant influx. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front part, called for France to “immediately end all reception of migrants.” More than half of U.S. state governors called for a ban on Syrian refugees resettling in their states; in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban told his parliament that “terrorists have exploited mass migration.”

The aftershocks of Paris are already being felt in Calais, where migrants—rarely welcomed to begin with—worry they are being seen as a potential security threat. “Some people throw glass bottles at us when we walk to the Tunnel,” says Mima, a journalist and university graduate from Ethiopia. He spends his days helping in the camp’s large Ethiopian Orthodox church known as St Michael’s, and his nights making the nine-mile journey to the entrance of the Channel Tunnel, the undersea rail link connecting the U.K. to France. “I don’t really blame them,” he shrugs. “They don’t want us to be here, but we don’t want to be here either.”

Like most of the migrants in Calais, Mima is still reluctant to accept the squalid Jungle as his home. He spent a long, grueling journey dreaming of a better life in the U.K., traveling more than 3,000 miles (4,828 km), only to wind up here in Calais, just 21 miles (34 km) from England’s white cliffs of Dover. To cross those last few miles is no easy feat. Since June, at least 19 people have died attempting to cross into England via the Channel Tunnel. They have fallen from freight trains, been hit by cars and trucks and even been electrocuted on the railway tracks.

In late July, the situation in Calais gained international attention after Eurotunnel, the company that runs the shuttles through the Channel Tunnel, reported “nightly incursions” of hundreds of migrants attempting to storm the entrance. France dispatched riot police to the area, while Britain pledged $11 million for new 13 ft. high razor-wire fences, more surveillance equipment, sniffer dogs and floodlighting.

Calais soon dropped out of the headlines as the focus of the migrant crisis shifted to new hotspots on the edges of Europe, from the inflatable rafts abandoned on the shores of Lesbos to the border fences erected in Hungary. But the Jungle did not go away. It simply grew, quadrupling in size since early summer. As hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers continued to wind their way across Europe, more people found themselves trapped in this bottleneck on the French coast, unable to reach England. Some have applied for asylum in France and live in the Jungle while they wait for papers; others live here even after being granted refugee status, because of a shortage in housing. In mid-November, the camps once again saw violent clashes between desperate migrants and riot police stationed in Calais, with reports of migrants pelting officers with rocks and police firing tear gas at the crowds.

The escalation in tensions, coming as temperatures dropped sharply, reflects the fact that many of the migrants here feel they have reached a dead end in their search for sanctuary. Now one of the largest slums in Europe—with conditions arguably worse than those in many refugee camps in the developing world—the Jungle has come to represent the ongoing failure of the European Union to forge a common response to the worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War.

Calais Migrant Crisis
Yoan Valat—EPAMigrants recharge their mobile phones using a bicycle as a generator

This is especially true for Britain, the country where most of the refugees in the Jungle actually want to reach. “The U.K. is doing more now but remains unwilling to fully play its part and be part of Europe,” Emmanuel Agius, the deputy mayor of Calais, tells TIME. The situation in Calais is a powerful reminder of the U.K.’s essential ambivalence about its place in Europe. In a speech on Nov. 9, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that he was “deadly serious” about “reducing pressures from immigration” and other reforms to Europe’s role in the E.U. If negotiations fail ahead of a planned 2017 referendum on Britain’s membership in the E.U., Cameron said, “we will have to ask ourselves: is this organization for us?”

While Britain has stepped up security to keep asylum-seekers from Calais and elsewhere out, the country recently pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees directly from refugee camps in the Middle East over the next five years. The number matters, because experts believe resettlement programs are the key to preventing more people from taking dangerous risks to reach Europe illegally. But so far the resettlement commitments of European countries have been so small that the impact on the ground will hardly be felt. “If there was a large enough chance that they might be next, people would be happy to stay and wait and do it legally,” says Franck Duvell, an associate professor at Oxford University’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society.

Without the legal avenues of legitimate resettlement—European countries including Britain have resettled only a tiny number of Syrian refugees, though they’ve promised to take in more—the refugee flow into Europe is unlikely to slow. According to the U.N., a monthly record of 218,394 migrants and refugees arrived by sea in October, almost as many as the total arrivals for the whole of 2014. The European Commission predicts as many as 3 million refugees and migrants will arrive by the end of 2016. “If the numbers continue to be significantly high over the winter, we will be facing much more than a humanitarian crisis,” says Demetrios Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “It will be a political crisis of the highest order.”

This year’s migrant influx has already strained relations between the 26 European countries that make up the Schengen zone, where internal borders are open. The Paris attacks only heightened concerns that the E.U. principle of free movement—and the whole European project of unity—is beginning to disintegrate. “Schengen was in the hospital to start with. It’s now in the emergency ward,” says Papademetriou. “Schengen will not emerge the same was that it existed before any of these crises began, but it will survive.”

At the moment, there is little to suggest Britain will change its mind about the denizens of Calais—though many in the Jungle hope against hope that a policy shift is imminent. “I hear there is a lot of pressure on Mr Cameron. I think he will change his mind,” says Hassan, 31, from north Darfur, Sudan. “There is a glimmer of hope.” That sounds like wishful thinking. Unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who expects to take in a million refugees this year, Cameron seems to be bending to the will of his most virulently anti-immigrant constituency, having promised earlier to reduce Britain’s net migration from 298,000 in 2014 to the “tens of thousands.”

But as well as boosting security to keep migrants out, the British government has pledged more than $5 million over two years towards helping France manage the refugee crisis in Calais, including a joint Franco-British control and command center intended to break up people-smuggling gangs. In late August British Home Secretary Theresa May said the U.K. would also help improve the dispersal of migrants across France, including supporting a French site for asylum-seekers “a significant distance from Calais.” The Calais authorities are spending $19 million to build 125 heated containers that will provide shelter for 1,500 of the most vulnerable migrants, mainly women and children. But winter is here and in the meantime thousands of people endure the bitter cold with only flimsy tents and shacks for shelter.

The Jungle isn’t going anywhere—but the state has still not declared it an official refugee camp. As a result, there’s no Red Cross or U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees present in the Jungle, which sprung up spontaneously and quickly descended into conditions “far below any minimum standards for refugee camps,” as a recent study put it after researchers found water sources contaminated by feces.

On Nov. 2, a municipal court ordered local authorities to organize regular trash collection and install more water access points and toilets after French aid groups filed a complaint that said conditions in the Jungle amounted to a human rights violation. Even with those measures, it remains a desolate wasteland with overflowing toilets, piles of garbage attracting rats and few washing facilities. The residents here are even at risk of dangerous exposure to cancer-causing asbestos, which is strewn across the site. A handful of NGOs and volunteer groups struggle to meet the most basic needs of the people living here.

“Everything we see here—respiratory infections, scabies, diarrhea, malnutrition—is linked to the conditions in the camp,” says Pauline Busson, head of mission at Doctors Without Borders (DWB/MSF), who established themselves in Calais on Sept. 10. The group’s staff mostly work in the developing world, but they were shocked by the lack of basic sanitation and medical care in the Jungle. “It’s crazy that you find this in France,” she says. “There is more chaos here than in some of the camps in conflict zones and the poorest parts of the world.”

Calais migrants
Philippe Huguen—AFP/Getty ImagesMigrants walk past a makeshift restaurant

As the camps swell in size, there are signs that the Jungle is becoming a more permanent shanty town, despite the authorities’ best efforts. There are mosques and churches, a makeshift library called ‘Jungle Books’ and a school offering language classes. In the Good Chance Theatre, a dome-shaped tent where British volunteers run drama and arts workshops, people come together to sing traditional songs, learn kung-fu or perform spoken word poetry about their experiences back home and in the Jungle. And in the midst of squalor, business is booming: Afghan restaurants sell pakoras, cardamom-flavored rice and hot naan bread. The Eritrean bar blares Bob Marley songs, and dozens of shops offer everything from soda cans, pens and headphones to fresh green chillies and cigarettes wrapped in foil packets.

In October the number of new arrivals in Calais surged —particularly families and children – with some 400 migrants believed to be arriving every week. “People are trying to get as far north as possible before winter comes,” says Toby Caruana, 30, who runs an emergency distribution point in the Jungle, giving out sleeping bags and tents to those who have just arrived. But the Paris attacks seems to have stemmed that flow. Volunteers aren’t sure why they’re seeing fewer arrivals, but the increased security at France’s borders and on trains leaving from Paris in the days following the attacks may play a part, as well as the colder temperatures.

As far as the U.K. is concerned, Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute says, the new security measures since the summer have had their desired effect. Britain has never released figures about how many illegal migrants successfully make it to England from Calais, but residents of the Jungle say it’s getting increasingly difficult to make it past the border fences and police. Since July, the medical charity Médecins du Monde has offered more than 3,000 consultations in their makeshift wooden clinics. Jean-François Corty, its director of operations in France, says his staff have seen several hundred injuries—particularly broken bones and burns—relating to the dangerous risks migrants in Calais are taking in order to try and reach England. As despair mounts, many of them tell TIME that they are turning to smugglers who, in return for about $3,000, promise to find them trucks to climb into in order to reach England.

Calais Migrant Crisis
Yoan Valat—EPAA migrant makes a religious painting at the entrance of St Michael’s Church, the largest in the Jungle

“I know England will not be heaven, but it will be better than here,” says Hassan, gesturing at the muddy swamp that surrounds him. The desire to get to England increasingly is driven less by a naïve ideal of what life would be like there, than by the sheer will to survive—and get out of the Jungle

“It’s the same life for my children,” says Ali, who is from the Iraqi city of Basra and has been in Calais for two months. His two small sons and one-year-old daughter crowd around the wood fire he has been stoking, as whispers of black smoke float through the crisp air. “It’s as bad here.”

British volunteer Liz Clegg, 50, who has been helping in Calais since early August, says the mission and adrenaline help migrants keep going. “But once they’ve been here a while, that wears off and they face the realization that this journey has cost them everything,” she says. Aid workers in the camps say they have noticed a rise in depression among asylum-seekers, as more people find themselves stuck in squalid conditions for longer periods of time. Some migrants have started to turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope. As temperatures drop, more volunteer organizations are reporting thefts and ransacking: people tend to steal things they can use to build or to burn in fires, rather than valuable items.

With both the temperatures and the political climate in Europe towards refugees growing cold, the light on the horizon is rapidly dimming. “It would have been better to die in my own country,” says Muhammed, a 26-year-old Syrian who fled the conflict raging in his hometown of Aleppo. “At least then I would have died with my honor.”

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