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Welcome to the Jungle

8 minute read

It was late on the night of July 30 in the French port city of Calais when the mood shifted. In a field awash with silvery moonlight, some 50 illegal ­migrants—mainly Syrians—sat down and turned their backs on the 20 French policemen who had formed a barricade to prevent them from returning toward the entrance of the railway terminal linking England and France. There had been scuffles earlier that night when groups of migrants faced off against the local gendarmerie as they tried to get near the fencing surrounding the tunnel. But this was something different: a peaceful demonstration against the riot police that had been dispatched to Calais to bolster security—and keep the migrants where they were.

“Let us cross,” a voice in the crowd cried. “We are Syrians. We have a war in our country. Why all of this police just for us? We are just trying to cross for a safe place.”

The voice belonged to a 27-year-old Syrian who gave his name only as Adam. He had arrived in Calais four months ago, escaping the sectarian conflict raging in his hometown of Idlib in northern Syria, part of a civil war that has led some 4 million Syrians to flee their country. His pleas went unheard—the police continued to usher the migrants away from the railway complex—but Adam gave voice to the anguish felt by the growing number of migrants attempting to cross into the U.K. every night from France, men and women who have traveled thousands of miles in search of safety and prosperity, and have so far found neither.

This has been the year of the migrant in Europe, which has struggled to absorb the 137,000 asylum seekers who arrived on its shores in the first half of 2015 alone—an 83% increase from the same period last year. So far, that impact has largely been borne by the countries of southern Europe, whose proximity to the Middle East and Africa has made them the first destinations for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Though the roughly 3,000 migrants now staying in Calais represent only a fraction of those seeking asylum in Europe, the city—already struggling with an unemployment rate of 13%, well above the French national average—says it can no longer cope with the additional economic and security challenges of hosting so many migrants. A sharp surge in violence in the French port has now brought the crisis into the very heart of the continent. “It is not a good life here,” says Nabeel Edris, a 29-year-old Eritrean who has spent six months in Calais trying to reach Britain. “It is not good at all.”

In Calais, the dream of a better life literally shimmers on the horizon. The strait between England and the European continent is at its narrowest here, and on a clear day the white cliffs of Dover can be seen just 34 km away. Migrants have been trying to cross into the U.K. from Calais since the Kosovo war in the late 1990s. Many speak English or have relatives in Britain, where they believe jobs are more plentiful than in continental Europe. In the past, migrants often tried to make the passage by stowing away in trucks that crossed the sea by ferry. With increased security around the port, the focus has shifted recently to the undersea Channel Tunnel, where migrants try to hide on international freight trains and Eurotunnel shuttles carrying vehicles.

Today those living in the “Jungle,” as the squalid encampments on the edge of Calais are known, come from conflicts that rage beyond Europe’s borders. With the world witnessing the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II, the Jungle has become a snapshot of a global phenomenon, housing Syrians, Sudanese, Eritreans and Afghans who have been forcibly displaced by violence and poverty back home. Though the Jungle sprung up without approval, it has evolved into a semi-permanent slum—albeit­ one that falls far below international humanitarian standards. Guidelines from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees recommend a maximum of 20 people using one toilet, but in the Jungle, 300 migrants share a single toilet. Piles of garbage attract rats and flies, and the air is thick with the stench of sewage and rotting food. Alcohol-fueled scuffles occasionally break out. “I am always scared, always scared to sleep,” says a 22-year-old Eritrean woman who gave her name only as Fiyori.

Calais itself has come to resemble a fortress, with towering chain-link fences and coils of barbed wire running for miles around the port and Eurotunnel complex. Ruben Andersson, a migration expert at the London School of Economics, says the increased fortification of land borders in Calais is a “disproportionate” response that fails to acknowledge the negative effects of similar policies at borders in other parts of the world—and which has failed to stop the migrants in any case. “What we’ve seen in Calais over many years is that the more you fortify a border, all you do is displace routes across relatively safe borders to much riskier crossings,” he says.

As the British and French authorities crack down on more direct routes to reach England, migrants in Calais are trying more dangerous methods. Since June, at least nine people have died in attempts to reach England, falling from trains as they tried to hang on, killed by trucks on the motorway and even drowning in a canal at the tunnel entrance. That compares to a total of 15 migrant deaths for all of 2014.

Eurotunnel, the company that runs the shuttles through the railway terminal, said that since January it had prevented 37,000 attempts, describing “nightly incursions” of hundreds of migrants trying to storm security forces at once, in the hope that a lucky few will make it to the other side. On the night of July 28 alone, a few hundred migrants made over 2,000 attempts to breach the entrance of the Channel Tunnel, the railway line that links France and England. One young Sudanese man died, most likely crushed by a truck exiting one of the shuttles.

British tabloids immediately sounded the alarm over fears of a “migrant invasion” while politicians called for the army to be sent to Calais to protect Britain’s borders. For almost a week, more than 4,500 vehicles queued to cross to France, costing the British economy an estimated $390 million a day. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised that Britain would not become a “safe haven” for illegal immigrants, pledging more fencing and sniffer dogs to crack down on illegal border crossings. Accused of being lax by British politicians, France quickly dispatched 150 extra riot police to Calais. As dusk fell on July 30, the police began patrolling the 23-km perimeter of the Eurotunnel complex, blocking roads previously open to the public.

But the residents of the Jungle were unfazed. That evening a steady parade of more than a hundred people could be seen walking across the city’s bridges and fields, silhouetted against the sunset as they headed toward the railway terminal. They told hopeful stories of friends and family who had reached England. Rumors floated in the crowd that in one night recently, as many as 60 migrants had made it to Dover in the U.K. The real possibility of death did little to discourage migrants who had already faced worse.

“Back home, you could wake up in the morning and go to work and die. You could die every day, any day,” says Tahir Dlil, a 26-year-old radiology graduate who fled the turmoil in Sudan a year ago and has been in Calais for more than four months. “Would we have come if there was peace? Why would we want to live like animals in the Jungle? No. We just want to live, to work, that’s all.”

Many of the migrants wearily accept that they will be in Calais longer than they would like: Bored of Borders reads a sign outside one tent. In the Jungle, you can now get a haircut, have your bike fixed, take French classes in the makeshift school and even pray in an improvised mosque or church. Some of the more enterprising residents stock up on goods in supermarkets in central Calais, hawking them for a profit back in the Jungle. There are over a dozen pop-up shops, selling everything from cell-phone SIM cards and cigarettes to whiskey, Red Bull and Coca-Cola. At night, people dance to Michael Jackson songs under a disco ball in a makeshift club.

While some of his friends have decided to seek asylum in France, Dlil is confident his yearlong quest will eventually end in England. He spends his nights making the 14.5-km walk from the camp to the railway terminal, displaying cuts from barbed wire and bruises from clashes with police. When asked how he usually spends his days in Calais, he breaks into a wide smile. “England,” he says with a grin. “I dream about England all day.”

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Write to Naina Bajekal / Calais at naina.bajekal@time.com