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After Paris, Life For Refugees in France Has Gotten Even Harder

7 minute read

It had been one of the warmest Novembers on record, and for a while, the estimated 6,000 migrants and refugees in the French port city of Calais almost counted themselves lucky. That 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. But the people living in the Jungle, as the camps on the outskirts of Calais are known, are bracing for more than just 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 anti­refugee ­sentiment—especially­ when a passport registered to a Syrian migrant was found among the attackers.

The aftershocks of Paris are already being felt in Calais, where migrants—rarely welcomed to begin with—worry they are being seen as a 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 14-km 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 says with a shrug. “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 4,800 km, only to wind up here in Calais, just 34 km from England’s white cliffs of Dover. To cross this last distance 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. Yet they keep coming.

As hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers continued to wind their way across Europe this year, more people found themselves trapped in this bottleneck on the French coast. The Calais camps have quadrupled in population since the early summer. Some residents 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 saw violent clashes, 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. 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 World War II.

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 all 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,” says Papademetriou. “It’s now in the emergency ward.”

Britain is the destination of choice for most of the migrants in Calais, but the nation has done all it can to keep them out, stepping up security at the Channel Tunnel. As far as the U.K. is concerned, Papademetriou says, the ­razor-wire fences and surveillance equipment 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 its 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 are taking to leave Calais. 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 the U.K.

But that desire to get to England increasingly is driven less by a naive 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 1-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 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, volunteer organizations are reporting more 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 toward 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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Write to Naina Bajekal/Calais at naina.bajekal@time.com