During the 14th century, after King Edward III of England annexed France’s northernmost region, Calais was known as the “brightest jewel in the English crown.” Today, the town’s reputation is a very different one, as it continues to sit at the center of Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II.
Since 1999, when the Red Cross opened a refugee center in Sangatte, south of Calais, the area has become the rendezvous point for thousands of economic migrants and refugees looking to enter the U.K. The center quickly became overcrowded, forcing an increasing number of people to set up camp in the adjacent woods — and thus the “jungle” was born. In the last 15 years, the jungle has taken different forms and has had various lives. In 2002, Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s interior minister, even had it bulldozed to the ground. But the migrants kept on coming back.
Last year, as hundreds of thousands refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have made their way north, the jungle has grown: it went from 1,500 residents to more than 6,000 last fall, before dropping to 4,000 more recently. Now, the French government has moved to close down the jungle. The process, which is expected to take up to three weeks, will involve about 1,500 people being moved to a newly built container town, with many others forced to move north to Dunkirk or even to Belgium.
Magnum photographer Jerome Sessini was in Calais a few weeks ago, documenting the paradoxical relationship the town has developed with the migrants. “While they can’t really be seen in town, there’s still some sort of tension because the name Calais has become synonymous with this issue,” he tells TIME. “The city has been stigmatized. Tourists, especially British ones, don’t visit anymore.”
Still, apart from a few outliers, Sessini feels that the locals don’t hold ill feelings toward the migrants. Instead, they are fed up with a government that keeps on displacing the problem without ever addressing it head-on. “The government tried to move the migrants to different cities around France, but they want to go to the U.K., so they always come back,” says Sessini. “If we really want to deal with the jungle, there’s no other option than to open the border. But, that’s never going to happen.”
Already, another “jungle” has sprung up in Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk. There, the living conditions are said to be even worse.
Jerome Sessini is a photographer represented by Magnum Photos.
Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME's International Photo Editor.