Stuck in the 'Jungle': With few options, refugees plant roots in Calais camp

While the makeshift refugee camp originally was merely a stopover for those trying to reach Britain, it is now a default home for refugees unable to move forward or backward.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
Migrants are seen near their tents in the makeshift camp called the 'New Jungle' as unseasonably cool temperatures arrive in Calais, northern France, last week. The number of migrants camped on France's north coast near Calais has doubled to around 6,000 in recent weeks, boosted by an influx across Europe's borders.

At Sultan Mirzah’s restaurant in the “Jungle” migrant camp, you can get a heaping plate of rice, chicken and salad for 3.50 euros. A cup of milky chai tea is just 15 cents. Mr. Mirzah, from Afghanistan, has been at the Jungle for three months and says running the restaurant keeps him sane.

“I don’t want to live in the Jungle,” he says. “But working here helps the time go faster.”

A few tents down, Ahmed Adenan is running his own restaurant, just steps from a barbershop where haircuts are 5 euros a pop. “We don’t want to stay here but the border [with the UK] is very hard,” says Adenan, a Syrian who has been in the Jungle for three months and has seen his friends get broken arms, cuts, and bruises from confrontations with police at the British border. “We want to go to the UK but there is no chance … no chance at all.”

Adenan and Mirzah are part of a growing number in this camp of 6,000 people who find they can neither cross into Britain nor easily seek asylum in France. The lack of options and sense of desperation compels them to accept, however grudgingly, to live in an administrative no man’s land.

“It’s not that they want to stay, it’s that they don’t want anything at all anymore,” says Christian Salomé, president of the nonprofit organization L’Auberge des Migrants.

Trapped in limbo

According to the UNHCR, there are nearly 60 million displaced people in the world, more than 10 million of whom live in a protracted situation – defined as someone who has lived in exile for five years or longer.

For those living in refugee camps, the goal is either to return home, settle in the host country, or accept settlement in a third country. But makeshift camps like the Jungle, whose occupants are mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and Sudan, are becoming less and less temporary.

“Many in these camps think, ‘life isn’t great but it’s doable,’” says Elizabeth Collet, the director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe.

There are a host of reasons why people choose to stay in camps like the Jungle. Some face the threat of smugglers back home, to whom they owe large sums of money. Others may not qualify for protection in Europe, even if life is too dangerous or bleak to return home.

They can also get trapped by bureaucracy. Under EU rules, an asylum seeker's application is supposed to be assessed (and the seeker's fingerprints taken) at his or her first point of entry into the EU. But often fingerprinting done during application in, say, France reveals that the seeker has been arrested – a relatively common occurrence for those trying to cross borders – earlier in his or her journey across the EU.

That proves the applicant did not enter the EU in France, and France can thus reject the application out of hand – leaving many blocked administratively but unable to backtrack for fear of being re-arrested.

Even for those whose cases are still open, the wait can seem interminable. In July, the French government passed a law to reduce application processing times to 9 months, but many in the Jungle have given up on the system.

Shamim, from Afghanistan, has decided to stay in France out of exasperation, after never getting an answer back about his asylum request. “There’s nothing here. I like working in construction but without papers, it’s very difficult.”

A de facto town

But as the prospect of leaving the Jungle seems ever more grim, life inside the camp increasingly resembles a real, fully functioning town.

Weaving through the muddy paths, one can hear a cacophony of drilling, hammering, and sawing, as new restaurants and shops pop up in every inch of available space. There are already more than 30 restaurants, eight mosques, two churches, a library, and a barbershop in the camp.

Residents can charge their smartphones and collect money that family members wire to the Western Union in Calais. While there are currently no classes for children, adults can learn French or English from the steady stream of volunteers. All of this has helped residents retain a sense of normalcy in daily life.

Still, resources are limited. The camp has only 66 portable toilets and three water access points, and residents must wait days for a shower. And winter is coming. 

“Yeah, I’m afraid. Look at these tents,” says Mr. Salomé, pointing to shelters made out of blue plastic tarp and wooden slats. “You can’t burn wood here to make fires.”

And the camp's existence remains tenuous. Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart has tried to treat migrants humanely while also heeding the complaints of local residents. 

But there are rumors in the camp that the city may opt to bulldoze the site before winter. The camp has already moved once, away from a site closer to the town. And police presence around the camp has gone from nonexistent in April to some 750 officers.

And as a truck full of aid workers from Britain bounces down the muddy roads out the camp, a trail of Jungle residents run after it in jest, laughing as they pretend to catch the back, jump inside and sail onwards to England. But that's not an option right now. 

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