For French protester, a surprising discovery in Calais migrant 'Jungle'

Nicole Cordier was among those in Calais demanding the end of the Jungle migrant camp, near the French end of the Channel Tunnel. Then she decided to visit.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Nicole Cordier stands in front of a makeshift schoolhouse in the Jungle migrant camp in Calais, France.

Amid friends’ stories of pick-pocketing by migrants in town and attacks on truck drivers heading out of it, Nicole Cordier didn’t hesitate to join a protest earlier this month in Calais, the port city aside the French terminus of the Channel Tunnel.

Hundreds of protesters accompanied by truck drivers and farm tractors blocked highways to call for the teeming migrant camp on the city’s edge, known as the Jungle, to be closed down.

Hours later, however, she found herself in the center of the migrant camp, after she met an NPR reporter covering the protest who offered to take her to see the Jungle for herself.

Gregarious and always up for something new, Ms. Cordier went along – and now she thinks everyone else in Calais should too.

“They would see something else,” Cordier says. “We always criticize, but we do not know them. People say they are dirty. That they steal, or break everything.… People take all the bad, and they generalize.”

The geopolitical sparring between Britain and France over whose responsibility it is to accommodate the up to 10,000 refugees now estimated to be living here has turned Calais into a potent symbol of Europe’s failures to respond collectively to the migration crisis.

Politicians are still grasping at solutions, but so far they've just divided groups farther. This month Britain began laying concrete slabs on French soil to support a 13-foot-high wall along the highway where migrants try to force their way into vehicles crossing the Channel. This week, President François Hollande, on a visit to Calais, said the Jungle will be dismantled by the end of the year – a proposal met by both praise and accusations of presidential politicking ahead of next year's election.

Caught in the middle of the rhetoric and boiling resentments are locals like Cordier and the refugees living here. They hardly cross paths. The situation might look different if they did, if each could put a human face to the other and find common ground. Instead, the Jungle, as the subject of political bickering, has grown into a city within a city.

'Fear between locals and migrants'

Malcolm Astell, one of thousands of volunteers whose numbers have ballooned along with the number of migrants, says he quit his job in Britain and came to help the learning initiative Jungle Books a month ago, out of shame over the British government. But he blames both nations’ political classes.

“You come to Calais and all you see are fences and barriers being built here in Europe, which is supposed to be a place of prosperity and harmony,” he says. “By forcing people onto the periphery and creating tent cities outside rich Western towns, they create fear between locals and the people in the camp.”

Calais’s position on the English Channel has always drawn migrants hoping to get to Britain, but the migration crisis has turned it into an embarrassment to France, with conditions that rival some of the worst on the continent and desperate migrants, many of them refugees fleeing war and oppression, risking their lives daily to leave. Thirteen have died since the start of the year, according to a tally by Agence France Presse.

Local Calais residents have fumed as the situation has deteriorated. Business leaders like Frédéric Van Gansbeke, the local business association head, say commerce is way down, and partially blame media coverage for damaging the town’s image. Mr. Van Gansbeke fully supports President Hollande’s plans to take the Jungle down and relocate migrants to shelters across France.

“The camp must absolutely be removed if we’re going to relaunch our economy," he says. "The camp that once had a thousand now has 10,000 to 11,000. If we do nothing it will be 20,000 in six months and 30 to 40,000 in a year.”

Visiting the Jungle

If locals lament that their town has become synonymous with migration troubles, those in the Jungle say that outsiders unfairly view it only as a place of misery.

On a recent day, the Jungle is bustling. Soccer balls are kicked. Cell phone stations are recharging phones. Food is sold in makeshift restaurants, tea is served. English and French lessons are underway, while volunteers care for the youngest migrants.

Cordier says her friends and family could not understand why she visited the Jungle, and now can't believe she plans to go again – repeatedly – as a volunteer.

“Crazy,” confirms her friend Yoann Hermant, owner of Le Petit Baigneur, which sells fresh mussels as ferries cross the Channel. Mr. Hermant says last month his 18-year-old son was surrounded by 20 migrants in the center of town and his mobile phone stolen.

"Why do they have to come here and be so disruptive?" he says. "What I accept least is that they put people's lives in danger."

Cordier doesn’t dismiss this. But she says she learned. “There are good people there and bad people, just like in Calais, just like everywhere else,” she says.

Mistrust cuts both ways. At a school constructed on the edge of the Jungle, teacher Clemence Chevrere notices Cordier right away – her shock of white hair is hard to forget. “That is the woman who was at the protest,” she tells her sister.

Ms. Chevrere admits she was skeptical about Cordier when she first met her, since she was wearing an “I ♥ Calais” t-shirt that gave her away as a Jungle protester. But when they talked, Chevrere realized Cordier had an open mind. Still, Chevrere disagrees with Cordier that all locals should pay a visit here. “Many people would come here and still only see bad,” she says.

Later they talk about what Cordier could contribute as a volunteer. “I am old, I can’t lift heavy things, but I can take care of kids, I can do that,” Cordier says, pointing to a little Kurdish boy from Iraq asleep in a volunteer’s arms.

A complicated situation

Cordier’s view isn’t a complete transformation. For starters, she says she has never been anti-migrant, but mad at the politicians who have created this problem. Still, she is not without criticism of migrants. She does wonder why so many young men are at the camp, instead of at home defending their countries. She is angry that more and more seem to be drinking, causing more problems.

She likes what she hears from some of the leaders of the far-right National Front (FN), which is gaining ground in Pas-de-Calais on anti-migrant sentiment and economic malaise in the former industrial region.

“Today if we had real borders, like other countries do, we wouldn’t be in the process of having to deal with this migration anarchy,” says Rudy Vercucque, a council member in the region for the FN. In the meantime, he says that refugees and economic migrants should be distinguished immediately, with the former welcome and the latter having “no business on French territory,” he says.

Cordier agrees. But her view has changed on where the fault lies. “I tell my friends, 'it is not [the migrants] fault that they are here.’”

Mohammad, a young man from Pakistan at the Jungle who says he has spent the better part of a year trying to reach Britain, smiles dubiously about the plans for migrant relocation across France. He says he does not feel welcome in Calais or France.

“I am from Calais,” Cordier tells him eagerly. She talks often of her love for Calais. She says she retired here because of the sea air – she walks for two hours on the beach each day – and the constantly changing clouds.

“You do not live in the Jungle,” he points out.

“But I am going to volunteer here,” she says. “I will be back.”

“You are welcome here,” he says, without irony, but it is there in abundance.

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