Signs of Change in the Jungle

Sarah El-Rashidi

October 19, 2016

There were several signs of change in Calais, after French authorities announced the plan to dismantle the sprawling camp. Aid workers added suitcases to the list of items distributed to the refugee population. They also noted a notable increase in the number of nightly attempts by unaccompanied minors to flee the Jungle, smuggling their way into the UK. Police have tear gassed the camp almost on a nightly basis in the past week. A sense of panic and uncertainty is setting in.

The sprawling Calais Jungle in France, home to over 10,000 refugees, appears to be a randomly orchestrated oversized campsite on a wasteland. The winter months approaching are the worst—no heating, poor sewage facilities, and an ever-growing population means the camp’s limited resources are always strained. Despite these conditions and a vow by the French government to shut it down, the camp continues to grow.

And as bulldozers are expected to raze the tents to the ground—when exactly is unclear—questions remain over where the youngest within the Jungle’s refugee population will end up. Many of the charities working with the refugees in Calais oppose the demolition of the camp. Care4Calais, another UK-based charity aiding refugees in the Jungle, issued a statement calling for authorities to call off the demolition. “Destroying the basic infrastructure will achieve nothing more than making living conditions so much more inhumane,” the statement read. “The escalation of problems in Calais, and the fact that we know that more, not fewer, refugees are on their way, means that a longer term solution than demolitions is required.”

Destroying the basic infrastructure will achieve nothing more than making living conditions so much more inhumane.

—Statement by Care4Calais

Care4Calais points to previous attempts to contain the Jungle. In February, over half of the camp was demolished, and today the Jungle and its population is the biggest it has ever been. UNHCR was a lone voice in the rights community welcoming the decision, but said that the French government must be responsible for the relocation of the refugees, as well as the safeguarding of unaccompanied minors susceptible to the dangers of trafficking.

French police look on as tents in the southern part of the Jungle are destroyed in March 2016 (Amirah Breen)

While announcing the plan to shut down the camp, French President Francois Hollande said that temporary centers around the country will be ready to receive at least 9,000 refugees from the Jungle. Hollande added that they would remain at those centers for a limited period of three to four months. Charity groups say refugees relocated to other parts of the country will likely return to Calais in an effort to cross the border into the UK. In fact, according to Help Refugees, a British charity providing emergency relief to refugees living in camps across Europe, only 744 households in the camp said in September that they hope to remain in France.

Charity organizations have also decried the fact that this option appears open only to families and adults. The question of the Jungle’s unaccompanied minors is a thorny one, and has led to the postponement of evictions, originally scheduled to begin on October 17. According to reports, the destruction of the camp has been postponed to October 24, as France and Britain hammer out a plan to relocate the unaccompanied minors remaining in the camp.

A volunteer teacher gives a special alphabet course to a young Kurdish girl from Iraq, at a makeshift school in the Jungle, February 15, 2016. (Pascal Rossigno/Reuters)

A September census carried out by Help Refugees revealed that of the 1,179 children in the Jungle, the vast majority are alone—unaccompanied minors with no family in the camp. Only 94 children are with their parents, while another 63 live with relatives. As refugees await the final destruction of the camp, the number of unaccompanied minors continues to grow, arriving at an increased rate. According to Help Refugees, around 11 children are arriving in the camp on a daily basis.

Efforts to resettle unaccompanied minors in the UK have already begun. Fourteen children arrived in Croydon on October 17, with dozens more expected to follow in the coming week. At least 100 unaccompanied minors are expected to make the move from Calais to the UK. According to recent figures, almost 400 children in the camp are entitled to move the UK, half of which have relatives there.

A Refuge for Women in the Jungle

A census conducted by Help Refugees in early 2016 placed the number of women in the jungle at just 3 percent of the population. There is space for around 200 women in the women and children-only Jules Ferry center, further illustrating their triviality. In this gated section, women have access to food, basic shelter, and sanitary facilities. Given the lack of security in the main part of the camp where men live, with frequent crimes and ethnic clashes, the women living in Jules-Ferry say they feel safer in this secure location, among one another.<

“My husband wants me to live here in Jules Ferry with my 10-year-old daughter Shoaq as it is safer. The security protects us,” Laila tells MENASource. She sees her husband for just half an hour every day, when he comes to the gates of Jules Ferry and escorts her and Shoaq to a safe quarter, where they spend time as a family.

My husband wants me to live here in Jules Ferry with my 10-year-old daughter Shoaq as it is safer. The security protects us.

—Laila, a refugee in the Jungle

Laila is a Kuwaiti ‘Bidun’ of Iraqi origin. The ‘Bidun’ are a stateless minority living mainly in Kuwait and the UAE. The Kuwaiti government asserts that they are foreign nationals of neighboring Arab countries and refuses to recognize them. As stateless Arabs, undocumented Bidun have faced discrimination and persecution, and a number of them—like Laila and her family—have sought refuge in the camp, caught up in the migrant crisis

The Women’s and Children’s Center, founded by Liz Clegg within the confines of Jules Ferry, is an unofficial entity working with a dedicated group of volunteers and local associations. In March, the group had to construct a second make-shift center inside a colorful double-decker London bus outside the Jules Ferry section. The original center was demolished by French authorities, along with other parts of the camp.

The Women and Children's Center in the Jungle (Sarah El-Rashidi)

The center cares for pregnant women, liaises with the housing team and Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), and is the central point of distribution for all goods to women and children in the camp, aiming to reach up to 400 women per week. It provides round-the-clock essential services to women, children, and unaccompanied minors. Women are offered vital hygiene and family planning products, fresh supplies such as formula, diapers, clothing items, and a safe place to meet and talk over a cup of tea. Daily classes are offered to children, including French and English lessons. 

“We run daily activities, provide essential care, supplies and services necessary to support children, women, and babies,” Clegg says. 

Every Wednesday, women and children can choose from a variety of clothes and shoes donated in one of the large tents inside Jules Ferry. The center provides women the privacy they need to try things on and socialize. It’s a moment of normality, of everyday life, in the Jungle where women can vent pent up emotions.

But these women’s lives are anything but normal. Mina, a Sudanese refugee in her twenties says her mother was killed and her sister raped in front of her. She left her two children behind in North Sudan, and has lived in the Jungle for five months. “I have nothing left,” she says.

Her escape took her through Egypt—where she worked as a maid—and later through Libya, where a Libyan family’s support enabled her to escape by sea. Upon arriving in Europe, she headed for Paris, having heard that many refugees found refuge in the French capital. Instead, she ended up sleeping under a bridge among hundreds of refugees. It was at this point that she headed further north for the Jungle.

As she tells her story, she breaks down crying, her arms outstretched as though seeking an embrace that does not come.

Attempts to Leave

Like all Jungle residents MENASource spoke to, the women interviewed say they hope to migrate to the UK, listing France as a secondary option. The popular desire to end up in the UK can also be seen throughout the camp on the graffitied tents and make-shift walls.

Among the messages spray painted on the side of one white tent is the phrase: ‘There is one wish in my heart, that I take one cup tea [sic] in London.’

A quantitative survey conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in May 2016 found that 82 percent of the estimated 6,000 refugees living in the camp at the time wanted to seek asylum in the UK.  To get there, many—including women and unaccompanied minors—are willing to risk attempting to escape by night either independently on lorries or with the assistance of smugglers.

When night falls, many of the Jungle’s men, women, and children make the perilous choice—attempting to escape to London, either alone—hiding in lorries—or paying smugglers to help them. The Jungle residents the author spoke to said refugees pay as much as £4,000 ($5,058) per person.  

In May, 82% of the Jungle's residents said they wished to seek asylum in the UK. They pay as much as $5,000 to be smuggled across the border.

“What happened to your eye Khadiga?” camp volunteer Laly asks, as a veiled woman dressed in a ‘abaya’ with a black eye enters the tent to choose a pair of shoes. Khadiga brushes off the question saying she fell. Later Laly explains that many women and children make the nightly attempt to escape. “Most fail but they still try,” she says, adding “Khadiga was most likely beaten by the French police or smugglers.”

The Camp's Most Vulernable

Of the estimated 1,000 unaccompanied minors in the Jungle, some are among those attempting the nightly escape to the UK, and with dire consequences. In September, a 14-year-old Afghan was killed when he was reportedly struck by a car after falling off a truck he hoped would smuggle him into the UK.

An amendment to the UK Immigration Act, known as the Dubs Amendment, that requires the government to welcome 3,000 unaccompanied minors from across Europe appears to have done little to move the needle. Since the author traveled to Calais, Help Refugees has taken legal action against the government for failing to comply with the amendment, while the UK government ignores France’s request to accept the Jungle’s unaccompanied minors, as the camp’s demolition looms.

Gabriel a 16-year-old Sudanese unaccompanied minor tells his story without hesitation—his attitude differing from his guarded older counterparts. His journey began in prison, where he says he was jailed for one night for attempting to help refugees in his school. Fearing further incarceration, he braved the treacherous journey by sea, leaving behind his parents, two brothers, and two sisters. Starting on the coast of Egypt, he landed in the Sicilian city of Messina, and then travelled by car to Calais. The trip, which his family paid for, cost him $1,300—almost 8,000 Sudanese pounds. Gabriel is also among those attempting a nightly escape, and like most refugees in the camp who were interviewed, Gabriel wants to go to England, though his rationale is more naïve than others. 

“I want to live in Manchester, I love football and support Manchester United. Also I have heard it is nice. I know the language and have friends there,” he says. Gabriel says he has just one friend in the Jungle. 

Those who do make it to the UK are faced with further challenges, with the Home Office facing multiple accusations of misconduct, including spending 50,000 pounds in legal fees in an attempt to stop unaccompanied minors in Calais from joining their relatives in the UK. According to Clegg, once accepted, these unaccompanied minors remain in a state of limbo until they turn 18, after which their case is re-opened. In many instances, interview responses made when they were under the age of ten, are used against them and they are no longer guaranteed asylum. As an unaccompanied minor, Gabriel stands a better chance of attaining asylum, but once he reaches 18, the likelihood of deportation is high, Clegg says. “Once they turn 18 they are generally deported back to their war-torn countries. There is a lot of evidence of suicide and self-harm. Many try to return to the UK, facing the treacherous sea journey for a second and third time,” she explains.

In February, the Home Office admitted to deporting over 2,700 people who had arrived in the UK as unaccompanied minors, sending them back to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria over the past nine years. This despite a government spokesman saying months earlier that Syrian refugees are granted a five-year protection visa. “At the end of this period, they can either return home or apply for indefinite leave to remain,” the statement claimed.

Mohamed, a 19-year-old ethnic Oromo from Ethiopia, is just one year over the cut off age. With a strong command of English, he describes what he sees as an ethnic bias in the asylum process. Mohamed has a chart outlining each country’s refugee quotas, divided by ethnicity.  “No one is looking at my case here in France. Look at the figures—I have a higher chance of attaining asylum in the UK—55 percent versus 20 percent in France,” he says, straddling his bicycle with a grey hoody covering his head. For Mohamed, language is another key factor contributing to his desire to seek asylum in the UK.

Mohamed refuses to share his story, saying only that what he has been through is worse than anyone could imagine. He says that, because there are no psychological services in the camp, TV is his only source of escapism. A former medical student, Mohamed fled his country after six months in jail following an attempt to reclaim a family farm seized by the government. His parents, three brothers, and a sister remain in Ethiopia, but all his family’s wealth, he says is now controlled by the state. The journey from his home to the Jungle, traveling through Sudan, Libya, and Italy cost $9,000, more than 199,700 Ethiopian Birr. Since arriving in the camp, he has had no permanent tent spot, moving on a weekly basis within the confines of the Jungle.

He complains of frequent clashes in the camp, pulling up a photo saved on his phone showing a tent in the Jungle on fire, after what he says was a fight between Sudanese and Afghani refugees. In August, a Sudanese migrant was killed and another injured in similar clashes, as tensions rise at night when refugees attempt to escape the Jungle. “There’s no security and the police don’t care,” he says. This does not stop Mohamed from joining in the nightly escape attempts.

Mostafa, a 24-year-old Syrian refugee and former architecture student, also plans to smuggle his way to London. Like Mohamed and Gabriel, he wants to rebuild his life in the UK, complete his education, and find a job. Once the war is over, he wants to return home. Some refugees in Calais have already decided that returning home is the only option left. One Arab refugee, who requested complete anonymity, escaped persecution in his country, winding up in Calais. A cancer patient with family in Europe who refuse to help him, he in turn refuses to seek medical treatment. He insists that he does not want to take anything that is not legally his to have. His decision was spurred by the unfair image conveyed in the media of refugees coming to live off of the European benefits system. He now plans to brave the trip back to Turkey where he can seek asylum, or to his home country for treatment.

Sarah El-Rashidi graduated from Cambridge University with a Masters in International Relations, which encompassed a thesis focused on the Muslim Brotherhood. El-Rashidi is a human rights activist and founder of an NGO. Her first professional post was at the UN’s World Health Organization in Cairo. She began her journalistic career in 2011, appearing on TV and radio, directing and producing documentaries, and publishing a portfolio of articles and photographs and is part of the BBC Academy. She is now pursuing a PhD at Oxford University,