In Calais, Unwelcome Refugees

In Longreads

What is probably the best tandoori chicken in France is sold in a refugee encampment in Calais, at a restaurant made of scrap wood and plastic tarps called the Three Idiots. A man from Peshawar, Pakistan, named Osam opened the restaurant last fall with two friends. “My intention was to go to England. But when I had some problems with my documentation I came here,” he said, standing beside the rug that passes for the restaurant’s front door. A social center of the camp, the Three Idiots is decorated cheerily, with balloons, a stuffed tiger in a red cowboy hat, and a Welsh flag, which some nationalistic volunteers donated before heading back to Cardiff. Osam used to run a restaurant in Peshawar, he said, and he saw an opportunity in the camp, which he referred to by the informal name it has acquired. “We cannot open a business in England yet, so we do it in the Jungle. People needed a place to go, be with others, have dinner.” The chicken costs 1.50 euros a plate, which not all the refugees can afford, but enough can. The place fills up most nights, particularly now that the evenings have dropped below freezing, and a restaurant, even one made of scrap wood, that has a gas oven is far more comfortable than a tent on dirt outside.

Social spaces are important in refugee camps, where information about borders and routes is traded and distraction is a psychological help on cold nights. A business partner of Osam’s who sometimes goes by Flower—the English translation of his name in Urdu—is particularly theatrical in the restaurant. The maître d’, Flower likes to affect a dramatic, obsequious manner, like a butler in an 18th-century palace. His colonial-servant shtick is taken with a smirk by most of the clientele, mainly middle-class men who have fled conflicts in Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. But it can make other customers, the British ones—a combination of neighborhood-level fund-raisers, spontaneous Kickstarter-funded aid workers, trade unionists, church groups, hippies, anarchists, weekend do-gooders, and the occasional celebrity volunteering to build shelters in the camp—nervous. They laugh uncomfortably as he bows deeply and waves his hands through the smoky air, saying, “Right away, sir. Yes, sir. Your rice, sir.”

The Jungle is the westernmost of the makeshift refugee encampments that arose in 2015 in vacant lots, train stations, and patches of forest across Europe. It’s famous for crime and cold, and for tear gas. French riot police deploy it most nights to create a buffer between the camp and an adjacent highway, hoping to discourage the refugees who live in the Jungle from sneaking onto trucks stuck in traffic before crossing into the nearby English Channel Tunnel. This so-near-and-yet-so-far access to Great Britain is why 4,000 to 6,000 people have amassed in the Jungle over the last year, trying to get to England, where they may have family or job prospects. Some believe the U.K. offers a better chance of asylum than France or other countries.

Six months after European citizens and some governments declared “Refugees Welcome,” the reality has set in for many European communities, which have responded to the growing refugee populations with increasing distrust and violence. Denmark recently passed a law widely seen as intended to discourage refugees from coming there. People appearing to by Muslim or Middle Eastern were attacked after men fitting that description (along with Europeans and Americans) were reported as having groped or sexually assaulted women during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, Germany. Yet no end to the crisis is in sight: 67,000 refugees crossed into Greece in January, according to UNHCR, when an expected winter lull failed to materialize (just over 1,600 crossed in January, 2015). While in Greece, groups such as the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, and UNHCR work to provide shelter and food for refugees, by the time those same people have made it to westernmost Europe, the support structures are gone, leaving them to rely on their own savings, resources, and creativity. The same child who fled her bombed village, then faced a perilous sea crossing, ends up living in a freezing shantytown on yet another coastline. The young man rescued by Greece’s navy may wind up being teargassed by France’s riot squad three weeks later.


Video of neo-Nazis in Dover, England—the other side of the Channel Tunnel from the Jungle—demonstrating against the arrival of refugees from Calais. They clashed with supporters of the refugees.

Recently, the Jungle has been the topic of intense scrutiny in Europe because of a plan to close it and move some of its residents into new housing nearby. New housing sounds good enough, but for bureaucratic and other reasons the proposal has not gone over well in the camp.

In January, the transition to the new facility got under way, with officials from the regional government claiming that it would take in 50 people a day and eventually hold 1,500. But its capacity then was not even 500, and even if filled, the new camp would leave thousands of Jungle residents still out in the cold. As officials began to demolish the Jungle in stages, many of the refugees would likely move up the coast to Dunkirk, 20 miles away, where a smaller encampment had grown in recent months. After a year of global attention to an ongoing refugee crisis, thousands of people would be living with almost no public support in a muddy field, scraping together businesses and shelter from garbage. Should French officials decide to bulldoze the camp entirely, would that establish a precedent for officials other places refugees have been sleeping on their way from Greece to Western Europe?

It was possible to find housing and assistance in any number of nearby French cities—including Calais itself, population 120,000—so evidently some people were choosing to live in a rat-infested shantytown, widely known as a violent, desperate, crime-ridden place, in the depths of winter—raising the question of why people didn’t apply for asylum in France and leave the camp. Osam, who said he had some money in the bank, could open his restaurant in downtown Calais, where his chicken would sell for 10 euros a plate.

City officials in Calais announced in January that they would be clearing the Jungle that month, and they began by bulldozing the section of tents nearest the highway, about half a mile from the Three Idiots. As an alternative, the city unveiled a new, official refugee camp, located on the Jungle’s edge. A block of shipping containers modified to function as housing, it has the look of a prison and is ringed by a tall fence and accessed by an electronic palm scan. Each container is hooked up for heat and electricity and filled wall-to-wall with bunk beds, with just enough space for 12 people to sleep.

But few took the city up on the offer. The palm scanners spooked some of the residents, who worried their biometrics would be given to police and used against them if they managed to get to England. “Most of the Jungle people don’t want to stay [at the new camp] because they think when we register ourselves here, it will be a problem,” said one of the few who agreed to move, an Afghan named Miraj, 23. “It’s a good, warm place. It’s a little better.” An IT specialist from a town in Logar province, about an hour from Kabul, he was walking down a dirt road beside the Jungle. “But just for sleeping. [There is] no kitchen, no other place.” With no place to cook, Miraj had to spend more money on food, cutting into his dwindling reserves. (Concerned with prejudicing his asylum status, he agreed to speak on the condition that only his first name be used but allowed the conversation to be recorded.) And with no place to sit, other than inside the narrow metal box, he found himself spending his time back in the old part of the Jungle anyway, to avoid feeling like a prisoner, he said.

Miraj’s experience of the Jungle has been his experience of France, and it hasn’t encouraged him to stay: “French police have awful behavior, to every refugee here.” He claimed to have been beaten on the back with a nightstick in failed attempts to board a truck for Dover. “Every time the police caught us, sometimes they bring us to the jail, four or five days, then back to the Jungle.”

Miraj is a computer programmer, and that has factored into his thinking too. He was aware of Europeans’ concerns that refugees would rely on public assistance, he said, and thought his computer training could help him avoid that—but it would be more difficult in France, where he faces a language barrier. “In England, if I take a few courses, yes, but in France, no. All the [technical manuals] are in French.”

Miraj knew how valuable his skills were, having learned the hard way. Before leaving Afghanistan, he had worked in the IT department of his regional government, but after Taliban forces took the area he received a visit from gunmen, who ordered him to work for them. “The Taliban came to my home because I worked with the government,” he said. “I had to flee.” He’d rather put those skills to work for the British, he said. And so far, no English person had teargassed him.

“I want to complete my plan and go to the U.K.,” he said. “I considered France, but some people say they usually don’t give [asylum papers].” His hope if he made it was to survive until the war in Afghanistan was over and then go home. “Of course I want to go home,” he said, turning down the road into the Jungle. “I will go home. I love my country.”

The Jungle is just a sliver of a global refugee population that now tops 60 million. The wave of migrants who entered Europe last year was barely 1.5 percent of the people on the move around the world. Among the millions displaced by violence in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan, Ukraine, the Central African Republic, Burundi, the DRC, Somalia, Nigeria, Colombia, Myanmar, El Salvador, and elsewhere in 2015, only about a million reached asylum in Europe—or about one newcomer for every 500 residents. By comparison, Turkey, with 15 percent of the 28 EU nations’ population, is home to twice as many refugees.

The Jungle is not the first camp most of its residents have visited, but either it or its replacement is likely to be the last, one way or the other. Many have spent years in camps in or near their home regions, but, facing a second displacement, found they needed to leave again. By the time they reach the Three Idiots, they’re as far west as they can go from Syria without hitting the Atlantic, or at least the English Channel. It’s the end of the road.

Unless they head up to Dunkirk. Florence Vanderborght, who operates a clinic at the makeshift camp there for Médecins du Monde, sees 60 patients a day. “We see a lot of scabies from sleeping outside, and upper respiratory infections, from the cold,” she said. “We worry about the infections in children. We don’t have a psychologist until next week, which has been worrying.” MdM runs the clinic with Médecins Sans Frontières. They are the only large humanitarian organizations working in the channel camps.

The Dunkirk camp, in a patch of woods outside town, is mostly run by the local volunteers and the Kurdish refugees. The closest building is a Decathlon store, a big-box retailer of camping gear, including sleeping bags, thermal underwear, socks, boots, and tents. The CRS prevents the refugees from bringing anything into the camp, so they don’t bother shopping there. MSF is building a medical center near the camp, and shipments of firewood occasionally get past the CRS officers, but no one has yet managed to bring in enough materials to build a restaurant or open a store.

With the plan to bulldoze the Jungle, the Dunkirk camp is likely to grow, Vanderborght said. The shipping-container camp was nowhere near large enough to house the thousands in the Jungle, and the bulldozing plan aggravated a tense situation. Set on a former landfill, the Jungle is surrounded 24 hours a day by dozens of officers of France’s riot police, a national body called the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité. Its officers serve there in three-week rotations, assuming defensive positions on the highway and adjacent to two dirt roads entering the camp. Often seen managing civil disturbances in thick black armor and motorcycle-style helmets, the CRS officers have a reputation in France as hard men and women. Apart from the standard pistols and the rifles they are sometimes equipped with, the officers positioned along the camp’s perimeter usually have some combination of three large riot control weapons hanging off them: a long baton, a gun loaded with rubber bullets, and a tear gas launcher. With their strapped appearance and plates of body armor, which give a hulking profile, the CRS officers are sometimes referred to by Jungle residents as “Ninja Turtles.”

Before the order came to start clearing the first section of the camp, the main job of the CRS had been to defend the nearby highway, which Jungle residents frequently blocked with debris late at night. When semi drivers bound for England stopped in the resulting traffic, camp dwellers broke into the trailers of their trucks, stowing away. Drivers rarely got out of the cabs, fearing confrontations, according to reports—or because, the rumors went, they were paid off, or just sympathetic.

This was the scenario the tear gas was meant to stop, and the CRS often chased groups working their way down the barbed-wire fencing along the highway. The tear gassings have become regular events, and accusations of violence by the CRS while repelling attempts to get past the fence are common.

“Usually they shoot in the air, but they shot directly at me,” said Asher Osai, an 18-year-old from a small town near Aleppo, Syria, who said he came to the Jungle in November. It had taken him several weeks to get there after crossing into Europe by sea, from Turkey to Greece. He’d left Syria after forces of the Islamic State conquered his town and threatened to force him into their ranks.

In December, Osai said, the CRS attacked him as he returned from a failed attempt to sneak onto one of the trucks boarding ferries at the port of Calais, about a mile from the Jungle. Nearing the camp’s entrance, walking in a group of around 10 other Syrian men, he tried to crawl through a hole in the fence, hoping to return undetected and get some sleep in his tent. Osai said a CRS officer saw them and tried to disperse them, firing tear gas. But Osai estimated the officer was 10 feet from him—not enough space to arc the gas canister high into the air, like a football punt, which is the correct procedure. Instead the officer shot directly into the group. The canister struck Osai in the face, knocking out three lower teeth and breaking his jaw, he said.

He ran toward a second CRS officer, to seek medical attention, but the officer sprayed him with pepper spray. The other Syrians gathered him up and carried him back to the Jungle, where a volunteer from England offered to drive him to the hospital in town. He said he was made to wait nine hours there, then transferred to a larger hospital in nearby Lille, where doctors set his jaw and discharged him the next day.

(CRS communications officials refused to confirm or deny the story. Osai provided hospital records confirming the injury—a fractured jaw, treated at Lille’s Hôpital Roger Salengro. Photos on a mobile phone showed Osai during treatment and with his jaw wired shut; we could not independently confirm the cause of the injury. TakePart witnessed deployment of tear gas by CRS officers at the camp, including at least two shots from close range that appeared to be aimed directly at people approaching the highway. The CRS does not comment on tactics.)

Why would a person telling stories like that stay in the Jungle, and why keep trying to get to England? In Osai’s case, he said he had an uncle in London, who could provide him with shelter, sustenance, and an address from which to apply for asylum—fleeing a draft into the Islamic State is a strong case if he can prove it.

But perversely, to get a hearing for his asylum case in the country where he had the support structure a family member can provide, first he would have to do something illegal. Under EU law, anyone can apply for asylum, but it can only be approved in the European country of entry. So Osai’s goal, and the goal of most of those arriving on Greece’s shores, is to enter and cross the EU without ever getting fingerprinted, photographed, or otherwise documented until they reach their destination. In Osai’s case, the final step was to sneak onto a truck, avoiding the CRS and border control police on both the French and British sides. If he applies in France and moves into the official camp, he loses his chance to hook up with the uncle in London. For an 18-year-old on his own, the possibility of support was worth the risk.

“It’s humiliation,” he said. “We fled humiliation, and now we have something worse.”

Still missing a few teeth, Osai was sitting with friends at a table in a tea and hookah bar near the Three Idiots, an Afghan place called Sami’s. He said he would try again, and was confident he’d make it to England, and go back to school.

“What will you study?” he was asked through an interpreter, another Syrian man.

“Jaw surgery!” yelled one of the waiters in Arabic. Osai shot him a look, but eventually laughed.

“I hate Europe,” he said.

Before the Jungle sprang up last year, Calais was already home to several groups of refugees, living in vacant lots and coastal marshes throughout town, mostly divided by nationality. The Jungle originated as a solution to these dispersed communities, a way to centralize the camps.

“The mayor was tired of having people—there were two or three squats inside of Calais, there were a couple of campsites, one by the tunnel,” said Maya Konforti, a Calais resident who has moved to the Jungle, where she is a volunteer. “They wanted everybody outside of town.” In April 2015, city police began to inform refugees living in Calais they should move to the 35-acre property. Konforti and her husband picked up a group of about a dozen Pakistani men camped in town and showed them the new property the city had designated. “We said, What do you think? And they said, Well, OK, you get us some tents, we’ll move.” From that seed, groups of Afghan refugees came to inspect the site next, and they decided to move. “After that, it was like an exodus,” she said, with the different national groups settled around the city accepting the offer of the degraded land.

Last spring the Jungle was just a camp of tents, without any fixed structures and with few businesses. “There was absolutely nothing. There was just dunes, asbestos, no toilets, a lot of shotgun shells, and they offered people nothing,” Konforti said. “We [Calais residents] asked, where are they going to go to the bathroom? Where are the lights?” She estimated about 1,000 people were living in the Jungle by May.

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Then summer happened. The huge influx of refugees in Greece—200,000 in August 2015 alone—didn’t stay in Greece and soon were dispersing across the continent. Compared with the hundreds of thousands of people heading to Sweden and Germany, the 5,000 or 6,000 in Calais were less noticeable. But at the local level, in Calais, it was a wave. Current estimates range as high as 6,000 people arriving by the end of 2015, six times as many as were there at the beginning of the year. In a smaller camp 20 miles north, in Dunkirk, the population shot from 200 people to more than 2,000, mostly Kurdish families. “It grew so fast—1,000 people in April, 3,000 in June, by the end of July, five or six restaurants and some shops. And then hit August,” Konforti said.

Despite the sudden arrivals, and the volunteers from Britain and elsewhere in France, the camps have attracted little international assistance and are mostly maintained by the refugees. The evolution from a settlement of a few tents to a community with its own economy, a church, mosques, a sauna, a school, and a restaurant scene, makes bulldozing the Jungle more than a relocation.

It also feeds a growing debate about the French camp happening across the water in the U.K. In January, a British volunteer in the Jungle, Rob Lawrie, was granted clemency on human trafficking charges after getting caught smuggling a four-year-old girl who’d been living in the Jungle into England. It later emerged that the girl, who is Afghan, had family in Leeds, England, and that her father, who also lived in the camp, had asked Lawrie to make the attempt. More than 50,000 people signed a petition seeking leniency for Lawrie, whose case was followed widely on both sides of the channel. Though Lawrie faced prison, a French court let him off with a small fine. Days after Lawrie’s case ended, British courts ruled that the Home Office had wrongly prevented three Syrian teenagers living in the Jungle from entering the U.K. to reunite with family there.

Seen as test cases, these appeared to provide a legal basis for relocating an estimated 200 to 300 children from the Jungle to the other side of the channel—and not a moment too soon, with the bulldozers approaching.

The first part of the Jungle to be cleared, on Jan. 18, was a Kurdish area about the size of a football field in a copse of low trees beside the highway. The Friday before, two bulldozers parked nearby, presumably in preparation for the demolition, were set ablaze, a case of vandalism still unsolved. But the Kurds agreed to leave and spent the weekend before the 18th emptying tents and moving their belongings deeper into the camp, using trucks loaned by volunteers, even carrying entire plywood shanties on their shoulders to reinstall them a few hundred yards away. When the CRS came to clear the area, no one was left but a few volunteers and some photographers. That night, the former residents burned old tents they left behind and some of the scrap wood they couldn’t salvage, turning the abandoned space beside the freeway into a red inferno, which glowed against the sides of the semis passing on the road, heading into the Channel Tunnel.

A few days later, the Three Idiots was full when word of another fire broke out. The place emptied. Osam—whom the British volunteers call Awesome, a nickname he puts up with though the pun doesn’t work in Urdu—watched his dinner crowd run outside for the third or fourth time that week, knowing what had happened. He stayed inside.

Outside on the Jungle’s muddy main street, hundreds of people were sprinting toward the entrance of the camp, where an overpass leads to the highway to England. It was on fire.

“It’s too early,” said the Syrian man who had acted as interpreter for Asher Osai a few days prior. “The Afghans always go too early.”

Tension exists between the Syrian and Afghan communities in the Jungle over the best way to get inside the trucks. The Syrians prefer blocking the road subtly, in the pre-dawn hours, when traffic is less, the disruption of traffic entering the tunnel is less noticeable, and the CRS is not as aggressive. The Afghans go earlier in the night—or at least the Syrians complain they do, said the translator, who asked to remain anonymous because he’s trying to get into England illegally.

The crowd ran up the main street toward the cleared Kurdish area. A hundred yards away, debris had been thrown into the middle of the highway, where the overpass allowed a break in the barbed-wire fence, and ignited. The bulldozing of the Kurdish area had shown the police meant business, and urgency to get out of the camp and over to England was rising. But the CRS had left behind debris—bits of tents, shipping pallets, two-by-fours—that littered the area and provided material for barricades. Hauling some onto the highway only took seconds for an organized group, and torching it made it harder for the CRS to pull away quickly, creating chaos, and buying time to run to trucks and climb in back.

Traffic halted, and soon figures were visible in silhouette scrambling up the bank of the overpass and along the tops of the largest semis stalled by the flaming barricade. One by one, they dropped through holes in the tops of the trucks, which often have hatches or fabric tops.

The first cloud of gas hit the crowd about 30 yards from the Three Idiots. It was a cold night, the puddles icing over, so the migrants were wearing jackets and pulled the collars over their mouths before continuing on. The gas, heavier than air, fell quickly, and most of the group moved forward into it, coughing but not badly injured.

The CRS moved down the hill toward them but stopped short of the clouds of gas; the police were not wearing masks either. Above, more canisters, which leave trails like meteors when fired, flew over the crowd every few seconds, and into it on at least two occasions. On the road, the flames of the barricade were petering out, and the migrants screamed at the police, distracting them from the last men running down the side of the road past terrified commuters and climbing up onto the semis.

The tear gas settled after half an hour, and volunteers passed through with eye drops. The refugees retreated to the bars, and later at the Three Idiots, everyone was angry. As he does every night, Osam poured tea.

First published in Take Part.

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Marc Herman
Marc Herman is the author of Searching for El Dorado, an account of his travels with gold prospectors in the Amazon forest, and The Shores of Tripoli, a Kindle Single based on his reporting from the Libyan civil war. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Slate, Politico, Matter, the Believer, and GQ. A freelance reporter since 1993, he has lived in worked in Oakland, California, Georgetown, Guyana, Jakarta, Indonesia, and Barcelona, Spain, where he now lives with his family.