After my last article from the front lines of Europe, I decided it was time to return to France. My destination? The Jungle, a refugee camp in Calais. Once home to over 5,000 migrants, this is the place where refugees wait around to see if they can get into the UK.
Arriving in Calais by train, I got off and made my way through the station heading toward the exit. Just as I stepped outside, I was greeted by four migrants asking for a smoke. So of course I said, “Sorry bro, I’m all out.” Heading down the road to my hotel, I could see more walking in groups with sleeping bags on their backs. I checked into the hotel and headed up to my room. Looking out the window at the train station, I could see the migrants that tried to bum a smoke off me still standing around.
The thing I wanted to do first was to get around the town itself before heading to The Jungle. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon, but still I could see quite a few groups kicking around. Some were migrants, others were locals, and the rest were travelers like me, taking pictures of the beautiful buildings in the centre of Calais. It would soon be dark, and after a trip to Pizza Hut, I had every intention of hitting the hay for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow, I’d hit The Jungle!
When I awoke in the morning, the first thing I focused on was getting coffee—necessary in order for me to function. I spoke with the girl serving the coffee. Her English was not so good, but she understood what I said when I asked, “So how is the refugee situation here?” She replied in broken English, “It’s bad, of course. There are too many [refugees], and more arrive every day. But soon we hope they will move on. For now, there are too many.” I was already getting the feeling this town was a bit overrun.
I headed to the taxi rank and told my driver to drop me at the refugee camp located on the outskirts of Calais, about five kilometers from the city centre. As we approached the camp, I could see black smoke in the distance. I put the window down and the smell rushed in. The taxi driver looked at me with a bit of anger on his face. “Sorry bro,” I muttered as we pulled up before the camp entrance. I paid the driver and walked into the jungle unsure of how people here would take to me poking around with a camera. But hey, it’s got to be done, right?
I walked under the motorway bridge. To my right, a long line of police vans. To my left, a dusty field straight in front of a row of riot police. Some migrants sat across from them, looking at the officers with angry expressions on their faces. The smell was very strong at this point. The one thing that hit me the most was how big this camp was. I had been in refugee camps before, but nothing to this scale.
There was a bank on my right where I saw a photographer. I made my way toward him, and he soon spotted me, too. We got to chatting. He said he’d been here a few days and had come to know the area well. He gave me the rundown of the place, telling me about his experiences thus far. The bit of advice he gave me that stuck was, “Just be alert: You need to be on your toes around here and pay attention.” With that in mind, I set off to the northern part of the camp. Most of it had been destroyed. Police were working on demolition, tearing unsafe buildings down.
The amount of litter in this place was unreal. I was walking through the camp, taking it all in, shuffling through the trash, when I heard, “Hello my friend.” A young man stood in front of me. “Hello,” I returned. We got to talking and enjoyed a smoke together. This lad was from Afghanistan’s Helmand province. He was 16 years old when he left his home country, and he walked almost all the way. His journey had taken him into Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Germany, and finally, France. His destination was the UK.
He did not want to be photographed. After I asked him if I could snap a photo of him, he said he had to leave, and on he went. There I was, alone, standing in the middle of this massive wreckage. I still couldn’t get over the size of this place. I spotted what seemed to be a medical centre and began walking in that direction. This part of the camp was mainly full of people from North Sudan. While I was taking some pictures, a tall, dark man greeted me with, “Hello, hello.” The thing that surprised me the most was how upbeat this guy was. Once again, we got to talking.
When I asked him why he was there, he said, “I cannot go back home or I will be killed.”
“Where is it you want to go?”
“England. London. There, I can rest. I will get looked after. Not like here. This place is finished. The police don’t like us. If you see them at night, run! (Laughs)”
“Have you spent the whole time in this camp?” I asked.
“No, no, I go and come back, go and come back. We look for work around France, but one time I was locked up by the French police. They took me to a bad place for about five months.”
“What did you do?”
“I don’t know. They know I am a refugee, so after they let me go, they gave me a ticket back to here.”
Soon after our conversation, we parted ways. Anis was heading to a makeshift school run by some Brits. The one thing that shocked me the most about him was how upbeat and happy he was despite the conditions of the camp, and more especially, his steadfast determination to reach the UK.
After I left him, I started to walk down the road heading toward the main gate. There, I spotted two young men washing up in the washing area. One of them asked, “Do you have any shoes?” The other asked for a cigarette.
I gave the men a couple of smokes and asked where they were from.
“Pakistan. Peshawar area,” they said.
Both of these men had lived in the UK back in 2009-2010 before the police caught up with them and deported them to Afghanistan. Once again, they were living in a rubbish environment. Both spoke good English but did not want to have their pictures taken. They said they had worked in a car wash in London with some friends. When asked if they’d like to return to that life, they both said yes. One of the men had been in The Jungle for six months. The other had only just arrived.
I made my way over to the embankment on the left side of the camp to get some video and pictures when I saw a young lad filming on what looked like an old camera from the ’30s. He called himself British Tom, and he was there filming life in The Jungle. The guy was pursuing his masters degree in some field I can’t remember, but his plan was to put his stuff on exhibit in London. He said he’d spent a lot of time here and had grown very fond of the camp inhabitants.
“No one should have to live like this. No one should have to be put through this. Let’s face it: We made this problem with our meddling in the Middle East,” he said.
I went on to ask him if there was a security threat in the camp. It had been reported that ISIS members were hiding within the refuge.
“I don’t think so, although I’m not stupid enough to think that our government can track every terrorist. The thing is, this is not the answer to the problem. We need to fix their home countries,” he insisted.
I mentioned that “fixing their home countries” would in fact mean meddling in the Middle East. He only laughed.
Leaving British Tom, I headed over to the Kurdish part of town. This part was still up and running, and I was very surprised to find a large amount of shops open and selling all manner of commodities. They had a few restaurants and coffee/tea houses with Shisha pipes available for a smoke—all very Middle Eastern. With the wind blowing sand in my eyes and the Kurdish flag flying around, I asked myself, “Are we still in France, or am I back in Rojava?” With Middle Eastern music playing all around me, it was hard to tell.
As I ventured deeper into the camp, I bumped into three guys looking as lost as I did. They were from Kurdistan. A guy from Africa was showing them around, saying, “This is the Kurd side—you stay here from now on.” I asked their guide how he knew these guys were new to the camp.
“Look at their shoes. You can tell people who have been here a long time. Look at his shoes! (Laughs)” He pointed at a man walking by wearing busted and dirty shoes.
I got to talking to the Kurdish lads, but their English was very poor. Still, they were happy to be there. They couldn’t wait to get to the UK. One man was from Kobane; his whole family had been killed by ISIS, or as he said it, Daesh. They all looked nervous and lost, and one asked me, “How long will it take for me to get to the UK?” My answer was, “I have no idea, mate!” I left the lads standing there and walked away. They shouted goodbye. I have no idea what will happen to them, but for now, they need to learn to survive in The Jungle.
I heard many stories on my walk through The Jungle about the refugees’ hardships, but the one thing that has stuck with me is how happy they all seemed to be there. Even though their new life was being stalled by the French government, they were still better off in the camp than back home.