Diary

Ben Ehrenreich

Baraa Halabieh could recall almost every detail of the long journey from his family home in the Syrian city of Hama: every bus and taxi fare, where he slept or failed to sleep each night, how many hours he walked to cross each border and how long he stood crammed on a stationary train waiting to pass into Hungary. He remembered the friend of a friend who stole all his money in Turkey and the children screaming as water leaked into the small boat that was ferrying them to Lesbos. And, grinning at the memory, he recalled flagging a taxi in Calais and asking the driver to take him to the Jungle. ‘He was an old man,’ Halabieh said. ‘He smiled.’ Halabieh soon learned why. ‘It was like I was walking into Wonderland. It was the last place I could imagine seeing in France.’

Most of the refugees gathered in the Jungle, a ten-minute drive from the bronze statue of Charles de Gaulle and his wife on the place d’Armes in the centre of Calais, have fled countries where in recent years the French and British have dispatched troops or bombed from the air. Others have escaped from regimes armed by France and the UK. Afghans appear to be in the majority, but there are also Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Sudanese.

The Jungle houses a tiny proportion of the million people who have sought refuge in Europe over the past year. One British NGO put the camp’s mid-February population at 5497 – that’s including 205 women and 651 children, about two-thirds of whom arrived unaccompanied by a relative. The Jungle’s inhabitants are a select group: they’ve made it to Europe, crossed the whole Schengen Zone and want to keep going, to stow themselves away in one of the trains and trucks that take consumer goods through the Eurotunnel to Dover. (As always, there are fewer obstacles to the moving of goods.) Some have family in the UK; some speak English. Most know that work is comparatively easy to find in the UK, that France’s unemployment rate is nearly twice as high as Britain’s, and that the UK approves about twice as many asylum applications as France.

When he arrived last autumn, Halabieh said, there were only tents in the Jungle. Halabieh is 31 and has the same persistent cough as almost everyone else I met in the camp. ‘Jungle cough,’ he called it. In Syria, he said, ‘I had an amazing life: my own car, my own business, my own house.’ But the war changed things, and in October 2014 he crossed into Turkey. It took him nearly a year to reach Calais. He speaks fluent English, has a degree in English literature and a Master’s, plus an uncle in London and a cousin in Wales with a family business ready to employ him. In France he knows no one. The day he arrived in the Jungle, he met some Syrians who gave him dinner and a dry place to stay. Late that night, they asked if he wanted to join them: they were going to try to sneak onto a train. Exhausted from travelling, he declined. The next morning they called from Dover. Halabieh inherited their tent.

For a while he tried to follow them. The refugees would stop the traffic on the motorway outside the Jungle, or wait for queues to develop, then scatter across the tarmac searching for big enough hiding place on a lorry. Getting onto the lorries was difficult enough without the police chasing off the refugees with tear gas and rubber bullets. These days, Halabieh said, crossing is almost impossible. The fences are higher. There are more cameras, more guards, more dogs. ‘But even with all these procedures,’ he smiled, ‘there are some people who still go.’ He had decided not to take the risk, but to wait and hope for the situation to change. Meanwhile he has co-founded a photography collective called Jungle Eye that documents life in the camp, and volunteers at a charity canteen that distributes more than a thousand dinners a day. Since it became clear that the French intended to evict the inhabitants of the southern half of the Jungle, he has spent more time than he would like talking to visiting journalists. His message is simple: ‘We are not criminals and we are not terrorists. We are just trying to find a safe place. We’re here because of the actions of European governments in our countries. We are the outcome of your actions.’

Against the grey sky and the mud, the Jungle is a colourful mess of red and green and blue tents, and tiny shacks draped with blue polypropylene tarps, everything snapping and shivering in the wind. Some of the shelters seem professionally constructed, with plywood flooring and right-angled walls of well-planed lumber. Others are improvised: dirt floors beneath pieces of particleboard and corrugated metal, scraps of blanket tied over frames of crudely cut branches, makeshift chimneys venting oil-barrel stoves. There’s mud everywhere, and small mountains of rubbish, and rows of portable toilets.

There’s a lot of activity: an endless stream of men in jeans and parkas and shalwar kameez trudge in all directions weighed down by bags of groceries distributed by one aid group or another. Long queues form behind delivery vans. A child rides past on a bicycle, falls and tumbles in the mud. Another boy pedals by, laughing at his friend’s bad luck. The call to prayer rings out from a wide tent that functions as a mosque. There’s an Orthodox church too, with a sign in Ethiopic script and crosses painted on its bright blue plywood doors. There’s even a high street lined with shops and cafés bustling with refugees and throngs of European volunteers. The Afghans have a monopoly on the grocery trade, selling their wares out of sheds with counters and plexiglass display windows. They offer canned soup, fizzy drinks and juice, crisps, batteries, ear buds, phone chargers, sacks of onions and potatoes. One of the shopkeepers told me he arrived from Kabul five months ago, gave up on trying to slip into England and used his money to invest in a shop. ‘Life is bad here,’ he said, but he can make €200 on a busy day.

There are at least a dozen restaurants, one Kurdish, the rest Afghan: the Hamid Karzai Rastorant, the White Mountain, the Three Star Hotel. Khan, an Afghan from Kunduz who bakes bread at the White Mountain, makes €20 a day. Inside the restaurant, men sit, smoke shishas and talk. The Eritreans run a bar and nightclub, a dark and cavernous tent that’s empty at midday. There’s a bathhouse too: €3 gets you a bucket of hot water, shampoo, and a measure of dignity that’s absent at the Jules Ferry day centre down the road, where refugees queue for entrance tickets and then again for hurried showers. Not everything has to be paid for: there are two canteens run by volunteers that attempt to make up for the absence of the major NGOs. Refugees run schools that teach English and French: there’s an art school and a theatre, a multilingual newspaper, even a radio station.

They have only recently been making headlines again, but refugees have been gathering in Calais for years. Asylum seekers en route to England began to arrive in Calais not long after the opening of the Eurotunnel in 1994. In 1999, the French government asked the Red Cross to concentrate the newcomers, most of them Kosovan Albanians, in a single site: a warehouse in Sangatte built to store construction equipment for the tunnel. Refugees continued to stream in, from Afghanistan and the Kurdish north of Iraq. Crossing was easier in those days, and the British tabloids were soon whipping up a panic over the ‘asylum invasion’. Asylum applications in fact dropped in 2001, but within a few weeks of 9/11 the Express was claiming that al-Qaida had infiltrated the Sangatte camp. A year later, with the agreement of the then home secretary, David Blunkett, and his French equivalent, Nicolas Sarkozy, the camp was closed. Blunkett called the Sangatte site ‘a festering sore in Anglo-French relations’. Sarkozy spun its closure as an act of goodwill towards migrants: ‘We have put an end to a situation that was characterised by massive inhumanity to those people who were living in the centre.’ Three months later, in February 2003, the two men signed the treaty of Le Touquet, allowing for ‘juxtaposed controls’ at the ports of Dover and Calais. French immigration inspectors would work at Dover while the UK Border Force would operate in Calais. The frontier between Britain and the Schengen Zone, with its open borders, had been pushed back across the Channel.

People kept coming, sleeping in the woods and taking over empty buildings. In 2009, the French police bulldozed a settlement in the dunes, arresting three hundred migrants and chasing off hundreds more. Within months a new one had replaced it. Refugees lived in small encampments scattered around the edge of the town: an Eritrean camp here, a Hazara squat there, a Sudanese camp somewhere else. Fresh raids and demolitions followed. Police violence became a constant feature of refugee life in Calais. At the port, the UK Border Force employed more sophisticated methods: not just dogs and fences, but infrared cameras, heartbeat detectors and carbon dioxide probes – Foucauldian biopower at its most concrete. In September 2014, the two governments agreed to a ‘comprehensive action plan’ that would ‘protect vulnerable people’ while deterring ‘illegal migrants from congregating in and around Calais’. Its main feature was a British pledge of five million euros a year to strengthen port security and build ‘robust fences’ to keep the migrants away from motorways.

By early 2015, the number of refugees had increased dramatically. The French government responded with its now characteristic pairing of humanitarian gestures with naked efforts at control. The local authority opened the Jules Ferry day centre on the site of an old children’s holiday camp four miles east of the town; it would give migrants the use of showers and toilets, as well as one hot meal a day. (As prime minister in 1884, Ferry, one of the architects of French colonial expansion, told the Chamber of Deputies that ‘indeed the higher races have a right over the lower races.’) The police began telling migrants that they must abandon their squats and could camp only on the site of a former rubbish dump outside the Jules Ferry centre. The town’s refugee problem would be safely out of sight. This was the origin of the current Jungle.

Perhaps it was the rain, but almost no one turned out for the demonstration organised by a walrus-moustached former soldier called Willy Destierdt, and billed as an apolitical ‘citizens’ promenade’ to honour General Christian Piquemal, the former French Foreign Legion commander who had been arrested at a larger pro-Pegida, anti-migrant rally two weeks before. (‘This is France,’ the 75-year-old Piquemal had scolded the police, ‘the great France, the eternal France, which used to be the lighthouse of the world.’) By the time I arrived, Destierdt and three others had been arrested. Only about twenty of the general’s admirers had shown up, but 150 police were still lingering outside the train station. They carried the tear gas launchers that they routinely use against migrants.

In the first round of regional elections last December, Marine Le Pen’s National Front won 49 per cent of the vote in Calais. All the refugees I spoke to said they were afraid to go into the town after dark. One Egyptian migrant told me he was walking back to the camp when four masked men in a black car swerved directly into a large group of refugees. A car filled with police, right behind the black car, did nothing, he said. Shahin Ali, a 27-year-old Kurd, told a more harrowing story. He had been a university student in Kobani until Islamic State assaults sent his family into Turkey. (Conditions in the refugee camps there, he said, were better than in Calais.) Late one night, Ali, his brother and a friend were walking back to the Jungle after trying and failing to stow themselves away on a Dover-bound lorry when they saw two figures approaching. The men were wearing black masks, black gloves, black clothes and boots – what looked like police uniform without the insignia. The men forced them to go to an isolated spot and demanded their phones and money. When Ali and his brother said they didn’t have any, they hit his brother on the head with an iron rod, knocking him out with one blow. They hit Ali in the face, splitting his lip. He and his friend handed over their phones. The men searched their pockets. ‘They took everything.’ The Kurds were carrying all the money they had, more than €1000 each. The men took their documents too: passports and Syrian ID, everything they would need to file a credible asylum claim. They even took their shoes. And still, Ali said, the men kept beating them: ‘I said to myself it’s our end, they will finish us.’ But in the end they told them to go. His brother was unconscious and his friend’s face was smashed. Ali couldn’t walk. They dragged themselves back to the camp, and someone took them to hospital. ‘They were not robbers,’ Ali said. ‘After they took everything they continued to beat us. Their main aim was to beat us.’

Médecins sans Frontières, which operates a clinic in the camp, treats a steady ten to fifteen migrants a week for injuries sustained in assaults. Most are inflicted by the police, according to MSF’s Marlène Malfait, but about 10 per cent are not. The stories are similar: masked men attacking migrants outside the camp at night. ‘I’m not sure we can call it a militia,’ Malfait said, ‘but some of them are really, really organised.’ On 30 January, an Afghan shopkeeper called Mohamed Islam cycled into town to buy supplies. His body was found 11 days later, floating near the ferry terminal.

Last November, bulldozers arrived in the Jungle and began clearing an area inhabited by about five hundred refugees. A few weeks later, the first containers arrived, with heating, windows and doors. This was the French government’s response to a lawsuit demanding better conditions for migrants, a ‘new camp’, separated from the Jungle by wire fencing. Each of the 125 containers they have since installed can house 12 people, who have to register with the préfecture and allow their hands to be biometrically scanned. One refugee who had moved into the new camp, an engineer from Aleppo who told me his name was Sam and then, with a wink, changed his mind and said it was David Cameron, complained that there was no ventilation, and barely space to stand between the bunk beds. The noise and overcrowding were driving him mad. ‘They let us live like animals,’ he said.

Most of the refugees I met had no intention of leaving their tents and shelters, or of giving their handprints to the French. Everyone had heard rumours of migrants who made it across to Dover only to be told by the immigration authorities that their fingerprints had been registered in France, making it impossible for them to apply for asylum in the UK. (The Dublin Regulation assigns responsibility for asylum seekers to the first EU member state where they made an identifiable claim.) In the containers, they knew, they would have no access to cooking facilities, and would have to give up all the communal arrangements and systems of mutual support that made life in the Jungle bearable. With its high perimeter fence and evenly spaced rows of beige containers, the new camp makes the chaos of the Jungle look almost welcoming. ‘It’s like a prison,’ a refugee from Darfur told me, as we sat on salvaged leather sofas around a stove in a roomy shed in the Jungle while breakfast was being cooked over a gas burner.

On 18 January, the French authorities levelled another strip of land next to the motorway, displacing two thousand refugees. Two weeks later, the bulldozers returned and demolished a mosque and the Jungle’s only Protestant church in order to complete a 100-metre ‘security zone’ around the camp’s perimeter. On 12 February the préfecture announced its plans to demolish the entire southern half of the camp, which includes most of the restaurants and shops, the Orthodox church, mosques, schools, the theatre, two legal centres and an immunisation clinic. Calais’s mayor, Natacha Bouchart, spoke to the press of the ‘necessary firmness’ required to correct conditions she deemed ‘unworthy of human nature’. The Jungle would have to be destroyed for its residents to be saved, and the authorities promised a humane solution to a problem they insisted was not theirs. They estimated the population of the southern half of the camp at a mere eight hundred to a thousand, admitting at the same time that there was only room in the containers and the Jules Ferry camp for three hundred. Temporary shelter elsewhere had been found for another 856. Help Refugees, a British charity working in the Jungle, counted a more credible 3455 people living in the zone marked for demolition, including 440 children. At a court hearing in Lille on 23 February, the deadline for the eviction, the judge, Valérie Quéméner, ordered the demolition to be postponed. Two days later she issued a ruling that was either a compassionate compromise or a cynical dodge: all the communal structures – schools, clinics, places of worship, restaurants and shops – could stay. The people who built and used them would have to go. The interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, promised that the evictions would be gradual. ‘It was never a question,’ he said, ‘of evacuating the south zone in a brutal fashion using bulldozers.’ The bulldozers arrived the following Monday. Early that morning, work crews and police gave refugees one hour to leave. By afternoon, tear gas had flooded the camp.

A few days before the court gave its verdict, Baraa Halabieh had predicted that the French government wouldn’t be happy until the entire Jungle had been razed. He was right. Bouchart told Reuters that the northern half was the next target: once it’s demolished, work can begin on a €675 million expansion of the port. ‘The city of Calais,’ she declared, ‘has lived up to its humanitarian commitments.’

4 March