Europe News

The 'Jungle' migrants of Calais: a day in the life

CALAIS, France (Reuters) - For most of the 3,000 inhabitants of the “Jungle”, a shanty town on the sand dunes of France’s north coast, the climax of each day is the nightly bid to sneak into the undersea tunnel they hope will lead to new life in Britain.

A few make it. But the vast majority face another day living with the squalor, disease and ever-present threat of violence in a place that, with Italy’s Lampedusa or Greece’s Lesbos, is the latest symbol of Europe’s failure to manage migration.

Like any community, the “Jungle” has its notables, like the young Nigerian polyglot who built an on-site school from little more than tree branches; distinct neighborhoods, tied to religion or origin; and gossip, such as the tale of the migrants who make so much money wheeling and dealing in Jungle that they have their own apartments in Calais town center.

The deaths in the Mediterranean this year of hundreds of migrants trying to get to Europe on overcrowded boats have sent immigration to the top of the European Union’s agenda. But the bloc’s 28 states have repeatedly failed to agree what to do with the migrants.

This is a typical day in the life of the largely African, Middle Eastern and Central Asian occupants of the camp, as witnessed by a Reuters multimedia team there last week.

06:00 am local - As the sun comes up, a line of dejected figures return to the camp along the N216 highway, some on foot, others on rickety bikes recovered from rubbish dumps. The new tactic is for hundreds of migrants to try and penetrate all at the same time the fencing around the tunnel eight km (5 miles) away from the camp. Last week a possible new record was set with around 3,500 attempted incursions over two nights on Monday and Tuesday, with many migrants trying repeatedly in the same night. France responded by drafting in 120 extra CRS riot police. Some of the migrants coming back to camp say they will grab a few hours sleep and head back; others will rest until nightfall.

09:30 am - With a steady stream of arrivals, the population of the Jungle is hard to pinpoint exactly - some local charities say it is more than the official 3,000 figure. But for a small strip of land occupied by so many people living rough, the camp is surprisingly silent in the morning with many inhabitants still asleep after the night’s exertions. Slowly, around 30 exhausted-looking Africans line up as a van pulls up and a couple in their 50s hand out yoghurts.

“We collect food from hypermarkets, they give us their surplus or damaged goods, food that is considered soiled,” said Carolyn Wiggins, a British national who married a Frenchman and has lived in France for the last 25 years.

“We help maybe five times a week. People don’t tell you personal stuff ... You see broken legs and crutches because of their attempts. The more they try, the more there will be accidents. They are becoming more desperate.”

Slideshow ( 12 images )

11:00 am - By late morning, the camp becomes more animated. People emerge from home-made tents to shave and wash in plastic basins. Fresh water comes from one constantly gushing pipe; with no refuse collection and insufficient portable toilets, the camp stinks and is covered with cans and food cartons building up by the trails carved in the sand that are the camp’s “streets”.

The poor hygiene only aggravates the poor state of health of many camp residents. Bone fractures and injuries suffered during attempts to breach barbed wire fences do not get the treatment they need. Some complain of respiratory problems because of the sand constantly being whipped up by sea winds.

“There is scabies, lots of it; wounds that become infected; intestinal problems because of the bad food,” said a worker from the Medecins du Monde medical charity who was not authorized to speak to media and so asked not to be named.

“There’s about 10 of us here. The idea is to convince authorities that something more substantial has to be set up.”

12:00 midday - Some of the tents sealed up earlier are now opening and becoming little shops where men and, more rarely, women, come to buy telephone SIM cards, water, soap, razors or drinks for 40-50 eurocents ($0.45-55) a can.

2:30 pm - Many of the camp’s Muslims gather in a large green tent, with Arabic signs painted in white on it: the mosque. A similarly makeshift church caters to Christians in the African-dominated sector of the camp. It is made from wooden branches and white canvas with pictures of Jesus, candles, crosses and an African djembe drum. “I am the acting priest because I studied theology,” said Mima, 29, from Ethiopia. “The church is full, I’d say 150 to 200 people come along.”

The “Secular School of Dune Way” (“L’Ecole laique du Chemin des dunes”) has a low canvas ceiling, a few tables where some 20 students can sit three by three, a traditional blackboard and wall posters of basic French verbs: to be, have, eat and drink.

It was the brainchild of Zimako Jones, a Nigerian in his 20s who fled home over what he would only call “political problems”. With his friends, he built it from branches and abandoned wood panels transported to the camp in supermarket trolleys.

Slideshow ( 12 images )

“Personally I am not trying to make it over onto the other side,” Jones says in fluent French, adding that he has plans for a second school and an infirmary.

A rota with the names of Calais locals volunteering to teach is posted outside. While most migrants have their sights set on Britain, some of these volunteers want to equip them with enough French to support an asylum request in France.

“They need to have contact with French people, for them it is very important. Those that learn are doing it because they want to stay,” said Veronique Soufflet, an insurance sector worker in her 40s.

5:00 pm - This is when everyone gets their one guaranteed meal of the day, provided by local authorities. Just before, a pickup arrives and men dressed in white protective outfits and helmets come and wash the toilets with high-pressure water guns. One of them says they come every day at the request of a local NGO.

9:00 pm - As the sun sets, attempts are made at what passes for leisure. Groups kick a football around; improbably, a sign advertises “Cricket, soccer, volleyball & Bushkasi on bikes” - the latter being the Afghan sport in which players on horseback try to drag the carcass of a calf or goat into a goal.

From a big blue rectangular tent a muscular sound system starts belting out Ethiopian music: This is the “disco tent”. Later the music switches to the incongruous strains of Michael Jackson’s 1983 dancefloor hit “Billie Jean”.

But the mood in the camp sharpens in the evening. Men with beer cans in their hands approach us. They want to ask us who we are, what we are doing, why we are taking pictures.

“Every night, some people drink and get into fights. Some men need women, they become aggressive,” said Abae, 27. He fled Eritrea 10 years ago and stayed for several years in Greece on a fake ID. He said he shares a tent with another man and a 13-year-old boy who now calls him father.

“There are more and more women and children here. The site where women are is full, that’s why,” he said of the former holiday camp next door which Calais authorities have set aside for women and children.

Groups of migrants are starting to head in the direction of the tunnel entrance, hoping that this time perhaps they will not return to the Jungle. On their way out, they pass a poster which reads: “We must all learn to live together, as brothers. Otherwise we will all die together. As idiots.”

Writing by Matthias Blamont and Mark John; editing by Janet McBride