CALAIS — There is a “jungle” in France, and it is based in Calais. The jungle, a sprawling refugee camp on the northern French coast, houses the desperate of many nations – Afghanis, Kuwaiti Bedouin, Iraqis, Ethiopians and Eritreans, many Sudanese, and Syrians.
Most of the men – and a smaller number of women and children – have had harrowing journeys through north Africa and Europe before ending up in Calais. But for many the jungle is the end of the line: Almost all want to get into Britain, and Britain does not want them.
Of the scores of visitors to the Calais refugee camp in the last year or so, there have been many, usually Progressive, Jewish activists bringing aid and empathy.
But last week an unprecedented joint delegation of Orthodox rabbis and imams traveled to the Calais jungle to experience for themselves the makeshift refugee settlement.
It takes 35 minutes for the Eurostar train to run from Folkestone on Britain’s south-east coast to Calais. In half an hour, the rabbis and imams were catapulted from civilization into the Third World.
The clerics were clearly horrified: in ordinary conditions the situation of the refugee camp is bad, but this visit took place in the worst weather possible – howling gales, freezing temperatures, and the legacy of days of rain showing up in filthy, ankle-deep pools of muddy water. Sanitation and hygiene is almost non-existent.
Last summer there were thought to be around 7,000 people in the jungle. Today aid volunteers think there are about 4,500, including around 400 women and children, who live in a separate family area. The young men – and they are almost all young men in their late teens and 20s – crowd together in clumps of threadbare tents, based primarily on where they came from. So there is a Sudanese area, an Afghani area, and so on.
Dotted in between are makeshift mosques, also housed in tents – dozens of pairs of muddied, ruined trainers sit outside each one as shoes are removed for prayer. There was even a church for the African Christians until a couple of weeks ago, but it has been demolished by the French authorities who nominally run the camp. (When asked, no one really knew why the church was demolished, but there are plans to rebuild.)
“How do you keep track of who’s here?” I ask a volunteer. “We don’t,” he says. “It’s a matter of walking round and seeing who’s here and who’s gone. We can’t take a census.”
At the open gateway to the camp, next to an ironically-scrawled Banksy graffito on a wall saying “London Calling,” a member of L’Auberge des Migrants, one of the aid charities working in the camp, shows the British rabbis and imams a large cleared area.
‘There used to be a forest here, but the French dug up all the trees to stop people from hiding’
“There used to be a forest here,” he says, “but the French dug up all the trees to stop people from hiding.”
There are other measures, too, to keep the refugees from climbing into the Eurostar terminal or smuggling themselves onto trucks, trains or ferries – enormous barbed-wire fences, usually three times human height. Numbers of the refugees have died stowing away or have been beaten up in attacks by Right-wing gangs who roam around the area where Marine Le Pen’s Front National Party has a stronghold. Nevertheless, attempts to climb the fences take place every night.
At least two of the rabbis from Britain are from the strictly Orthodox community – Rabbi Avraham Pinter and Rabbi Herschel Gluck. Both men are instantly recognizable as observant Orthodox Jews, but their dress seems to have no effect on the refugees, who crowd around enthusiastically whenever one of their number gets to tell his story. Four others of the delegation are United Synagogue rabbis from mainstream Modern Orthodox congregations in London. For their part, two of the British imams are in full clerical garb and use the opportunity to pray with the refugees when they can.
The British visitors crowd into one of the Sudanese tents, whose entrance – a flapping piece of tarpaulin – is notable for a pile of broken wooden crates, several feet high. On the floor are cracked planks, upside-down boxes, some kind of duckboards – anything and everything to prevent the men inside actually sleeping on the mud. Piled up on the other side of the tent flap are dozens of broken-down bicycles, and towers of cloth and old clothes.
Around 30 or 40 men appear to be living here.
“Look,” says one of the British imams. “Look at this kettle.”
The kettle, a burnt object scarcely recognizable for its original function, is perched on top of a flickering gas ring. Dumped next to it are some mugs, a spoon, and a bag of sugar. Men come forward and pour themselves a mug of hott-ish water and spoon some sugar into it.
“That’s lasting them all day,” says the imam.
The imam is raging because he has just met a group of Kuwaiti Beduin in the camp. He cannot understand why they are there at all, since the Kuwaiti government could remove them and re-house them at a stroke.
“They do not need to be in the jungle,” he complains. “Kuwait should be taking care of them.”
The thin line between refugees fleeing terror or conflict, and economic migrants seeking a better life was never more obvious.
The delegation moves on to another part of the camp, past an open trench running with filthy water, to discover row upon row of shining white metal containers, all intended to replace the tents – and almost all of them are empty. The guide explains that the first residents will probably be the unseen women and children, but later we are told that many men don’t want to apply to live in the containers because it would mean giving a fingerprint. Many of them fear that fingerprints and registering a formal presence in the jungle will prejudice any chances they may have of getting into Britain.
They may not, in fact, have any choice, since the French government announced plans early this week to bulldoze most of the southern area of the jungle, displacing about 1,000 people, so that people no longer sleep in the open.
According to the Associated Press, Prefect Fabienne Buccio said the plan to move out those taking shelter in tents and lean-tos concerns about half the surface of the camp. Buccio said her agents will explain to migrants “what we expect” of them — to choose to live in the white, heated containers set up last month on the edge of the camp that can hold 1,500 — or agree to be sent to centers around France.
“It’s time to tell the migrants of Calais who live in undignified conditions and give Calais an image that isn’t dignified either, that we have a solution for each of you,” Buccio said.
Their choice must be made early next week.
Everything shown by the aid workers and the refugees themselves raises more questions than answers. For example, the jungle is strewn with “private enterprise” shops, housed in little shacks at the front of the camp. There’s plenty of stock on display, from packages of biscuits to cigarettes and even alcohol for the Christian population. But no one is able to explain camp economics, from where people get the money to buy the mostly donated goods, to how anyone pays to run the mini-generators at the back of the shops, giving electricity to each of them.
“Where do people go?” ask the rabbis and imams, when they are told that the numbers have dropped by 2,500 between the summer months and now. Some have gone back to mainland Europe, trying Germany’s more open policy to asylum seekers and refugees. But could that realistically account for 2,500 people?
‘I want to feel safe and I don’t feel safe here’
Each man in the camp has a story, from “old hands” who have been there nearly two years to relative newcomers like 24-year-old Musa, from Darfur, who had been there four months. At least two-thirds of them claimed to have family already in the UK, but there was no way to verify this. Musa, who spoke relatively good English, had journeyed from Darfur to Chad, from Chad to Libya, from Libya to Italy and finally to France.
“I want to feel safe and I don’t feel safe here,” said Musa. “I want to help my family and get to the UK. We are human beings – and the jungle is not for human beings.”
It seems scarcely credible that this squalor is sitting on Britain’s doorstep on the other side of the English Channel, and a mere three hours from glamorous Paris, the City of Light.
The shaken rabbis and imams are now determined to raise their religious voices to urge Britain and France to put an end to the Calais jungle. No one, they said, wants to let this issue be swept under the carpet.