Calais: a jungle built on the sand
Photographs and text by Mara Scampoli and Mattia Alunni Cardinali
Editing by Veronica Molese
Calais is located on the northern coast of France. Most of the ferries directed to the UK depart from its port and since 1994 also the trains that run through the Channel Tunnel. Because of its privileged position, it became the base of one of the largest camp for migrants in Europe. In the bidonville of Calais they are massed an unknown number of migrants - some people talk about a number ranging from 7,000 to 10,000 -in tremendous hygienic and sanitary conditions
Upon arrival, Calais immediately welcomes us without ceremonies. For those arriving from the UK the importance of the situation becomes clear as soon as they go through the maze of tarmac leading to the exit of the harbour. The pure white, 4 metres high fence topped with barbed wire set up in 2015, never leaves the frame of the car window, while occasionally armed policemen dressed up in riot gear pass by alongside the road.
The wind coming from the sea relentlessly sweeps the wide expanse of silicon that stretches without end along the French coast. In the meantime the Sun is settting behind the Great Britain, a thin and blurred shadow visible along the horizon, leaving a colourful sky painted in a palette of blue and orange shades. While the last bathers hurry up in order to go and have their daily portion of moules in one of the traditional restaurants on the promenade, the non-stop bustle of massive ferries approaching and leaving the port keep going tirelessly.
The few historical buildings have been absorbed by the popular architecture of the Sixties, which however has not been able to keep the town ahead of the times, turning it in a second choice tourist destination. Yet, in the last decade, Calais has become an arrival point for another kind of travellers too.
The sharp morning air and its saline humidity accompany us on our walk to the outskirts of the city. It is not difficult to reach the Jungle. Even if you do not know its exact location, just head off for the industrial area called “Dunes”, and follow the stream of refugees that every day walk the long wide road that connects it to Calais. And if you ask them where the refugee camp is, you will be most likely taken there just in exchange for a friendly chat.
The entrance to the camp is marked by the road passing underneath the flyover on the motorway that takes to the port. Indeed it seems it cuts a line between the migrants' Jungle and the French Calais, just like surrounding walls, however leaving the visitors free interpretation on deciding which part is the protected one and which the unwanted one.
Along the streets of this “city” the social life is thriving: the coordination and organisation of those who live here has turned this place into a cluster of minimally liveable structures, with even its own shops and restaurants.
There is a great dynamism and the various places managed by the associations have been designated to the most diverse activities: from the distribution of food and clothes to school activities, the latter a lot requested by people of all ages.
As mentioned above, shops and restaurants are the places where Jungle's social life focusses around. Usually, these meeting places are housed inside structures that look like something between a large tent and a shack, decorated and furnished according to the customs of their owners home countries, so that each of them is unique and characteristic on its own.
Here migrants can charge their mobile phones, essential devices if they want to keep in touch with their families, watch the satellite TV and get the latest news from their countries, and most important, they can also get hot meals and a place where to sleep overnight while waiting for a tent.
Furthermore, many of these facilities also provide support aimed to the younger population of the Jungle, such as the Kids Cafe, an educational initiative run by the British teacher Mary Jones and exclusively funded through donations.
The Café, a space belonging to Jungle Books Library, is a meeting place where under-age children can spend their time together with kids of their same age. Also, always under the supervision of volunteers, here they can have access to hot meals, attend English or French classes, play, watch the TV and listen to music.
For many of them this is a true safety net since they do not have anyone to rely on. Most of them are in fact sent alone to Europe by their families, which, selling all their possession in order to guarantee them at least a hope for their future, avoid them to fall into the hands of ISIS or to get caught in the civil war raging in their countries.
All these small self-managed activities, which offer volunteers too a place where to take a break and relax drinking tea and tasting some good ethnic food, have recently been the battleground for a major civil dispute. The Calais-Pas Du Nord administration, in the meantime it was deciding to resize the camp in February, had indeed ruled the closure of all commercial activities, claiming as justification the lack of health standards and other necessary permits.
This resolution has been obviously strongly criticized by all the volunteer associations operating in the Jungle, which commented how the whole decision has been taken just as an excuse in order to evict the remaining part of the camp as soon as possible and move all the refugees in some other “Jungles” across France, so to keep “clear” the area around the port and the Eurotunnel.
In fact the mobilization of volunteers and NGOs has led to an appeal to the Lille court, which on August the 11th has ruled the illegality of their closure. The court has also recognized the social value of the latter, stating that it is unfair to label them as unlawful just with the excuse of the lack of compliance to the standards, when all over the camp refugees live in totally unsafe conditions and without the fundamental health and hygiene requirements.
Looking from a hilltop, the Jungle looks like an endless patchwork of plastic and multicoloured canopy covers, which grows bigger day after day. As we are told at Welcome Caravan, an organization managed by Auberge Des Migrants, there are every day tens of new people arriving, to whom volunteers give first aid by handing out tents, sleeping bags and other essential goods.
The latest census, carried out at the end of August by Help Refugees, one of the biggest NGO operating in Calais, shows impressive figures: 9106 are the people that reside in the Jungle, mostly coming from Sudan and Afghanistan, and 865 of them are minors, of whom 675 are unaccompanied, with the youngest being only 8 years old.
By keeping track of the camp population, these monthly reports also have a very important social function, especially, and most important, for what concerns the minors. For example the latest data say that the population has swollen by 29% since the first days of July, when the previous monthly report was conducted, meaning an average of 500 new people arriving every week, approximately 70 people per day. But, moreover, it is thanks to the census that it has been possible to raise the alarm when in February 129 minors went missing following the dismantling of part of the refugee camp.
Being under the spotlight of the international media for a while, the minors condition in the Jungle has indeed become ground for political confrontation, especially in the UK, where the amendment proposed by the Labour Lord Alfred Dubs to the immigration law has recently been approved. This modification now allows under-age children coming from refugee camps across Europe to ask for asylum in the United Kingdom, in order to reunite with their families.
However the British government, often in contrast with the Dublin agreements defending the refugees fundamental rights, is always delaying, if not stopping, these asylum procedures, bringing as justification the avoidance of terrorist infiltrations in the country.
During our stay in Calais we had the chance to talk to many volunteers and coordinators from the various NGOs, who explained us more in detail how everyday they give their contribution to the migrants' cause, especially in regards of women and children.
In fact many non-governmental associations have organized several centres aimed at the registration and safeguard of the youngsters asking for asylum.
One of the biggest and most active is “L'école laique du chemin des dunes”, which is a laic school, meaning that it is open to everyone without distinction of race, origin or religion.
Founded and built by Zimako Jones, a Nigerian refugee, Marko, a Kurdish refugee who got the British citizenship, and with the collaboration of the French NGO Solidarité Laique, the school is an open space surrounded by two classrooms, a sickroom, a meeting room, a playground, a kitchen and two dorm rooms reserved to the teachers and volunteers working at the school.
The activities occurring at the École have always been warmly welcomed by the population of the Jungle since their beginning. Now, every day from 11am to 7pm, children and teenager of all ages attend the lessons and the recreational activities there organised.
As Marko says: “The families are happy to bring their children here, some of them very young in fact, so they can play and enjoy themselves with their peers. Every now and then we also organize trips to the beach, and the kids never fail to show us how happy they are to be able to participate”.
Then he adds: “The older kids, instead, are very happy to spend their time here at the school learning French or English. They often tell us how important it is for them in order to get started in the countries where they are headed to”.
However the stress that involves living in the Jungle is sometimes evident, and Marko cannot hide his “concern for the future of the school and its pupils. It's some time now that there are rumours about French authorities that want to clear the rest of the camp as well. Furthermore police are always around, checking that the stores and restaurants are closed, and this is obviously not helping to make the situation easier”.
Refugee Youth Service, instead, an NGO based in the northern part of the Jungle, carries out in collaboration with Médecins Sans Frontières, legal and psycho-social support activities for those who need them. Being the only organisation that offer this kind of service in the camp, as well as following kids aged between 12 and 18 years old, it is a major reference point for all the people living here. Also here volunteers cannot deny to confirm the high amount of minors, both accompanied and not, and the helplessness of the French administration, which fails to safeguard them.
Instead, for what concerns the female population we need to first look at the numbers. Women represent just the 10% of the camp's residents, and together with the children they are the most vulnerable people residing in the Jungle. Except for those who have a family to live with, many of them have travelled alone and are at the moment accommodated in a restricted access structure called Jules Ferry Centre, a government managed area where only women are allowed.
However they can find the same kind of privacy and support also at the “Unofficial women and children's centre”, an independent association based inside a double-decker bus. Here women can have a place for themselves to be used in order to meet with other women, to talk between them, or just a place where to carry out daily activities or hobbies such as sewing. For example every week there is a day dedicated to their personal care, an extremely significant moment to boost their moral, keep high their personal dignity and preserve their identity.
At the same time the girls volunteering in the bus also take care of the mother's children with school and recreational activities, thus ensuring a safe and welcoming environment where they can take their minds off from the difficult conditions in which they find themselves.
Flora, a young girl from London and by now senior member of the Centre, says that everything started about one year ago when they managed to buy the bus through a fund raising campaign. At the beginning it was just a distribution centre and a recreational space for children managed by two different associations, but following the eviction happened in February they joined their forces and now the bus is open every day.
“Our main priority is that to offer a safe and welcoming place where women could feel at ease and children could have fun. Usually we take care of children 3 to 9 years old, even though they sometimes take with them their siblings who are even 1 or 2 years old”.
“We offer to these kids recreational and educational activities in English with subjects such as math, science, reading and art, at different levels. However, each of them must still be closely followed because of their tender age and the experiences they went through, so that they always find themselves in a positive and supportive environment. What we do is just try to make them feel children".
Also, the coordinator Liz Clegg is taking care of the reception of refugees who manage to arrive in England. In fact many of them once in Britain are moved to Birmingham, and that is where they are welcomed by Liz, who together with her team provide services in support of their integration in the local community.
But unfortunately the work that all these people every day carry out in order to make others' lives more enjoyable, is constantly threatened.
In the days following our visit to the Jungle, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve has once again stated that he wants the rest of the Jungle to be dismantled "as soon as possible", adding that the closure of the North side of the camp will take place "with great determination" but "gradually, while creating more housing and reception centres" where refugees will be moved to and will be able to find a new accommodation.
His visit to Calais comes after a three days of traffic blockages on the nearby motorway due to protests set by local traders, port personnel, truck drivers and farmers, who all gathered in order to demonstrate in favour of the camp closure.
The Minister Cazeneuve statements follow those of the presidential candidate and former French head of state Nicolas Sarkozy, who as well as being lively supporter of the political campaign against the use of burkinis in the country's beaches, has also proposed to the newly installed English Prime Minister Theresa May to transfer the Jungle across the Channel. The offer, perhaps no more than a mere provocation, received only a blunt negative answer along with information stating that back in 2003 it was Sarkozy himself, then Minister of Internal Affairs under the Chirac government, that signed the Le Touquet agreement in order to move the British border controls in France and vice versa.
“Asking for the dismantling of the camp today would mean a worsening of the situation instead of solving the problems”, said François Guennoc of Auberge des Migrants, the main organisation operating in the Jungle and just one of a handful which warned in an open letter about the consequences that the razing of the camp would bring, such as the scatter of migrants in a wider area and the worsening of the situation protesters deplore already.
In the meantime, the only solution the British-French diplomacy seems to have been able to find, is the building of a 4 meters tall wall, in attempt to prevent migrants from trying to stow away on trucks heading for Britain. Local authorities in Calais say that its construction is expected to be completed by the end of the year, "not a new initiative", but for the French population “the right amount of security to prevent 'illegals' trying to get to the UK”, as stated by British Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
Mara Scampoli - marascampoli.com
Camera: Nikon D700
Lens: Nikkor 24-120 f/3.5-5.6
Mattia Alunni Cardinali - mattimages.com
Camera: Canon 7D
Lens: Canon 18-135 f3.5 IS