It’s a cold, drizzly day in what has come to be known to the world as the “Calais Jungle”. I’ve spent much of the morning walking around the sprawling camp in the suburbs of the port town of Calais in Northern France. The camp is home to an estimated 5,000 thousand refugees and economic migrants, most of them from Africa, the Middle East and some as far away as Afghanistan.
The camp seems to be divided by nationalities. All the big tents have a flag above them. The Syrian flag on one, the Afghan flag on another and the Sudanese flag on yet another tent. This is how newcomers find their fellow countrymen. I say men because the vast majority of the camp residents are men. The small number of women, some with children, have been given shelter far from the men for their safety.
The Sudanese tent is one of the largest in the camp. It sleeps about 60 young men, their average age about twenty-five. Their beds are lined up so close to one another there is barely any room to get around. About twenty or so men lounge around on the beds waiting for evening mealtime. There is a lot of waiting around in the camp. A kind of Waiting for Godot atmosphere of stagnation and uncertainty fills the air. It’s hard not to be depressed by the sight of so many young, ingenious and daring men who spend their days waiting for traffic jams to halt the speeding cargo trucks that run on the nearby highway headed for the U.K. Whenever there is traffic and the trucks are idling, the residents in their hundreds descend on the highway and jump onto the backs of the trucks.
On the off chance they manage to hide in the trucks; and they succeed at not being captured by the hundreds of police officers that inspect the trucks; or seen by the scanners built to expose human cargo; then they might just end up being carried beneath the English Channel and onto a new life in their promised land of Britain. A lot has to happen just right for this to occur. But hope has a way of blinding people to unlikely odds.
Lounging on one of the beds is Ahmed Omar. Twenty-one years old, Omar is a lean, handsome Arab Sudanese with a scruffy beard and wavy black hair. “Fuck France,” is one of the first things he says to me when I ask him about France. He’s by far the most angry of the many men I spoke to in the five days I spent on the camp.
“I came here for human rights…In my country there are no human rights,” Omar tells me in a halting, broken English. But, instead, all he has found in Calais is an open air prison and constant abuse from authorities. His anger is directed not so much for the citizens of France with whom he has no contact but the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS Police) who patrol the camp. Dressed in their navy blue uniform complete with shoulder and knee pads, black helmets, clubs and teargas canisters, they look as though they are on the frontlines of a war.
The CRS Police, whose main objective is to keep the camp residents from getting onto the U.K bound trucks or anywhere near the Eurostar train tunnel, have been accused by the residents and human rights groups of using excessive force against the migrants resulting in many injuries including broken bones. In some cases, men have died while attempting to escape the clubs and pepper spray of the police.
The CRS Police is not the only source of violence that the residents contend with on a regular basis. I was told many stories of horrendous violence leveled by people the residents simply refer to as “the fascists” who take every opportunity they get to beat up migrants they may encounter outside at at night. Violence by anti-migrant, right-wing groups has gotten much worse over the last several months. In February, the UK paper The Independent published a story detailing what it describes as a “campaign of violence” against migrants in Calais.
“I was hoping France would be a safe place for me,” Omar says, his rage barely concealed. “But when I came here, I see things I can't accept. I get arrested. I go to jail two times. I came here to get help not to be arrested. Normal life. That is all I ask.”
Raised in a tiny village in Darfur, Omar and his mother fled for Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, when he was seven years old. His father had gone missing and his older brother was killed in the Darfur conflict. Omar went to school in the capital until, one day at age eighteen, he happened to be on the street where other young people where demonstrating against President Omar al-Bashir who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.
Omar tells me he was arrested that day with many other young men and held in prison for forty-three days without trial. “They beat me and kicked me and they did ugly stuff,” he says. I press him to clarify the nature of this “ugly stuff” but all he tells me is: “I am ashamed to talk about it.”
Omar says after forty-three days of interrogation and beatings, the authorities did not charge him with any crime. Listening to him talk about his experience in Sudan, it’s evident in his voice and body language that whatever trauma he endured has never been properly addressed, much less healed. “I’ve seen too much violence,” Omar says, suddenly forlorn. “I was eighteen years old when this happened to me…I am done with my country. I came to Europe hoping for human rights. But here the dog is better than humans. Dogs get a home, get food, everything…But we get nothing here.”
Omar’s anger even extends to seemingly inconsequential details like the name of the camp. He says he resents the fact that the place where he lives has come to be known as "the jungle."
"We are not animals" he says. On the rare occasions when he goes into central Calais, he inevitably gets abuse from someone on the street or in a passing car who yells: “Go back to the jungle!”
“This is unacceptable for me as a human,” Omar says.
Acceptable or not, this is the reality faced by Omar and the thousands of other refugees and economic migrants who live in the camp with the hope that one day their long, perilous journeys across deserts, seas and borders will end in success. Clinging to the hope that they might someday beat the odds and slip into the U.K, they have chosen to remain in the camp rather than seek asylum in France. The refugees and economic migrants who live in the camp want to get into the UK for the same reason that huge numbers of economic migrants from countries such as Poland, Romania and others moved to Britain—the economy there is generally better. There is a strong perception, however rosy, that their circumstances will be greatly enhanced in Britain rather than in France, Italy and other EU countries that are already struggling with high unemployment. For many refugees, Britain represents a modern day El Dorado in which their dreams will come true, if only they could find a way to get there.
Applying for asylum in France would dramatically improve their living conditions. For one thing, they would be taken out of the camp and placed in a refugee center—asylum seekers have no choice in where they are placed—and they would be given a warm room, a clean bed and regular meals. But the relative comfort comes with a high price. The process of obtaining asylum can take upwards of two years, and for that time, they wouldn’t be able to go anywhere or do anything except eat and sleep, and perhaps go to a language school for a couple of hours a day. But at least here in the camp, they live with hope. Even if remote, the possibility of making it to England is ever present. But once they apply for asylum, that hope is gone.
And even for those lucky enough to be granted full asylum after several years of languishing in refugee centers, all they will be given at the end of that long process is a permit to stay in France legally for 10 years, during which they will be expected to fend for themselves. Without money, language and work experience in France, the odds of finding decent jobs is next to nil in a country already struggling with high unemployment for its own young university graduates.
For Omar, whose long journey to Calais included a drive through the Sahara Desert, war-torn Libya, crossing the choppy waters of the Mediterranean and short stays in Sicily, Milan, Ventimiglia and Paris, the Calais camp is a repeat of the hopelessness that drove him from Sudan. At the end of our talk, the rage that animated him earlier gives way to resignation. “I don't know what to do now,” he says. “Go back. Stay here. Go to other country. I don't know.”
I have been here for three days and every day was rainy and cold. Making conditions worse in the camp are the howling gales blowing in from the English Channel. The most ubiquitous sound in the camp is the sound of plastic sheeting whipping in the wind. It’s like a bad soundtrack that never ends. The other constant sound is that of incessant coughing.
The health situation in the camp is worrying, to say the least. There is one hospital nearby which is run by Médecins Sans Frontières, but it’s only for the severely ill or injured. For everyone else, there is a tiny, rundown RV with “First Aid” written on it.
Inside the cluttered vehicle, I meet Dr. Steven Martin, an epidemiologist from Cambridge who is spending his three-week holiday volunteering at the camp. As I wait for a chance to speak with Dr. Martin, the stream of camp residents seeking medical assistance never stops. One by one they come asking for medication. Within thirty minutes, Dr. Martin runs out of cough syrup and sheepishly tells the rest of his visitors that lozenges are all he has left. The doctor tells me that the most common ailments have so far been chronic cough, sore throats, rashes, scabies and the flu. It’s a miracle that more serious communicable diseases have not broken out in the camp yet. Considering there are only a few communal taps and one or two toilets for every five hundred or so residents, the camp is ripe for a break out of cholera and other deadly diseases.
One of the reasons why the health and sanitation situation in the camp is so poor is that the French government has almost no involvement with its day to day running other than ensuring that the residents stay in the camp. The French government has been sued by human rights lawyers several times for its inability to provide basic necessities such as food, water and sanitation. The government has provided some of these things, but not nearly enough. Much of the food comes from local volunteers and NGOs.
Despite the horrendous living conditions, everywhere you look is evidence of human ingenuity. The camp has several small tents that act as a school for learning some basic English. There are also several mosques and churches. Next to a large Ethiopian Orthodox church is a tent with big colorful letters that reads, “The Jungle Book.” This cheekily named tent acts as the camp library, with books donated by volunteers. Tidy, clean and awash with light from several large windows, the interior of tent is a respite from the ugly, mud-covered reality of life in a refugee camp. Nineteenth century British novels, contemporary thrillers and self-help books adorn the long shelves that line the walls of the tent.
Despite the non-existent services in the camp, one gets the feeling of being in a small, shabby but otherwise functioning town made of tents and cardboards. There is a sense of permanence about the place which makes the French government all the more nervous and in a desperate race against time to figure out a way to dismantle it. On February 29th, riots broke out in the camp as the French police moved in to demolish parts of the camp that the local government deemed outside the proper camp boundaries. The government has also built sleeping facilities made of shipping containers. but they only house about a thousand people. What to do with the remaining thousands remains unclear.
In the meantime, the refugees continue to pour in, and the French and British governments are becoming more determined to contain them within the confines of the camp. There are plans to add to the many kilometers of fences that already surround it. The highest and most dangerous fences are the ones that protect the nearby highway. Standing at about twenty feet high with barbed wire on top, these fences have come to symbolize the length to which both the French and British governments are prepared to go to ensure that none of the residents get anywhere near the train tunnel. Under one of the fences is a large sign, hand-drawn by the residents, that reads: “We Have a Dream”.
Remarkably, the dangers posed by these fences do little to dissuade the residents from trying to reach their dreamland. Whenever chance permits, some of the residents take blankets or sleeping bags, climb the fence and lay the blankets over the barbed wires in an attempt to get to the highway. The nearby Médecins Sans Frontières hospital often treats residents with various fence related injuries, everything from cuts to broken bones.
But the fences are the most rudimentary means of limiting the movements of the refugees at a time when E.U nations are spending hundreds of millions of euros on the most sophisticated, military-grade security technology such as scanners, vehicles, boats, drones, night vision equipment and continent-wide databases (such as Eurodac, a fingerprint database) supplied by private security firms.
There are also the astronomical costs of deporting refugees and migrants who have been deemed unfit for asylum. According to data obtained by the website The Migrant Files, “since 2000, the 28 EU member states plus Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Iceland have deported millions of people. This has cost an enormous sum, at least 11.3 billion euro.”
While every sovereign nation is obliged to ensure its borders, the type of money that the E.U spends on security each year gives credence to the theory that the current migration crisis is not a logistical or economic one, but rather a man-made political one. People like British writer Daniel Trilling have spoken about the current crisis in stark political terms: “Either Europe will continue to militarize its borders and squabble over resettlement quotas of refugees as if they were toxic waste,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian, “or we will find the courage and leadership to create a just asylum system where member states pull together to ensure that refugees are offered a basic standard of living wherever they arrive.”
For every Daniel Trilling or NGO worker, including the many I spoke to in Calais, there are many more who portray Europe and its people as being besieged by masses from “the South.” Journalist and author Christopher Caldwell argued in a column for The Weekly Standard titled “Waves from the South,” that “Europe must now provide the force to defend it own border. Europe does not need to indulge in brutality, only to show resolve.” In his 2009 book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, Caldwell famously asked: “Can you have the same Europe with different people in it?” To which his answer was a resounding no.
Much has been made of how to describe the people involved in the current wave of European immigration. Refugees? Asylum seekers? Economic migrants? In a recent Skype interview, Daniel Trilling told me that, as important as these classifications may be for immigration law purposes, they over-simplify what is ultimately an incredibly complex human drama. He says, “none of these categories are particularly fixed and people can move in and out of several of them.” He continues: “People's reasons for traveling are very complex, and while the initial cause of their displacement might have been war or political persecution or any of the things that would qualify someone under international law as a refugee, the reason they keep moving still is that they are dealing with considerations about how to earn a living and where best to build a life."
The language around the current migration crisis hit a low point in the summer of 2015, when hundreds of thousands of Syrians refugees were coming into the E.U through Turkey, and so-called “economic migrants” from Sub-Saharan Africa through the Mediterranean Sea. It was shocking, but not particularly surprising, when Britain’s controversial tabloid columnist Katie Hopkins referred to migrants in one her columns as “cockroaches.”
Nor is it surprising to hear rightwing ideologues such as Marline Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, or Italy’s Northern League’s leader Matteo Salvini, make direct link between migrants and terrorism. However, neither the November 13, 2015, terror attack in Paris or the March 22 bombings in Brussels have so far been connected to refugees. Still, within hours of the attacks in Belgium, rightwing politicians in both Europe and the US sought to capitalize on the bloodshed by linking their anti-immigration policies to terrorism. Even mainstream European politicians have started using disturbing language to describe refugees and migrants. Both the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, and Prime Minister David Cameron have resorted to phrases such as “marauding Africans” and “a swarm of people”.
According to International Organization for Migration, in 2015, one million fifty thousand asylum seekers entered Europe illegally. With summer approaching—the peak months for migration—2016 is on track to match last year’s numbers, if not surpass them. The vast majority of this year’s arrivals, like last year’s, will be Syrian civilians fleeing the air raids of Bashar al-Assad and the barbarism of ISIS. By any measure of international law, they should be given asylum in keeping with the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees.
As for the economic migrants whose claims for asylum are not recognized under current E.U laws, the reality is that they are already in Europe in the hundreds of thousands, and more will surely come. Europe can spend billions of euros deporting them for the decades to come, or the continent can invest that money in harnessing their skills and talents. The European Commission’s 2015 Aging Report confirms what many economists have been warning about for decades: The continent is headed for a demographic and economic cliff, reaching the tipping point by the year 2050. An influx of young, working age migrants is Europe’s only hope if it wishes to maintain its high productivity and standard of living.
The uncomfortable truth for Europe is that it needs the residents of the Calais camp as much as they need it. It takes unimaginable drive, intelligence and ingenuity to travel, at times by foot, from Afghanistan, Syria or Eretria all the way to Northern France. One would think that, if not for humanitarian reasons, at least cold, hard economic rationale would prevail upon the leaders of Europe to start treating these young people as an asset instead of, to borrow Daniel Trilling’s phrase, “toxic waste” to be contained in camps. But for now, all over Europe, hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers like Ahmed Omar continue to live in limbo, their human potential untapped.
Photos courtesy ©Hassan Ghedi Santur. Special thanks to Murat Can Bilgincan.
Hassan Ghedi Santur is an Associate Editor at Warscapes. He is a Somali-Canadian freelance journalist. He is currently based in New York City where he is pursuing a Master's degree at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in politics and global affairs. He is the author of the novel Something Remains. Twitter @hgsantur