It is like entering a parallel universe, and a deeply discomforting one at that. In central Calais, the banal comforts of the average western town: cafés brimming with gossiping customers, families on days out, well-groomed French youngsters flirting with each other in the afternoon sun. A taxi picks me up from outside the Calais-Ville train station and takes me to the “Jungle”, the refugee camp a few kilometres out from the centre. Through my deteriorating French, I learn that the talkative driver blames both the refugees and the British authorities for the crisis.
As we approach the site, he points at the advancing row of towering white fencing with barbed wire that lines the road, intended to prevent refugees from throwing themselves on to passing lorries. Orange-clad construction workers and a couple of trucks are there to finish the job.
As soon as I leave the taxi, I am hit by the smell: a combination, bluntly, of human beings who haven’t washed for days or weeks, excrement and rubbish. Roughly 3,000 people are crammed into a camp of ramshackle tents. There are 30 or so portable loos – not for the faint-hearted – to cater for all of them. There are a few primitive showers; facilities for washing clothes are limited. Andy Young, a British doctor volunteering with Médecins du Monde, tells me that, in these circumstances, a cholera outbreak is easily possible, and refugee populations are susceptible to measles. About a fifth of those the doctors examine have scabies, an extremely itchy condition in which mites burrow into the skin. Fungal infections from not having washed are common. Relatively young men are falling sick with illnesses they would not normally contract if they had nutritious food. Diabetes, asthma, heart disease, epilepsy, HIV: these are all conditions the doctors must tend to and which, in many cases, have gone untreated for too long. The doctors and nurses who volunteer here have few resources, and one of their main jobs is to take the refugees to French hospitals to argue their case.
But one of the most prevalent health problems is instantly recognisable. Many of the refugees have bandages on their hands; others have arms in casts. Some of these injuries have mundane causes all too familiar to many young Brits: playing football or falling off a bike. Indeed, as soon as I arrive, young Sudanese and Afghan men trundle past along dirt paths on cheap bikes. With little lighting at night, cycling injuries are an obvious hazard. Yet that is not the explanation for most of the injuries. The most common cause is refugees – every single day – trying to clamber on to trucks, or trains, or ferries, to end a journey that has taken them across many borders and more than one war zone and get to British shores.
For most of its inhabitants, the Jungle is a transit camp, not a permanent settlement, but there are the rudimentary trappings of a community. A few shops have been set up in tents, mostly selling warm cans of fizzy drinks. A caravan near the entrance serves as a community noticeboard: it advertises the make-do hospital 250 metres away and its opening hours; bikes for €20-€30 (£14-£21); a bike workshop; advice for dealing with police and the asylum system.
There are political posters, too. “The grass is greener where there are no sides,” says one, featuring a dark-hooded silhouette climbing over a fence. Another says: “NO BORDER – RESIST! REBEL! REVOLT!” A large blue-and-white-striped tent functions as a community centre; it is filled with people in sleeping bags. “I’m human like you” is graffitied on the side, along with words such as “Help!” and various messages in Arabic. Young men sit outside, charging mobile phones with a few precious plug extensions as music blares from a loudspeaker. Every evening, hot meals are distributed, but not quite enough for the number of residents.
The various nationalities group together: the Afghan flag flies over one tent. As a white westerner, I swiftly attract attention. Not everyone is happy to see a British journalist. At one improvised shop, I explain where I’m from and why I’m there. The mood sours instantly. “You in England, you don’t like us,” spits out an Afghan in his early thirties with considerable venom. “You English, I don’t like you either.” With a dismissive swipe of his hand, he tells me to go away.
But nearby, there is a warmer reception: some laughing young Afghan men beckon me over, perching beneath a makeshift shelter and playing with cheap pay-as-you-go mobiles. Habib* tells me that he’s 24 years old, although his friends snigger as though that’s preposterous. “I first left Afghanistan in 2006 and went to the UK, but they refused my asylum and deported me back,” he says. He is not the only Afghan who tells me this: having settled in Britain and being sent to Afghanistan, he feels as though going to Britain is returning home. “Our life is dangerous; we are not safe in Afghanistan, that’s why we leave Afghanistan. We come here to make the good life.”
Habib comes from Jalalabad, where his mother still lives; but his brother and uncle were killed by the Taliban, he says. He travelled all the way from his war-torn home to Calais by lorry, on foot and by taxi. “In England, they give you a home, they give you a doctor, they give you the food money,” he says. When I tell him that a single asylum-seeker such as himself gets only £36.95 a week, he is taken aback but not deterred. “They’re not supporting the refugees here. We need a home, we need school, we need the good life. We are not animals.”
With so many stressed people from different cultures crammed together, he says, fights break out at night. “Of course it’s dangerous here. The Jungle is not safe.”
Every day Habib tries to escape to England: by lorry, by train. Will he ever make it? “Yes.” He has friends back in his adopted country, one of the main reasons he wishes to return. His friends evidently have journalist fatigue; most of Britain’s media have sent reporters to interrogate the refugees. Couldn’t I do something more useful to help them, like bring supplies?
Although I don’t say it, journalists have not descended on Calais because the British media have a new-found interest in the plight of refugees. The crisis near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel has disrupted the holidays of Britons seeking warmer climes, ensuring that the story dominates the summer news cycle. There has been sympathy, too, for hauliers who face on-the-spot fines of up to £2,000 for every person found in their vehicles. “The broader issue of migrants is a complete nightmare for our members,” the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, Richard Burnett, has declared. “We again call on the French government to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that migrants are separated from lorries in the Calais area; and we call on the UK government to support that more strongly in its dealings with the French government.”
In an effort to prevent refugees from entering Britain, the French have installed a mile-long fence with barbed wire around the tunnel entrance in Calais. The government says it is necessary to prevent deaths, as at least nine people have been killed trying to board lorries or high-speed trains since the beginning of June. On a single day at the end of July, more than 2,000 attempts were made to enter the restricted areas.
The refugees have been dehumanised by media outlets and politicians alike: the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, infamously described them as “marauding”; David Cameron referred to a “swarm of people”; the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, suggested sending in the army.
But they are not “marauding”, like barbarians or bandits. Neither are they saints. They are just people caught up in very difficult situations who, more than anything, crave a security they have largely been denied. Forty-year-old Malik is one of those in the camp who has previously been deported from England. For 14 years, he lived in west London, between Shepherd’s Bush and White City, near the BBC’s old headquarters, working at a grocery store. When he was deported he was “devastated”. As far as he is concerned, he is simply travelling back to his old home. Some of those who have made the journey on their own all the way from Afghanistan are very young. Parwaiz is a slightly chubby 15-year-old with piercing blue eyes; he says his father was killed in a bomb attack four years ago.
Every one of the men I speak to tells me he has fled either war or dictatorship. Two men walk through the camp, squinting in the afternoon sun. One is Abdul, from Sudan, who is 26; he tells me his whole village was destroyed by the Janjaweed, an Arab-supremacist militia. “They were all burned with fire,” he says of his fellow villagers, without flinching. His father is dead; his brothers and mother remained in Darfur and he constantly fears for their safety. His reason for wanting to come to England is straightforward: English is one of the official languages in Sudan, which he believes will allow him to establish a life in Britain in a way that would be more difficult in France or Germany. A portly, bespectacled 16-year-old, Abdel, dressed in a blue gingham shirt and black shorts, tells me that many of his relatives were shot dead by the Janjaweed. “It’s dangerous, very dangerous, it’s not safe,” he says. He has family in England and that is the main reason he wants to come.
The Darfuri refugees I met were some of the keenest to reach England. When some of them learn that I’m English, they break into cheers, chanting, “We love England! We love England” and treating me like some sort of rock star. Some of them have bloodstained bandages on their hands. A short, 21-year-old Darfuri with dreadlocks speaks to me in fluent English, explaining that he is a member of an African tribe and faces problems from both the Janjaweed and the Sudanese government. He was arrested along with his friends, given no water and subjected to electric shocks.
“I just want a future, to educate myself, that’s my ambition,” he tells me. But why England? “The UK used to colonise Sudan,” he says, “and we speak English. Look at this camp. Would you live here? They forget we’re humans. Where is the humanity? Where are the human rights?”
When he asks me if people from England want people like him, I shuffle uncomfortably, trying to describe the hostility to new arrivals that exists back home. “Is that from the government or the people?” he asks. I try to explain sensitively that it comes from both, which leaves him visibly dejected.
Three Eritrean men in their early twenties wave me over to their tent. One sits on a chair in front of a mirror as his attentive friend trims his beard for him. Hayat is a handsome young man with some sort of bulge on his chin, though I’m too embarrassed to ask the cause. Eritrea – a tiny country in the Horn of Africa that won independence from Ethiopia in 1991 – is ruled by one of the most repressive dictatorships on earth. When Hayat’s friends were arrested, he fled immediately. They were crammed 20 to a car, he tells me, cheerful and smiley throughout, and they travelled from Ethiopia, to Sudan, to Libya – “It’s dangerous there, there’s Isis there” – before crossing the Mediterranean.
Why England? “I can speak the language,” he says. “If I went somewhere else, I’d have to spend years learning the language.” Like many of the refugees I meet, he is educated: he was studying life sciences in Eritrea. He has been in the camp for a week and has already tried five times to jump over the fence; he shows me his bandaged hand as proof. He tells me in detail about how he tries to get over fences, “crawling like a tiger” to avoid the attention of guards. He will not give up until he makes it to England.
Not all refugees stay in the Jungle. Approximately 100 Syrian refugees are camping near the centre of Calais, outside a transport depot. Their tents – mostly blue, some red – line a ramp. Four men, three in their thirties and one aged 42, sit on chairs, smoking cigarettes. They look older than their years. They hail from Daraa, a city in south-west Syria with a pre-war population of fewer than 100,000. It was there that the civil war began after troops loyal to the Assad dictatorship fired on pro-reform demonstrations.
“There is no food, no medicine, no anything in Syria,” says 33-year-old Ziad, who has been appointed spokesman by the others because of his superior English. He sits, fidgeting with a packet of cigarettes with his bandaged hand until his friend loses patience and confiscates it. “We all have friends, brothers and relationships killed by the regime,” he says. Ziad and his friends fled Syria about four months ago, arriving in Calais in June after crossing from Turkey to Greece and onward.
“We live in miserable conditions here, no toilets, no douche, no anything.” Médecins du Monde helps with medical needs, but otherwise the residents rely on private donations. When I arrive, they are about to start begging for money so they can change the bottle of gas for cooking. Ziad was a lawyer in Syria; so are the other two, while the 42-year-old is a nurse. “Is everyone a lawyer in Syria?” I ask, and they laugh.
Their relationship with the French authorities is strained. “They treat us very difficult, the police, the military force here,” Ziad says. “Sometimes they hit us and spray the gas – you understand me?” He tries every day to escape to England, by ferry or train. It’s “very dangerous”, he concedes, as he talks of climbing iron walls and jumping, of security and dogs. “I jumped and hurt my hand here,” he says, raising his bandaged, bloodied hand. Why England? “We have relationships in England – whether family or community,” he explains. “But the language is a broader reason, so we have many chances of jobs there.”
Another Syrian, a 26-year-old called Firas, leans out of his tent; he is speaking with his 20-year-old cousin, who seems much more well groomed than the others. He has big, dark eyes and would not look amiss in a boy band. They offer me hot milk sweetened with a sugar cube; at first, I turn down their offer, but they insist. They are from Daraa, too, but Firas was studying English literature at al-Baath University in Homs, another heartland of Syria’s initial uprising. The war ended his studies.
“The army came to Daraa and they took a lot of people to prison because they asked for freedom,” he explains. “Not to change president, just freedom. So they use force against us, they kill us, they send tanks, air force – everything they use to kill us.” Three members of his family have perished, by bomb or by gun. When the regime tried to conscript him into the army, he fled. “I left Syria. I want to go to England and continue my studies there.” He dreams of Oxford’s spires.
In England, he explains, he has relatives in London, Leeds, Oxford, Sheffield and Edinburgh. “Some people have jobs, some study.” He tries every day to make it to England. Like so many others, he had an injured hand. “I’m scared about the future,” he says readily, “but I ask for future in UK. But, as you know, we can’t go there, because the government of UK doesn’t want us to go there.” He alludes to possible tensions among the refugees in Calais, suggesting that people from Sudan and Iran are falsely masquerading as Syrians to gain entry. He tries every day to make it to England. “Inshallah, inshallah, I will go to England some time,” he says dreamily. “Inshallah.”
If refugees are indeed masquerading as Syrians to gain asylum in Britain, then they face a rude awakening. Fewer than 200 Syrians have been granted asylum in the UK, and the country has pledged to take just 500 in total. Germany, on the other hand, has promised to take in 30,000.
For those currently unsympathetic about the Calais refugee crisis, the arguments are straightforward. If these people are so desperate, why not claim asylum in the nearest possible country to their home? Why travel so far? Why the stampede to leave France in favour of Britain? Does this not prove that Britain is a soft touch, a magnet attracting all and sundry from far-flung corners of the world?
Céline Schmitt is a spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, and she sits in the Jungle being briefed in French by her organisation’s workers. I sit next to her on a bench as she is kept up to speed by a young Frenchman about the medical situation. The subordinate is finally given the all-clear to enjoy his evening.
“We’ve been here for many years, before Sangatte [a previous refugee camp]; we’ve always been here,” she tells me, explaining how they work closely with the French authorities, NGOs and other “local actors”. She pauses after every question, choosing her language diplomatically. The role of UNHCR, she explains, is “to make sure people in need of protection have access to the asylum system and that they are protected, that they have access to their rights”. Many of them, she emphasises, are fleeing conflict and violence.
She believes the constant use of the word “migrant”, when in fact these are mostly refugees, is misleading. “The French authorities have already increased their capacity to reduce the delay in asylum procedures, but it’s still too long: it takes a few months.”
But why are they so intent on seeking asylum in Britain, I ask? “I think we need to put the figures back into perspective,” she says carefully, as though navigating a minefield. “More than 200,000 have arrived this year in Europe, crossing the Mediterranean, and the majority are refugees. But you have four million Syrian refugees alone – and I’m only talking about Syrian refugees, including one million in Lebanon alone. So, in comparison, the numbers coming to Europe are small, low.”
The figures speak for themselves: 31,745 applied for asylum in Britain last year; twice as many opted for France; more than six times as many applied in Germany; and in Sweden, with a population nearly seven times lower than Britain, the number was 81,180. The UK accepted 10,050 non-EU asylum applications, but France took over 4,000 more; in Germany, it was more than four times as many; Italy, ravaged by economic crisis, accepted more than twice as many. And yet, as Schmitt points out, the vast majority of refugees move from one poor country to another. UNHCR figures show that 86 per cent of refugees live in poor countries, compared with 70 per cent a decade earlier; 95 per cent of Syrian refugees are in neighbouring countries, mainly Lebanon and Turkey.
So who are the 3,000 in Calais, who make up roughly 0.015 per cent of the global refugee population? Philippe Wannesson, an activist based in Calais, is a burly, tall man with long, straggly hair. “The conditions in the Jungle are like the third world,” he says over an espresso in the town centre. “But these are middle-class people; they are not living like that in their own country. They discovered it in Europe.” These are people, he points out, who had enough money to leave their own country.
Is someone a refugee or a migrant? Calais underlines how blurred is the distinction between the two. All the people to whom I spoke were fleeing countries deeply traumatised by war and dictatorship. Their lives were in considerable danger. They had lost relatives and other loved ones, often in nightmarish circumstances. They had witnessed scenes of violence and death that most westerners will never experience. But they may have lived already in Britain. They may well speak English and believe that it gives them a chance of a decent life over here which would be denied to them in the eternal banishment of, say, a Lebanese refugee camp. They may have family in Britain. Most of them are educated. Libyans usually opt for Italy, because it is the former colonial power; people from the Democratic Republic of Congo usually go for France, because French is the official language. Those who portray Britain as the destination of choice for refugees and migrants have demagoguery, but not facts on their side.
There are nearly 60 million forcibly displaced people across the world; in total, there are nearly 20 million refugees. Most of them will remain near their often ruined homes; a tiny number will continue to seek security in Britain, driven by a combination of despair and hope. Some will suffer wounded hands, broken arms; others will die. But however tall the fences, however sharp the barbed wire, however fierce the dogs, however hostile the public opinion, they will keep coming.
*Names have been changed throughout