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15 March 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 7:12am

Demolishing purgatory: what happens to the refugees when Calais’s “Jungle” is destroyed?

We meet evicted inhabitants of Europe’s largest slum, which is being bulldozed by the French authorities.

By Anoosh Chakelian

It’s as if a natural disaster has swept through one seven-hectare portion of northern France. Trodden into the endless stretch of sludge are toothbrushes, upturned chairs, sodden mattresses, magazines, blankets, single shoes, a chubby-cheeked doll. Remnants of a life cobbled together here by the 5,500 people who inhabit Calais’s so-called Jungle ­­– a controversial nickname, but one that has stuck with volunteers and refugees alike.

Migrants have been setting up camps in Calais in various forms since 2002, but the current camp – a slum city on Britain’s doorstep ­­– has mushroomed in the past two years as a result of the escalating global refugee crisis.

The French government is in the process of destroying it. Having almost completely evicted its south side (which had a population of 3,500, according to charities on the ground), it is about to clear the north side.

Bulldozers crawl over piles of rubble, which rise like craggy mountains across the landscape. Smoke spirals up into the crisp Calais sunshine from a row of charred black huts. Fire whisks across what remains of the structures in the distance. Perhaps this is more like a warzone than the aftermath of an earthquake.

Riot police run through the eviction zone. Photo: © Jeta B Photography/

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Figures in high-vis vests pepper the rubble, hacking away at the wood and tarpaulin that just minutes ago was somebody’s home. Clusters of riot police prowl the area. Their gear – knee-high boot protectors, shoulder guards like armadillos, masks – is at odds with the muted atmosphere.

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There was resistance when the evictions began, which led to tear gas and water cannons being used against the refugees. But now they stand in silence, muttering occasionally while watching the destruction. A few young men are slumped on the ground opposite the demolition, their heads in their hands.

“It’s not that they’ve accepted it,” explains Elaine Ortiz, founder of the Hummingbird Project, a Brighton-based aid organisation and one of the main groups helping refugees in Calais. “People are just exhausted.”

Evicted refugees in the rubble. Photo: © Jeta B Photography/

The French authorities have been demolishing the Calais camp for two weeks. And they work fast. You can see the line of destruction tearing through the camp, inching ever closer to the edges.

I arrive by car, with the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas, and Hummingbird volunteers. We ask an Afghan woman watching us through the window of her shack to park outside. A few hours later, we return to the car and its surroundings are unrecognisable. Her home is gone, and the car sits alone in a wasteland that had only this morning been a terrace of makeshift houses. There is no sign of the woman.

Police survey the destruction. Photo: © Jeta B Photography/

The French authorities’ rationale for demolition is that it is the “humane” thing to do. The refugees have indeed been living in appalling conditions, and, as Mary – who founded the onsite library Jungle Books – tells me, “of course nobody wants people to have to live in the Jungle”. Graffiti on a wooden shelter nearby goes further: “Fuck the evil UK, who are happy to let the Jungle exist”.

​“The UK has let this happen”

But there is nowhere for the displaced camp residents to go. This is in spite of the Calais prefecture – the layer of regional government responsible for razing the camp – claiming there is room elsewhere.

Help Refugees and L’Auberge des Migrants carried out a census and found 3,455 people living in the eviction area, including 445 children (305 of whom are unaccompanied). The authorities insist there is space in government-run shipping containers within the camp (which house 1,000), and smaller accommodation centres scattered across France.

But the containers are full, and there aren’t enough places in the other centres to house all of Calais’s evicted refugees – and many such places are set to close down shortly.

Caroline Lucas is shown round by the Hummingbird Project’s Elaine Ortiz. Photo: © Jeta B Photography/

“It’s not a good thing to remove us,” Elias* tells me. He is a 24-year-old Ethiopian man who came to Calais five and a half months ago. “It is because the law just says ‘so what?’ about us, and they push us out. I don’t feel scared now – I feel nothing.”

He shrugs as he wheels his bike through the north side of the camp. A lanky figure in a shabby leather jacket, torn jeans and mud-caked boots, he spends his time on the camp making shoes out of old tyres. He shows us a pair that he has decorated with rubber flowers, painted yellow.

“Adey Abeba,” he grins. “The name of a flower we have in Ethiopia. We don’t have papers, so we have to do something here.”

He used to fix up houses in Ethiopia, and wants to do the same in England, as he speaks English. He’s been trying to cross the border since arriving. “By train, or trying to get in the cars, things like that,” he tells me. “But it’s hard.”

Elias’s tyre shoes. Photo: © Jeta B Photography/

Almost everyone here wants to live in the UK. Many have family there. Most speak English, not French. And their only experience of France has been heavy-handed evictions, racism, and knowledge that its asylum approval rate is low (21.7 per cent compared with Britain’s 39 per cent).

Refugees are reluctant to use state-sanctioned accommodation, because they are required to register their details. Entering the system could mean being sent back to France upon reaching the UK. Under the Dublin Regulation, the country where an asylum seeker first enters the EU is responsible for registering the asylum application.

If they have relatives in an EU country, they can make a “family reunification” case for being granted asylum there. But the many Calais camp inhabitants with UK connections have had little luck navigating the system. The UK has a huge backlog of asylum claims – according to the Refugee Council, almost half of asylum applicants do not receive even an initial decision within six months.

A message to England. Photo: Anoosh Chakelian

Farzam is a shy and softly-spoken Afghan 22-year-old. His wife is British and lives in the UK. They met when she visited Afghanistan, and have been married for two years. He travelled through Iran and Turkey, and then by boat to Italy and on to France, in the hope of reuniting with her in Britain. He has been stuck in Calais for six months.

“I’m very frustrated,” he says, via a volunteer who translates his Urdu. “I’ve tried [to travel to Britain] but it’s difficult. I’ve never been there before. I feel that the UK is forcing France to make things tougher to cross the border, and now the UK is deporting people back to Afghanistan.”

He blames the evictions on the British government: “The UK has allowed all this to happen.”

Photo: © Jeta B Photography/

Lucas is campaigning for safe and legal routes for people to reach Britain. “They need to be able to apply for asylum through here,” she tells me. “The idea that you can’t do it properly until you get to the UK is just some kind of Kafkaesque joke; people cannot get to the UK – that’s the point. It feels to me that the system is set up to stop people using it properly; it’s incredibly cruel.”

She is holding a Westminster Hall debate this week on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ aim for the world to cooperate in creating safer pathways for Syrian refugees.

During her visit, Lucas stresses the need for legal centres to be set up in Calais and Dunkirk, where asylum claims could be “transparently, effectively and swiftly processed. Then everybody would know where they are, instead of sitting in a limbo-land never knowing.”

Because there is so little legal help for refugees here, they instead risk their lives trying to sneak onto trucks and trains, or pay smugglers. This is on top of the life-threatening situations they have left in their home countries, and en route to Europe.

Umar is 27 years old, and has been in Calais for a year. He comes regularly to an art therapy tent, a calm haven adorned with rainbow bunting, and paintings by refugees. He left the city of Peshawar in Pakistan, following the school massacre of 132 children by the Taliban in 2014.

“I didn’t feel safe,” he tells me. “I lived 20 minutes away from it. A lot of schools are being bombed by the Taliban. I was trying to study and work in Pakistan – I want to go to England to study English, chemistry and biology.”

“Children are just vanishing”

The Baloo youth centre is still standing among the rubble. It has been closed for a few days because of the destruction around it. Now its ping pong, table football and pool are available again for the 12-18-year-old boys – many of them unaccompanied – to use.

Baloo Youth Centre. Photo: © Jeta B Photography/

It is a compact, loud and sweaty space, filled with boisterous teens. One cheeky 14-year-old with heavily-gelled hair swaggers up to us and gives us high-fives. Another boy sits outside with a frown, listening to pop music on his phone.

“[With the evictions], young people are disappearing every day,” a volunteer says. “People don’t know where they are. I’m sorry to say it, but if these were white children, the world would be up in arms.”

She adds: “Loads of children have been moved out – we’re now trying to locate where they’re going. Children are just vanishing.”

Baloo will move to the north side of the camp, as are many refugees – although I hear that it will only be standing for a month or so longer.

Artwork by refugees. Photo: © Jeta B Photography/

The only resistance remaining is a group of nine Iranians and Kurdish Iranians on hunger strike. They have sewn up their lips in protest at the camp’s destruction, and in a bid for Britain to let them in. We visit on their 11th day without food. Media are refused entry to the shelter where they are sleeping, reportedly in a very weak condition. The mood surrounding the shelter is tense.

“I don’t know what they’re fighting for anymore,” sighs a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) worker outside. “Everyone has moved already; they’re fighting for no one.”

“We have to stay here like animals”

A mile away from the Calais camp is Dunkirk’s Grande-Synthe slum. Known as France’s “forgotten” refugee scandal, it has until last week been home to around 2,500 mainly Kurdish families fleeing northern Iraq. It is a swamp, rife with rats and disease. In some parts, the mud is nine inches deep.

The Mayor of Dunkirk, a Green politician called Damien Carême, grew so concerned with its conditions that, with the help of MSF, he has used local authority money to build a hygienic refugee camp down the road, with a capacity of 2,500.

People are only just moving in, and the atmosphere is markedly more relaxed and upbeat than in Calais. One man with a razor is giving his friends haircuts as a crowd of others use electricity points to charge their phones. Children career around on bikes and rollerblades, and women walk along the main thoroughfare – a rare sight in the Calais camp.

Refugees move in to the new Dunkirk camp. Photo: Getty

There are neat rows of prefabricated wooden shelters, heating, drinking water points, kitchens, showers and a laundry. Some men are hammering wooden pallets onto their huts to create porches.

This is France’s first ever internationally recognised refugee camp, but it is at odds with the state’s wishes. The French government tried to stop it being built, and Carême feels under pressure to close it.

An unassuming figure in round glasses and a shabby jacket, Carême is surveying the camp as it opens. “We need money,” he says, during his chat with fellow Green politician Caroline Lucas. “I can keep the camp open for two or three months, definitely, but not beyond that.”

“He needs a huge amount of support,” says Lucas. “Political, moral, and financial support. If you see what they’re doing, the amount of financial support that is needed in context is tiny, compared to the cost of the policing, destruction and waste that has gone on in the other camp. I’m really hoping that the Green family of politicians in the European Parliament and other parliaments can somehow rally around him.”

Volunteers describe the set-up as a “paradise” compared to the purgatory of the other camps. But some of the refugees aren’t so sure. An air of permanence can be disheartening – it suggests they are here for the long-haul.

“No, I don’t like it here,” says Ardalan. He is a 15-year-old from Iranian Kurdistan, smoking during a break from lessons in the school tent. His teacher, a British medical student who speaks Kurdish, translates. “It’s seems like a place where we have to settle,” he says. “We are always settling and moving, settling and moving.”

There are hundreds of unaccompanied minors like him who have a legal right to enter the UK because they have relatives there, but have no means of fighting their case. Ardalan’s father lives and works as a mechanic in Britain, where he went to seek asylum ten years ago. He has visited his son three times in the three months that Ardalan has been sheltering in Dunkirk.

Refugees leaving the former Dunkirk camp. Photo: Getty

“It is very bad,” he says. “I just want to go so that I can be with my dad.”

Musa, a tall 22-year-old from Kuwait in scuffed trainers and a black puffa jacket, invites us for a cup of tea outside his shelter. He calls himself “an Arabic man from Kuwait without nationality” – his family are Bedouins, and have no papers.

His father lives in Birmingham, and his older brother has just managed to reach the UK from Dunkirk; he called him in tears this morning. Musa has been in Dunkirk for five and a half months, but stopped attempting to leave three months ago. He is here with his sick mother, and wants her to find a way there first before trying again.

“Today is a new life for my brother,” he says, in the impeccable English he learned at his father’s insistence. “Now we have two people in the UK – where you can have a passport, they take you to hospital, they respect you like a human. Maybe the dream will be true for me.”

His family left Kuwait due to regional unrest, amid clashes between the authorities and Bedouin people. He went to work as a hotel cleaner in Syria in 2010, and had to flee the war three years later. After some time in Turkey, where, as a stateless person, he faced discrimination, he travelled to Dunkirk.

The new Dunkirk camp, before moving day. Photo: Getty

“We are human,” he says. “And we have nothing, so we have to stay here like animals. We have to fight to get out. Maybe it’s better in this camp, we have things we need here, but I have a mind – treat me like a human.”

Musa’s main concern is that, while he appreciates the onsite provisions, there is no legal or administrative help for refugees. “We wait for the government, for anyone, to have something for us. It is very shameful,” he says of Britain. “I am near to you. Take me.”

He looks up at the crowd that has gathered to hear his story: “You are giving me a home here. Maybe one day I will return everything,” he says. “When I am in the UK, we will go to a restaurant and I will give you dinner.”

*All names of refugees have been changed, to protect their identities.