Blockades, attacks, and tear gas: what’s going on in Calais?

Unrest escalates as the “The Jungle” is set to close.

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Walking into the Calais camp – now known by inhabitants and the rest of the world as “The Jungle” – for the first time last Thursday, I couldn’t quite believe the scene unfolding before me.

Traffic had stalled on the motorway towering over the camp and, seizing on a rare opportunity so close to the tunnel, hundreds of refugees charged at the white barbed wire fence in broad daylight, breaking through and storming the lorries bound for the UK. The riot police – stationed there, forever on standby – tear-gassed the crowd into submission, eventually restoring order, with refugees and volunteers alike left shielding their burning eyes. 

Life in the camp at that moment couldn’t seem more desperate. Until you speak to the residents and realise how many put themselves through this hell every night. Winter is fast approaching and they’re well aware of the political backdrop.

The French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve’s promise to dismantle the camp is met with a mix of cynicism and fear. Tension is in the air, even more so than usual I’m told, and there’s a palpable sense that time is running out.

Ramzi, a young boy from Libya who dreams of becoming a pilot, and one day lighting the boxing ring up like his hero Muhammad Ali, tells me how he walks for five hours every night “without fail” out of the camp, in the vain hope of smuggling onto a train or lorry heading for the coast.

“Just 35 minutes it takes,” he tells me. “I only have to get lucky once.”

Other people’s success stories keep hope alive here. “Yesterday 12 of my friends made it” Ramzi tells me. “One day that’s going to be me”. Regardless of the slim odds and worsening living conditions – with dwindling donations and food queues lengthening – everyone I meet shares stories just like Ramzi’s, and talks hopefully of the life that awaits them in Britain. For them it’s not a question of if they’ll make it, but when.

As I say goodbye to Ramzi, he describes a horrific event he claims he witnessed in the camp: “I saw three men beat a Sudanese man to death last week; with their bare knuckles.” It was the casual way he slipped it into conversation – as if extreme violence were just an afterthought, and is now part of his reality – which I will find hard to shake off.

Such reports of violence and lawlessness are rare, but sadly just one affects the way the world interprets the estimated 7,000-8,000 mostly peaceful people living here.

At the “Three Idiots” restaurant on the camp’s main pathway – sarcastically titled “Theresa May Street”– I share a meal of lentils and chickpeas with Richard, a former Nato driver from Afghanistan tortured by the Taliban and forced to flee, just because of who paid his wages.

He dreams of reuniting with his family and living a dignified life again. “In the UK you have hot showers and good opportunities for business,” he says. “Here we wait two hours for showers that don’t last five minutes.”

Most here speak warmly of Britain. Many speak English, see Britain as a country that tolerates their cultures, and where the luckiest of their family and friends live safely and freely.

A common misconception is that everyone in the camp is poor, when in many war-torn countries it’s a middle-class privilege to afford the journey across two continents to get here. I meet trained plumbers, carpenters and doctors maintaining the site’s infrastructure and its residents’ health. Farhad, a high-end dress maker, chased out of Iran for protesting against his government’s human rights record, shows me his fabulous collection over tea. He spent everything he had on a fake passport, which took him to Ireland before he was discovered. “I don’t want to come to just take, take, take” he says while waggling a finger. “I have something to give back,” he adds, as he looks down proudly at his hands.

Attitudes to refugees and migrants – on both sides of the channel – appear to be hardening.

In advance of this week’s blockade of the motorway route into Calais, residents were urged not to leave the camp. This was to avoid lorry drivers subjected to escalating violence and disgruntled local farmers protesting against the camp’s existence, demanding a firm date to be set for its clearance.

The problem with the Calais situation is that the interests of everyone involved are far too conflicted for a clear-cut solution. The riot police are just following orders. Lorry drivers have the right to feel safe as they do their jobs. Governments stay elected by prioritising national anxiety over the universal good. And yes, refugees attempt to break our border laws every night. But when dignity and freedom are at stake, I don’t know who – in their predicament – wouldn’t be doing the same.

Names have been changed to protect sources’ identities.