Skip to content Skip to footer

Uncertain Refuge in Calais

After escaping the weapons of abusive states and groups, refugees have sought precarious refuge in the camp.

“I’m from Syria. I’m a refugee, escaped from the war,” Majd, 21, told Democracy Now! last December while he stood near France’s “Jungle” camp, protesting with his fellow residents [1]. “They call [the camp] a jungle. Yes, it’s where the animals live. They treat us like animals.”

“They” are the French and British governments, who, as the Intercept reported, “have poured millions of dollars into extra riot police, tear gas canisters, dogs, fences, infrared cameras, floodlights, and batons [to deter camp residents], while neglecting to supply adequate meals, sanitation, running water, housing, medical support or clothing.”

The informal settlement — “Europe’s largest slum” or “a slum city on Britain’s doorstep” — is home to some 5,000 men, women and children from Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Libya, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and other nations. After escaping the weapons (often western-made) of abusive states and groups, in addition to extreme inequality and climate change, they’ve sought precarious refuge in the camp, which has been active in various formations and sizes near Calais since 2002.

Eviction notices were issued in January, and bulldozers guided by riot police set upon the south section of the camp. The charities L’Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees say that the evicted area held 3,455 people, including 445 children, most of them unaccompanied [2]. A friend of mine, a French citizen of Lebanese parentage, said: “It’s the logic of life against the logic of the state.” I’d further nuance his assessment: It’s the dangerous, divisive logic of “the West and the Rest”. That is, the victims of war and conflict are worthy of peace, but not all wars, and certainly not all victims. Since then, thousands of “animals” living in the “Jungle” have been displaced again, with thousands more facing the same in the north section, despite protests, and their plea: “We, the united people of the Jungle of Calais, decline the demands of the French government to reduce the size of the Jungle. We have decided to remain where we are and will peacefully resist the government’s plans to destroy our homes. We plead with the French authorities and the international community that you understand our situation and respect our fundamental human rights.”

Last autumn, Peter Blodau, a German-Irish artist who teaches drawing at a university in Cairo, travelled to the camp, where it had been reported that “respiratory and stomach infections are everywhere, as are rats, mice, scabies” with up to 150 people arriving daily [3]. He sketched portraits and recorded the accounts of more than 20 residents, most of them citing the camp’s proximity to England as the chief reason for their stay. “I speak English,” they told him, also noting that the asylum approval rate is higher in England than in France (39% versus 21.7%), a fact that circulates beyond the camp.

In our essay “A Sea of Tents Surrounds Me” for the Los Angeles Review of Books (17 January 2016), Blodau said his drawings were like courtroom sketches. I explained: “The Jungle residents, being either refugee or migrant, are positioned as defendants. Only for them, innocence must be proven (in which case they are legally processed, and granted asylum to resettle), or they remain guilty (smuggled, detained, denied, deterred, declared threats or would-be terrorists by virtue of their countries of origin, ignored, evicted or deported). These refugees inhabit, as it were, the tense zone between the refugee’s burden and the refugee-as-burden.”

Blodau returned to the camp in March, when the bulldozers were in action. “Where there was once a town of makeshift homes and shops, now looks like — and I’m not trying to sensationalise — a war zone. Scattered mounds of garbage and the debris of destroyed structures; a haze of smoke and teargas; residents rushing around with few possessions and volunteers helping them; large numbers of security forces patrolling the scene. The magnitude of devastation isn’t as intense as it is in, say, Damascus, but there’s devastation nonetheless.”

The portraits by Blodau attest to “the West and the Rest” framework that’s empowering the demolition and fearmongering campaigns against refugees in the greatest exodus of people since the second world war [4].

Ahmed, 25, from Damascus, Syria, lives in the north section of the camp. “I left my family and job in Damascus because I didn’t want to get rounded up, like other men, to hurt and kill the Syrian people. I didn’t want to fight in the war and join [Syrian president Bashar al-Assad] or any of the sides. I escaped to Turkey and paid a smuggler to get me across the Mediterranean. I’ve been here since November. In Syria, I trained as an interior designer and studied English, so I hope to get work in London. People ask me ‘How do you think you can get to England now?’ I tell them ‘It’s still possible, you just have to have the money’. I hear that for €5,000 to €10,000 smugglers can get you on trucks [that cross the English Channel and southern part of the North Sea] from Belgium and Holland. Smugglers say there’s less security up there. It might be the only way, but most can’t go; so many Afghans and Sudanese still try it for themselves in France. We know that [the camp] will all go in the end, but I won’t stay to see that happen.”

Adel, 17, from Al-Hasakah governate, Syria, lives in the north section: “The Islamic State is in Al-Hasakah and people are getting beaten up. You never see them again. My family was afraid for me and said ‘Get out of here’. Those [ISIS] fighters act like they know about Islam, but it’s the wrong idea — it’s just violence and murder for them. A few months ago a group of us left at night for Turkey. I got a small boat over to Greece. We went to Germany, near Bremen, but I was told it would take over a year for me to get work papers. I can’t wait that long because I need to make enough money to bring over my parents and younger brother. I heard that in England, once I’ve made it there as a refugee, maybe I could start work in less time. I’ve tried to get through the fence [surrounding the Eurotunnel] twice, but there are too many police. I might have to go back to Germany [because of the demolition]. I can’t go back to Syria, but I want to. I miss my family. I will keep trying to get to England.”

Hamid, in his 40s, from Homs, Syria, lives in the north section: “I have a wife and 8-year-old child in Homs. I used to work at a car rental place in Kuwait, but they started throwing some of us Syrians out. I went back to Syria and still couldn’t make a living there because of the war. There’s no economy. I thought I could get to England to make money and get my family out of Syria. I’ve heard of people doing that. I’ve lived [in the camp] for a little while. I managed to get on a ferry, making it across to England. But [the British authorities] found me and gave me [a deportation order] right away. I was put on a ferry back to France. They didn’t let me apply for asylum or have a hearing, nothing. I hope to get some legal help to look into my case. But once I’m back in France, I’m gone, maybe nothing can be done. [The British government] is happy to have the Jungle here. They don’t want us and they’ll do anything to stop us. It feels like a big injustice.”

German, in his 30s, from Darfur, lived in the demolished south section: “They call me German because I lived in Merseburg for over a year. I left Darfur because of racial abuse from the government, but I faced the same from the neo-Nazis in Germany. They would yell ‘Go home, you don’t belong here’. I came to this camp six months ago and have lived here with my friends [Amber and Omar]. Tomorrow we’ll have to move our home [to the north] because we’re next in line. The bulldozers have cleared almost everything behind us. The police haven’t listened to us at all. We want to stay where we are. They don’t think of this as a home. But even [in the north] we don’t think it’ll last much longer.”

Muhammad, in his 20s, from Syria, lives in the north section: “We have to investigate this [new government-run camp that neighbours the Jungle], we’ve got to find out the true nature of it. There’s a fence around it with guards, like a prison. Will its security system track our movements, when we enter and exit, and why? And what’s the true nature of these security records? I’ve heard that they would want our IDs and fingerprints to keep us in France and out of England? Would we lose our freedom again?”

Blodau said of his exchange with a member of the French riot police (CRS) who approached him as he sketched the demolition: “St Michael’s [the camp’s Ethiopian and Eritrean Christian church] is still standing in the background, and the Afghan Flag Café used to be to the right. I estimate that 50 homes once stood here. Mini-excavators scoop up the debris of dismantled and charred homes and shops, tossing it all into dumpsters. A barrier of CRS, armed with riot shields and teargas, stand about six metres apart, protecting the demolition. Just behind them is a hoard of fuel canisters from the homes of some residents; they corralled the canisters because they don’t want any more fires, which some residents had lit in protest. A young boy from Afghanistan told me ‘We weren’t going to let [the French government] tear down [our homes], we wanted to burn them down first’. Outside of the frame, residents and volunteers carry entire homes on foot; they’re headed for the north of the camp, which is safe for now. There are lots of rats — dead and alive — everywhere. The sunglasses-wearing CRS member at the centre of it all comes over to me. Looking down at my drawing, he grins: ‘Very pretty’.”

The Demolition of the Calais Jungle

The camp’s Eritrean and Ethiopian Christian church was shown mercy by the French government: bulldozers were instructed to steer clear of the church of St. Michael’s, which had been the recent focus of “the longest-running religious television programme in the world” (BBC One’s Songs of Praise). As a central motif in Burdens, the congregation channels peace in the face of the doublespeak-ridden war on refugees far and wide.

Beyond the church, a lingering haze of smoke and teargas signals the vicious cycle in motion: “It’s the logic of life against the logic of the state,” as a friend of mine, a French citizen of Lebanese parentage, remarked. Some residents set light to their homes and other structures to disrupt the demolition. A young boy from Afghanistan explained: “We weren’t going to let [the French government] tear down [our homes], we wanted to burn them down first.”

Before January’s forced evictions and demolition, residents released the following statement: “We, the united people of the Jungle of Calais, decline the demands of the French government to reduce the size of the Jungle. We have decided to remain where we are and will peacefully resist the government’s plans to destroy our homes. We plead with the French authorities and the international community that you understand our situation and respect our fundamental human rights.”


1. Amy Goodman, «“I Don’t Want to Die. This War Is Not My War”: A Syrian in France’s Largest Refugee Camp Speaks Out, Democracy Now!, 1 January 2016.

2. Anoosh Chakelian, “Demolishing purgatory: what happens to the refugees when Calais’s “Jungle” is destroyed?“, New Statesman, 15 March 2016.

3. Suzanne Moore, “Life in a refugee camp: ‘the cold and fear get in your bones’, The Guardian, London, 3 November 2015.

4. Press release by Jan Eliasson, UN deputy secretary-general, 18 December 2015.

Join us in defending the truth before it’s too late

The future of independent journalism is uncertain, and the consequences of losing it are too grave to ignore. To ensure Truthout remains safe, strong, and free, we need to raise $39,000 in the next 4 days. Every dollar raised goes directly toward the costs of producing news you can trust.

Please give what you can — because by supporting us with a tax-deductible donation, you’re not just preserving a source of news, you’re helping to safeguard what’s left of our democracy.