Despair as authorities tear down Calais ‘Jungle’

Several thousand migrants and refugees see little hope as they are gradually driven out

Police and migrants continue to clash as authorities work on clearing out the southern section of a migrant camp near Calais. Video: Reuters


Riot police outnumber the labourers they protect while the orange-coated workmen demolish “the Jungle” in Calais. The police wear transparent, disposable galoshes to protect their black leather boots from the mud that is the migrant camp’s most salient feature.

While the migrants slept off the exhaustion of another night’s fruitless efforts to cross the Channel, police and labourers went to work early yesterday on a third day of destruction.

First they finished off the demolition of the Kurdish quarter, tossing clothing, wooden planks and scorched tarpaulins into dumpsters with a claw-like digger.

By lunchtime the labourers had moved on to the Sudanese quarter. A line of grim-faced Africans stood beside me, watching through an icy hailstorm.

“Last night, the police told me ‘Allez, allez,’” said Mohamed (23) from Darfur. “I had to leave my things. I slept with friends last night. If I had known that Europe would be like this, I would not have come here.”

The destruction was also observed by Elaine Mernagh, the founder of Cork Calais Refugee Solidarity.

“Look what the French are doing with our donations,” she said bitterly. Volunteers from Britain, Ireland, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands spent months building the plywood shacks they call shelters, ensuring that each was elevated on concrete blocks to keep them dry.

Like many of the volunteers, Mernagh has found meaning in the Jungle. “They have a culture we had 40 years ago, living in family groups,” she said. “If someone passes your door, you invite them in for tea. We in the West are too busy making money.”

Faint music from the Ethiopian church could be heard over the noise of the digging machines. The acrid smell of burning shacks blended with the scent of baking Afghan bread.

Defiant fires

I saw two shelters go up like torches. Faisal, an Afghan refugee, told me he cannot sleep, for fear of burning alive.

Attention focused on a small group of Iranians perched on the roof of a plywood shack with “lieu de vie” – living place – scrawled in black paint on the side. A week ago, a Lille judge ruled that lieux de vie could not be demolished.

Aid organisations and migrants say that means housing, not just churches and community centres. Their appeal to the Council of State may be another incentive to complete the destruction quickly.

“This is my house,” an Iranian named Mohamed shouted from the rooftop. “I don’t want them to destroy it. It’s all I have. I don’t know where I’ll go. We are humans, not animals.”

The Iranians told me they intended to sew their lips together, in protest at their situation. A few hours later they just that, then demanded to meet a UN representative responsible for refugees.

Self-harm is the latest manifestation of the migrants’ desperation. The previous day, a Kurdish woman was reported to have slashed her wrists.

“I kept seeing this appalling stuff on the news,” said Irish actor Liam Hourican, who is doing his fourth volunteer stint in the jungle. “I didn’t want to be just vaguely aware. I wanted to engage with it.”

Invited for tea

We removed our mud-caked shoes, and half crawled into the couple’s tiny bedroom, the size of a twin mattress. They had nailed blankets onto the plywood walls, and blankets covered the floor. An icon of a Madonna and child and small plush toys were nailed to the walls and ceiling. Rain pattered on the tarpaulin rooftop.

Meba sliced fresh ginger to put in the tea and offered us chocolate. The couple told me how they met on Facebook, when both worked illegally in Turkey. But Kurdish gunmen used to raid the refugee camps at night, stealing telephones and money, and shooting at the migrants’ knees.

On the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, the couple watched helplessly as a boat carrying several dozen Somalis sank, drowning its passengers.

Meba is four months pregnant, and several weeks have passed since they last made a run for the England-bound lorries. Afghan, Kurdish and Eritrean mafias have monopolies on the parking lots used by the lorries, they tell me.

For between €600 and €1,000, one is almost assured of passage to Britain. But they don’t have the money.

Meba and Girum are tempted to accept the French offer of a place in the northern Jungle, which is to be spared for the time being.

“But we’re scared of being fingerprinted,” Girum says. “A lot of our friends were fingerprinted in Germany. When they got to England, the British sent them back to Germany.”

Sultan and Mohamed are first cousins from Afghanistan and among at least 326 unaccompanied minors living in the Jungle.

The boys say they were threatened in both Afghanistan and Pakistan because they are ethnic Hazaras and Shia Muslims. They miss their mothers, who they last saw in a refugee camp in Quetta six months ago. A Briton called Kev gave them a caravan to live in the north Jungle.

Determined faces

Every morning they try to reach a train bound for England through the tunnel. They once managed to climb three of seven fences before being stopped by security guards, wrapping clothing around the razor barbed wire at the top of the fences.

Every evening Sultan and Mohamed hide in the port in the hope of stowing away on a ferry, but have not gotten closer than 50m.

“We have never known peace and freedom,” Mohamed says with longing. “No humanity. No peace. I think that exists in England.”

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