‘I will close my eyes and put my finger on the map’: Calais migrants look to future

As ‘Jungle’ is cleared, many migrants and refugees do not know where to go next

Wrapped up in the cold of the early hours of the northern French morning, hundreds of migrants queue at Calais as they are bussed out of the ‘Jungle' camp. Video: REUTERS


Before dawn on Monday, Yusef (35), a pharmacist who had fled violence in Sudan, stuffed some blankets into a donated backpack and bid farewell to the muddy puddles surrounding his leaking tent. Once, he had hoped to stow away on a lorry to England. “But that dream died here,” he said. “That bridge is closed.”

He didn’t want to stay to see the first demolition teams arrive on Tuesday morning to begin gradually, over the course of the week, taking down shacks by hand in the Calais shantytown where between 6,000 and 8,000 refugees and migrants have been living, many hoping to stow away on lorries to the Kent coast.

Life in the Calais camp was “tough and miserable” and it was a relief to be now claiming asylum in France, he said. “All I know about France is that they make good perfume and that Paris is called the city of love. Now I’m beginning a journey of love.”

Like many, he had no idea where he would end up as he waited outside a hangar where the French state was organising people into pens in four queues: adults, families, the sick and a vast crowd of unaccompanied minors. Refugees and migrants, who mostly knew nothing at all of France, were shown a French map, given a choice of two regions, fitted with a wristband and put on a bus to reception centres across the country. They were told only what broad region they were going to, not the name of the town or the type of place.

“I will close my eyes and put my finger on the map,” Yusef said. “I want to integrate, start a new life, contribute. I trust France to keep me safe. People misunderstand us – we don’t have economic problems, we’re fleeing violence and dictatorship.”

Awad (31), from Sudan, had also given up on England. “I love the UK but the UK doesn’t want refugees,” he shrugged.

“I like the sound of Normandy, is it a nice city?” asked one Afghan in the bus queue, puzzled about geography but keen to go somewhere in France away from any border – he was so disillusioned with the refugee struggle, he wanted to start a new life far from any frontier.

If some were optimistic about claiming asylum in France, others were still fearful for their future.

Home to Jalalabad

The first day of transfers from the camp saw hundreds depart – by midday more than 700 people had been bussed away. “It’s not as if I have a choice,” said a 23-year-old Eritrean boarding a state coach to central France. Most people carried the minimum of a jumper and coat given by charities; the lucky few had a cricket bat or a football.

But the large numbers of young teenagers waiting to be processed, crammed into the “unaccompanied minors” pen of the hangar, showed that the issue of the some 1,300 children who had been counted in the camp in recent weeks was far from completely resolved, despite some leaving for the UK in recent days.

A 15-year-old Ethiopian boy sat looking down at his feet among a dozen other teenagers as French government staff and aid workers documented them. He had been sleeping rough in the Calais camp for four months. “I haven’t seen my parents for more than a year, they were caught up in violence. I don’t know where my mother and father are but they wanted me to get to England,” he said.

Pierre-Henry Brandet of the French interior ministry said:“The UK knows very well that it has to take its responsibility for the children – we have expressed this to the UK several times and discussions are ongoing.”

Inside the fetid Calais camp, many people were planning to stay in their makeshift tents and shacks for at least another night, particularly those who would still rather try to get to the UK than stay in France.

Adults with family in the UK were concerned that they would never be reunited. Tasfu (48), a carpenter who had fled violence in Eritrea, had a wife and two children in London. He said he hadn’t seen his 16-year-old son for nine years. He had never met his nine-year-old daughter. When he last saw his wife, in Sudan, she was pregnant.

“I don’t know what the future holds. I want to explain my case but I can’t get heard. The children here are beginning to be heard. What about us, people with children, separated from our sons and daughters?”

Violence in Eritrea

Deep in the camp, a makeshift plywood door led into into a series of shacks graffitied with the words: “We are Syrian, we wish to live.” Mahmoud (22), from Manbij near Aleppo, was sitting drinking a cup of sweet tea. He had been in the camp for several months and had tried five times to stow away on lorries, but people smugglers asked for £3,000-£4,000 (€3,400-€4,500) to open the doors of trucks and he found it impossible.

His family back home in Syria was surrounded by four fronts: Kurdish fighters, Syrian rebel fighters, Islamic State and soldiers of the Syrian regime. “It has been difficult and I want to get to England,” he said. He had several cousins in London, some worked in hairdressing, one worked in a supermarket, another in tiling.

In the dead of night, a group of Syrians he knew in the camp had left with their few possessions, intending to sleep rough in the Calais area and continue trying to get across to the UK. “I don’t know what I’ll do,” he said, keen to keep trying for Britain but exasperated at how hard it was. “Sometimes I feel that either I’ll get to Britain someday or I’ll end up having to go back to Syria.”

Guardian service