Migrants in Europe

Behind the fence, the refugees of Calais

Away from the Euro 2016 final match, another drama plays out in France
Photo: UK Home Office

“You’ll see, it’s in the middle of nowhere,” they told me to indicate the path ahead leading to “The Jungle.” And this “middle of nowhere” is here, in Calais, the end of the line for thousands of refugees who have arrived from Syria, Eritrea, and elsewhere.

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Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in Ricochet’s French edition and has been translated into English.

All have left someplace far away, leaving everything behind; many have crossed the Mediterranean. All have walked days and nights on the roads of Europe to get here and now, like me, they look upon this interminable four-metre high fence, topped with barbed wire, that prevents access to the port of Calais and the crossing to England.

One must follow on foot this barbed-wire fence for a few kilometres to understand that nothing will do; no one will get passed it. It is solid, it says “no,” and it’s guarded all its length by numerous police officers.

So here’s the equation: people who have fled as refugees want above all to cross the Channel to live in the United Kingdom. The UK doesn’t want them to make the journey. The police and the fence prevent them on the French side, and so the refugees double back to Calais to sleep somewhere and to wait for the right moment to try again. That’s what happens in this place called The Jungle.

To arrive, to access this jungle, one has to walk — walk again — for more kilometres in the “zone of dunes,” so close and yet so far from the port of Calais and its fence.

Along the path that leads there, one encounters hundreds of people who are arriving, returning, sleeping or sitting on the ground; people who are searching, or searching for themselves; and people who are just passing the time. There are Africans, and others are from the Middle East. They are in groups, sometimes of two, often of six, eight or ten — but never alone. Some say “bonjour” or “hello” to you; many stare at you because it is not normal for an “outsider” to be here; others simply ignore you.

And you meet this man from Mali who left a few months ago without his family. You exchange three or four words of English with this group of boys who escaped Syria and the war when they were 18 years old; they are now 19 and 20. You lower your eyes in front of this guy who just walked three kilometres with a half-full basket of groceries that must feed several people for a week. You see men walk by wearing winter coats that nobody at my place would give away. You hear the sound of prayer coming from a radio placed in the middle of a crowd. You give a hand to a man of your age without saying a word. Everyone has a life, thousands of lives; everyone has a story, thousands of stories.

Then, on the same path, you have a discussion with people from the humanitarian group Audace, which is used to working with the population in Senegal and who are now assisting, at home, the refugees in Calais. “We offer people, on voluntary basis, to be moved to reception centres across the country,” says one of the volunteers in front of a group of 15 men who wait on the side of the road for another journey toward the unknown. “It is not easy, but some accept,” says the volunteer before having the group get on board a white truck.

All this happens in the middle the nowhere.

As much as they say that, officially, the Calais Jungle was dismantled last March by the authorities and that the refugees were settled elsewhere or had left, they are still there in their thousands, both motivated and hopeless at the same time. I saw them, I spoke to them, and I know that they will still be there tomorrow.

And yes, I almost forgot. This evening, all of Europe and a good part of the world had their eyes turned toward Marseille for the Germany-France match. France won. France is in the final. I am convinced that, despite all the difficulties, the celebrations will be as big in the Jungle of Calais as in the Stade de France.

Journalist David Champagne is following the 2016 Euro Championship across a number of European countries. Read his full series of articles in French here.

*Translated by Jahanzeb Hussain and Derrick O'Keefe.

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