Skip to main content

'London or nothing': The jungle that always grows back

Many refugees determined to stay and continue their attempts to reach UK despite France's demolition of parts of sprawling Calais camp
Makeshift homes were demolished this week in the southern part of the Jungle (MEE/Dania Akkad)

CALAIS, France - Even in better days, Zaki wasn’t ever really sure what time it was in the Jungle.

"Jungle is animal," the 21-year-old Afghan said, laughing under a wooden structure that smelt of urine and sweat as a group huddled inside, away from an icy downpour.

It was the morning of the fourth day of demolitions on the outskirts of this northern port city among the local refugee community that first coalesced when the Red Cross opened a centre in Sangatte, south of Calais, in 1999.

Over time, the community has morphed from different shapes and forms into the sprawling Jungle, one that French officials, Calais locals and camp residents acknowledge, even as it is torn down, will still be a magnet for migrants and refugees.

During the first three days, there had been tear gas and spontaneous fires, residents refusing to leave their roofs and others who let a friend with medical experience thread a needle through their lips to sew their mouths shut in protest.

Now kept at a distance by six gendarmes with shields and faces hidden under scarves and helmets, a small gathering of residents, journalists and activists watched as more houses – and rain – fell.

The fourth day of demolition at The Jungle (MEE/Dania Akkad)

For Zaki, who fled his home in Afghanistan’s Logar Province after he said his family was killed by either US or British forces, it was a kind of neighbourhood wake: the day before, his house of the past five months had been torn down.

For hours after the demolition, he said, he walked around the camp that stretches over approximately a square mile and has the feel of a small, if squalid, town. There are shops, restaurants, a mosque and a church, and a theatre among distinguishable neighbourhoods where refugees and migrants of different nationalities live, one or two with fenced off gardens.

Eventually, he landed at a friend’s makeshift home, and had a bad night’s sleep before returning at dawn.

"I’m not sad. I’m not happy," he said softly. "For me, the UK, France – it’s all the same."


In a place where there is already a warped sense of time and space, a place where days of waiting – for visas, for escape routes - pass both quickly and slowly, where ghosts of foreign policies past come to roost, this week’s demolitions have created a disorientation across the latest community to build itself among the cesspools and sand dunes.

The plan, say Pas-De-Calais Prefecture officials, was to decrease the Jungle population, which had swelled over the past year, from an estimated 6,000 to 2,000 and, at the same time, dissuade those seeking to go to "the great El Dorado", as one official called it, of the UK.

All residents whose houses were demolished would be eligible for housing in one of 102 reception centres around the country, and able to seek asylum in France.

Nearly 3,000 have taken the offer, with 80 percent of those applying for asylum, Pas-De-Calais prefect Fabienne Buccio said this week.

But others, like Zaki who says he’s not sure where exactly he would have been taken or whether he might have been sent home, have chosen to stay, squeezing in to already cramped quarters. He said he already had an asylum request in process, but would rather wait it out at the camp.

It’s a lack of trust in authority that has also cast a shadow on those whose homes are far from the area marked for destruction, driving some to anxiety and others to hardened resignation.

"Maybe next week, they’ll take my house," said Zorhan, an older Afghan friend of Zaki’s. "Who knows?"

"The Jungle is finished," said an Eritrean woman, hauling full bags down one of the main streets, shaking her head. "Have a nice day."

Daryan, a British university student and former refugee who has been in the camp this week to offer help to locals, said that during a meeting of Jungle leaders on Saturday no one had anticipated the demolitions would start so quickly.

"The atmosphere was totally different – this place was buzzing with people," he said. "Whatever security you can have here, there was some sense of it, but since Monday, it’s been a completely different climate."

On a platform

Mimi said after spending years on the move – from Ethiopia where she was born, to Kenya and then fleeing Eritrea for Lebanon to eventually arrive in the Jungle - she no longer knew what to do.

Two-months ago, Mimi and her husband, Yousef, were chasing a train headed across the Channel, hoping to finally make it to the UK. "He ran fast," she said. "He thought I was behind him."

But Mimi was still on the platform. Five-months pregnant with twins and unable to sprint for trains anymore, she now lives in a cargo container in a gated area in the middle of the camp set up by authorities to encourage people out of their makeshift homes and shacks.

Volunteers said there were 1,500 spaces when it opened up, and the heated containers quickly filled up with a lot of families, women and children, leaving only around 100 spaces vacant.

But with limited toilet facilities, no food or water and a handscanning device which residents must touch to go in and out, some said the area felt like a prison, removed from the life of the sprawling Jungle. As homes came down a few hundred metres away, residents inside chanted for water.

For Mimi, the issue is more the lack of a clear future beyond the crates.

"Eat. Sleep. Eat. Sleep. This is not good. This is not life," said Mimi, trudging through thick piles of slippery mud, a black plastic bag slung on her shoulder. About 1.5m tall, she looked more like she had had a large meal than was four months away from giving birth to twins. "How will I raise my children? In this jungle?"

She said she’d watched friends go through the asylum process in France. The process is long, she said, and complicated, and sometimes it doesn’t work out, but the paralysis of her life has her seriously considering it.

"I want to go to work. I want to go to school. I don’t want money," she said. "I know God is with migrant people. But tomorrow, who knows?"

Growing suspicions 

Adding to the turbulence in the camp are fires that have broken out in recent days. Blazes are not unusual in the Jungle’s close quarters, where fires burn inside makeshift homes and restaurants for warmth.

But Daryan and another university student said that a blaze on Tuesday that eventually spread to many structures was suspicious. They said residents told them that they had seen "white people" start the fire with some spreading unverifiable rumours that they were local police in plain clothing.

According to Amy, one of the students who asked to only use their first names, the fire brigade arrived and started to go to work, but then left before completely putting out the blaze. Eventually, she said, it burnt down homes where residents and activists had been sitting on roofs earlier in the day to prevent them being torn down.

Buccio, the head of the prefecture, blamed the violence surrounding the demolitions on activists from No Border, which describes itself as a European network of anti-racist groups. The group, she said, riled up a small, but rowdy, group of Jungle residents.

Sufiullah, 30, an Afghan who said he was deported from the UK and now runs one of the many Jungle shops, said the timing of the demolitions with a blaze also on Tuesday night across a dirt path from his shop, had started a snowball of questions.

"The main problem is that before the Jungle was good and safe," he said. "Now police want to destroy. Maybe the police want to punish the Jungle?

"If [French authorities] have houses, why are people living for years in the camp?" he added. "How can we believe in this thing?"

Two Syrians and an Afghan lived in the home before it burned down (MEE/Dania Akkad)
The fire across from his shop had destroyed the home of one of his best customers, a man who was now sleeping on a bench in the shop that doubled as Sufiullah and a third person’s bed.

A decade ago, Sufiuallah said he was a contractor for UK and US companies and provided security for NATO forces in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, his home.

After five years as a contractor, Sufiullah said he was a target for Taliban fighters and eventually felt too vulnerable to stay in his village. He left three young daughters for London where he stayed with a brother in Walthamstow until he was deported, and arrived at the Jungle.

Sufiullah has several papers that he says prove he was a security contractor (MEE/Dania Akkad)
Until this week, he said, he felt relatively safe in the camp. It was the town of Calais that he feared. "When you go out, the racists, they kill you," he said. "Outside is not safe." Now he wasn’t sure where was safer.

Daryan, one of the two university students, said he had been heckled by young French men in a fast food restaurant who thought he lived in the Jungle. He said he also heard from camp residents that they had been spat on in town.

Almost paradise?

Several Calais residents, however, said it was the migrants and refugees – and, more recently, hardcore activists - who have come to their city for nearly two decades, that made the area dangerous.

"Before the immigrants, it was quiet," said Fred, a 42-year-old taxi driver, who grew up in Calais. The problem, he said, was the arrival of No Border.

"It’s crazy now. Immigrants fight the cars," he said.

Two days earlier, he said, a taxi driver friend was taking a journalist to the Jungle when a group of No Border activists and immigrants approached the taxi on the motorway and attacked it.

Once a long-haul truck driver who transported French beer across Europe, Fred switched to taxi driving two years ago, tired of migrants and refugees attempting to stow away with his cargo.

But these days, he has been driving more journalists than tourists, and more rotating shifts of gendarmes than visitors stay in the local hotels.

"Normally, I have English, Australians, Canadians, but now none," he said.

With tall razor wire fences around the port and gendarmes stationed along train tracks and motorways, the town has the feeling of a police state.

On Thursday, about 150km from Calais in Amiens, hours after France’s economic minister suggested that if the UK left the EU, France would no longer hold back the Jungle’s residents, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK would contribute another $22mn to boost security in the port town.

"Security. Security. Security," said Fred’s father-in-law, who also drives taxis, reacting to the news. "Okay, but what will you do with the immigrants?"

"The immigrants go to other cities and they come back," said Fred. "The immigrants want to go to England - the UK, it's the paradise."

'London or nothing'

Will destroying homes in the Jungle stop refugees and migrants who have already trekked thousands of miles from going to greater lengths, night after night, to cross the Channel to where many have family members? Or paying smugglers up to $9,000 to help them make the attempt?

"Syria to London," said Abu Ameen, a 40-something Syrian who left the southern city of Deraa nearly three years ago for Lebanon. Without prospects there, he left his family for Calais where he was reunited with four other men, each of whom had made their way on their own, from their town of Al-Harra.

Former residents of the Syrian city of Al-Harra, reunited in Calais (MEE/Dania Akkad)
Like other residents, the men eagerly pointed to a drawing of a 18-wheeler truck, animatedly explaining how they attempted to get in and then hide themselves, conceding the serious danger involved.

"London or nothing," Abu Ameen said.

Khalil, a 31-year-old former medical student from Mosul, was even more blunt.

After the Islamic State (IS) group invaded his city in June 2014, Khalil said the group pressured his father to help them. Two days after he refused, their home was attacked, killing his mother and one of his sisters.

His father was taken to jail and told Khalil to get out of Iraq. Eighteen months later, after a trek by foot, boat, train and bus through Europe, Khalil keeps track of his time in the Jungle by his attempts to reach England where he said he had a sister living in Manchester.

'This,' he said holding the sleeping bag. 'I love you.' (MEE/Dania Akkad)
"One day, relax and sleep here. Next day, I try," he said, sitting in a nest of blankets in a tarp-covered shack. He clutched a sleeping bag, telling it that he loved it, and calling the bag his friend. "I go yesterday and I try. I’m angry because today, no try."

"It’s Jungle time," he shrugged.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.