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Migrants Are Struggling to Survive the Frozen Hell of Refugee Camps in Calais, France

VICE News spent a day and a night in the migrant "jungles" of Calais, where refugees cope with police abuse, squalid conditions, and freezing winter weather.
Photo by Mélodie Bouchaud

"The police here aren't nice, they're rough," said Mahamed Salemen, a 36-year-old Sudanese migrant who arrived in the northern French port city of Calais three months ago. "They hit us. They broke the leg of another migrant who lives in this camp, and my friend's hand."

Salemen has tried to sneak into England 15 times already. He said he was motived by the desire "to have a good life and to study, [to have] a life without genocide, without ethnic cleansing." But Calais police have thwarted each of his attempts.


A report published last week by Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that migrants in Calais "experience harassment and abuse at the hands of French police." According to the international watchdog — which based its findings on 44 witness statements collected in November and December 2014 — migrants "live in destitution," and are subject to routine beatings by the authorities.

The abuses documented by HRW include "beatings and attacks with pepper spray as the migrants and asylum seekers walked in the street or hid in trucks in the hope of traveling to the United Kingdom." The international watchdog also highlighted the inadequate living conditions of 2,400 migrants that currently live in Calais while they await the chance to get into the UK.

A spokesman for the Nord-Pas-de-Calais prefecture told VICE News that they are "approaching this report with caution and prudence, because there are some inaccuracies."

The spokesman called some of the testimony "unsubstantiated," and said "there is no concrete proof" of the claims. He also confirmed that local authorities are conducting their own investigation into the report's allegations.

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The Tioxide "jungle" on a Friday morning. All photos by Mélodie Bouchaud

Clémence Gautier-Pongelard, a legal expert who works for Migrants Services Platform (PSM), a grassroots support network in the north of France, confirmed a surge in reports of police brutality since spring 2014. "It always happens away from volunteers or witnesses, usually at night," she told VICE News.


Gautier-Pongelard says migrants who are victims of police violence rarely press charges. "When people show up at the police station to lodge a complaint, they're asked for their ID, and if they don't have any, they can be detained and risk being forced to leave the country," she said. "And whenever we bring up police brutality, we're told there is no proof. It's […] the migrant's word against the police officers' word."

In a statement released Tuesday, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve criticized the report, claiming HRW's allegations of police brutality "had not been verified."

Izza Leghtas, the researcher at HRW who authored the report, defended the organization's research, describing it as "a qualitative approach, based on testimonies."

"What shocked me," Leghtas said, "was how many people spontaneously spoke to us [about the violence they had endured], and we spoke to many people."

"Living here is awful," Mahamed, 36 told VICE News. "We have no toilets, no water. Most of the Sudanese who are here want to get to England."

VICE News traveled to Calais on Thursday to see firsthand the living conditions of refugees in the city's dozen or so camps. Most of the migrants we met told stories of their fellow asylum seekers who had recently crossed over to England. Migrant support workers claim that, over the last few days, some 300 refugees have left the makeshift camps in around Calais to attempt a crossing. Ongoing power supply problems in the Channel Tunnel have brought traffic to a standstill, making it easier — and less dangerous — for migrants to board UK-bound trucks.


But despite a massive increase in attempted departures, many migrants are still trying to shelter from the cold in the city's improvised squats and camps known as "jungles." According to local officials, 2,400 migrants are weathering the winter season in Calais this year, compared to 400 last year.

At its height, the Sangatte holding canter — a notorious refugee camp for would-be asylum seekers on their way from France to England — offered shelter to some 2,000 people. Fifteen years later, migrants live in insalubrious, makeshift camps, and depend entirely on the support of local volunteers, charities, and, more recently, the government.

Remembering Sangatte, France's notorious refugee camp. Read more here.

Trucks at a standstill outside of Calais.

Outside the "Leader Price squat," also known as "the Sudanese squat," a Syrian migrant who looks to be about 30 years old was eating a bowl of fish soup served up by volunteers from the Auberge des Migrants, a local organization that distributes meals to refugees.

A former IT engineer in Syria, he said he was wrongly convicted of "posting YouTube videos and speaking to Al Jazeera about what was happening in the country," and jailed by Bashar al-Assad regime. Upon his release, he fled Syria, arriving in Calais just a few days ago. "It doesn't make sense to let people live in the 'jungle,' but I fled a country at war, and whatever the living conditions, we're still safer here," he told VICE News.


Christian Salomé runs Auberge des Migrants, where he oversees a staff of around 50 volunteers. Salomé told VICE News that migrants are often in a profound state of shock when they arrive in Calais. "They've already traveled 3,000 to 5,000 kilometers in very difficult conditions," he said. "They've crossed deserts, mountains, or the Mediterranean. They get here and they're only 30 kilometers away [from England]. They feel like they've almost arrived — they don't realize there's a border, and that their troubles aren't over yet."

Salomé, who is retired, has been helping migrants in Calais since the '90s when the Balkan crisis caused the first major wave of refugees to arrive in the northern French port. He said this winter has been particularly tough due an influx of migrants and extreme winter weather conditions. Unusually low temperatures and freezing rain have once again triggered France's "Great Cold Plan," a government initiative that includes emergency shelter for refugees.

"The cold is less of a problem than the damp," Salomé said. "They live in tents that are designed to be used in the summer. Even though we give them tarps, they're still inadequate."

France activates cold weather plan as high winds tear down migrant barrier in Calais. Read more here.

Tents at the Leader Price squat.

Local organizations have been distributing hot meals in some of the camps, including the Leader Price camp and the Gallou squat. Food is also available at the Jules Ferry, a government-run drop-in center that opened January 15 in a former day camp. The only problem is that the center is a two-hour walk from some of the camps, deterring migrants who want to save their energy for boarding UK-bound trucks.


At the Jules Ferry center, three tents have been pitched in the playground. Before the meals are served, migrants can come here to drink tea or coffee, and charge their cellphones. The local volunteer groups have posted directions to the Jules Ferry center in the various camps around town, and hundreds of people line up at sundown for a meal of soup, rice, and meat.

Residents of the Leader Price squat live two hours away from the day center.

But the center is already struggling to keep up with demand just one week after opening. During our visit, 15 minutes after the facility opened its doors, the manager ran into the kitchen to ask the cooks for another batch of ravioli. All told, 580 meals were served — 130 more than anticipated — with many people bringing food back to those who stayed at the camp.

The welcome center doesn't shut its doors until 7pm, but few chose to brave the cold and linger after the meal. A group of six Iranians approached some of the volunteers. Two of them have just arrived in Calais they lack both blankets and coats. The volunteers tell them how to get to the emergency shelter opened by local authorities as part of the cold weather response.

But the Iranians hesitated — the warehouse is an hour away on foot. The volunteers offered to drive them. At the shelter, they found out they can't bring their belongings inside with them. Those without coats stayed behind while the others headed back toward the city and its improvised refugee camps.


An extra 100 meals were distributed on the night VICE News visited the Jules Ferry migrant support center.

David Lacour, whose organization Solid'R runs the shelter, explained that bags aren't allowed inside because local authorities could shut down the center at a moment's notice. Showing us around the space, Lacour said that only a small section of the warehouse can be used to house migrants because the organization's budget won't stretch to more electricity upgrades. "It's huge, but what can we do with it?" Lacour said. Each night, 280 migrants sleep here on mattresses laid out on the ground.

There is also a small room for women. That night, two sisters from Sudan showed up to seek refuge from the bitter cold. Ages 14 and 16, they said they were too cold to attempt a border crossing. They were offered beds in a women-only shelter, but they didn't want to be separated from their brothers, who were also there.

Around 200 women are estimated to be in Calais — the highest number on record. In March, the Jules Ferry center will open an overnight shelter for women with 100 beds. In the meantime, the government has tasked Solid'R with running "the Ladies' House," a prefab structure on the outskirts of town that can house up to 50 women and children.

No men are allowed inside the Ladies' House, which looks and feels a bit like a daycare center. When we visited, three women — Megrtu, Bive, and Konjet — huddled together on a sofa, under a blanket. They came to France from Sudan and Eritrea, and are hoping to make it over to England in the coming days.


Megrtu, 30, with immaculate make-up and bright green nails, was celebrating the successful crossing of a friend she met in Libya during her travels. "We're going to have a party. Then, we'll go back to the highway to try to get over. We go there at midnight, when the police officers start to get sleepy," she said, giggling. Despite her lightheartedness, Megrtu told us it her "job" to try and get to England.

The church at Tioxide camp.

Mallorie worked the night shift at the women's shelter. She told VICE News that the atmosphere at the facility is quite joyful, despite the hardships the women have endured. "They have a complex past, they have seen and experienced things that we would rather not have to think about, but they're still young girls," she said. "They do their hair, they do their nails, they dance. And at night, they leave [the shelter] and try to board trucks."

There have been several dramatic — and deadly — attempts in recent months by migrants trying to storm UK-bound trucks. Sometimes, the migrants pay smugglers to help them board a truck while the driver is refueling. Other times, they climb onto the axle of a moving truck in a desperate attempt to make it to the UK.

The school at Tioxide, where migrants can learn basic French.

The next morning, a group of migrants discussed the latest border crossing attempts around a campfire in the Tioxide jungle. Warming themselves with tea, some of them said they were too cold to attempt a crossing last night.

But not all residents of the Tioxide jungle — the biggest camp in Calais — are trying to get to England. Some of them would rather settle in France, and despite the constant threat of eviction, the camp has become more established. It now has two restaurants, a barber, a church, a mosque, and even its own French language school.

According to Christian charity Le Secours Catholique, 20 percent of migrants living in and around Calais are seeking asylum in France. Some have given up on England because the crossing is too risky. Others have traveled to Calais because, supposedly, asylum claims are processed faster here. According to the Secours Catholique, migrants will get a response within one to three months to a claim filed in Calais versus a year for Paris.

Back at the charity's headquarters, a group of migrants and asylum seekers drink tea and charge their phones. One man, visibly exhausted, asks the staff for a document stating he has been in France for over three months. He says he's had enough and just wants to go back to Afghanistan.

Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter @meloboucho

All photos by Mélodie Bouchaud.