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Christmas in the Jungle: It's the Worst Time of Year for Thousands of Refugees in Calais

We visited the Jungle refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais, France, where as many as 7,000 men, women, and children, are living in substandard, damp, and depressing conditions.
Photo de Sally Hayden/VICE News

It's a dark and chilly evening in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, France. A young Afghan man has just picked up a gun. He loads it, cocks it, and peers down the barrel at the assembled crowd, knees bent as he oscillates from side to side. He's dressed in jeans and a hooded jacket, with a red scarf tied around his head. His gun is imaginary, but the audience turns silent when he trains it on them.


Between 5,000 and 7,000 people are now living here, making it Western Europe's largest refugee camp and a muddy epicenter for a global crisis. Thousands of men, women, and children, from a spread of nationalities, have all ended up on a patch of land on the outskirts of the northern French port city. Many traveled alone for months. Now dozens sit close together on the ground, watching a man called Yasin miming on a wooden stage.

This is the Good Chance Theater, one of the newer additions to the Jungle. It's a large, white, waterproof tent, with the small stage at one end. The "emergency exit" — a slit in the cover — is repeatedly blown open by gusts of wind.

Misba, a deaf man from Afghanistan, has created tonight's performance. It's emotive, telling the story of a soldier in Misba's homeland who is constantly followed, before being captured and imprisoned. Finally, our protagonist engineers an escape. The play's blurb describes it as a statement of hope in impossible circumstances, of reunion with old friends, with a message of forgiveness.

There's a reason why this production is captivating. "Mime is really huge at the moment," Joe Robertson, the 25-year-old who set up the theater, tells VICE News.

He says the refugees and migrants drawn to the theater are "developing a process of physical storytelling, because of course there are so many languages, it's a great opportunity to tell stories in a new way."


The Good Chance Theater in the Jungle camp in Calais. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

The Good Chance Theater has been open for three months now and is run by a group of volunteers. Robertson comes from Hull, England; another volunteer, 18-year-old Amy Reade, comes from London. This is her gap year.

The theater holds about 200 people, has a live-in cat who "keeps the mice away," and offers a packed program of activities including yoga classes, circus workshops, and poetry readings.

"It's a safe space for expression: telling stories, sharing experiences," Robertson said. "We have full-day activities and then an evening event like a theater show, or an acoustic music night. We get between 1,000 and 2,000 people between the doors every week."

He continued: "I think people need a space where they feel accepted and are able to talk and think and reflect on their situation. I think expression is nearly as important as food and shelter and healthcare."

Robertson said people of all nationalities come in to write, read, play instruments, and recite poetry. On a typical day, English lessons might be happening in one corner, while the stage is being used for rehearsals.

Related: 'Everyone Will Make It One Day': Meeting the Calais Migrants Who Dream of England

They've raised about 30,000 pounds ($45,500) to run it, through crowdfunding and support from theaters in the UK. That pays for maintenance and repair of the space, powering generators for lighting, and the purchase of arts and crafts materials. "We get a lot of stuff donated, but it's expensive trying to run a theater in a refugee camp," Robertson said.


Oil paintings donated by the artist Chav had to be removed from the walls after the damp started to ruin them.

Along with acting as a performance and workshop space, the theater also has also served other functions.

On the night of the November 13 attacks in Paris, a fire broke out in the Sudanese area of the camp. It spread quickly, razing an area of tents where 300 people were living. Many of those made homeless turned to the theater, using it as an emergency sleeping place, huddling together on the floor.

Two days later, on the Sunday after the Paris attacks, the theater held a vigil, attended by religious leaders, community elders, and volunteers. "There was a moment's silence and speeches afterwards," Robertson recalled. "A lot of people here are fleeing the same ideologies that are to blame for what happened on Friday 13 so I think the impact was palpable."

Volunteers make food and sort through clothes in the Care 4 Calais warehouses. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

The attacks sent shockwaves through the camp. For the refugees who are fleeing conflict and violence, this has delivered a clear message: You are not safe, even in Europe.

"Everyone says do not go to France, go UK now. [France] is dangerous," a 12-year-old Afghan boy named Ahmed told VICE News.

Ahmed had a soft face and passable English, and was visibly scared. He had been in the camp two weeks, along with his father Faisal — whom Ahmed translates for — and his 10-year-old brother, who wore a GAP sweater and muddy pink rubber boots.


Ahmed said the family needs to go to join his sister and uncle in the UK; they don't want to stay in France because they're scared the Islamic State (IS) will attack again.

"In Paris there was a bomb blast. I know that, you know that, there is no safety here." He said he had seen clips of the news coverage of the attacks. "We watched people [in France] die from Daesh (IS)."

Ahmed also said he felt certain the Jungle would be one of the next targets. "I know that there will be an attack here also."

The family left Afghanistan three months ago because of threats from the Taliban, Ahmed explained. "The Taliban will not leave us. They will kill us now. In Afghanistan in one month [thousands of] people die."

The "hall of fame" in the Care 4 Calais warehouses. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

The Paris attacks have also had a major impact on politics in France and more specifically in Calais itself, where Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front party, came close to winning regional elections — before being beaten in the December 13 vote by strategic last-minute allegiances between the left and more moderate right.

Le Pen attempted to capitalize on anger and fear following events in Paris, quickly calling for an immediate bar on Syrian refugees arriving in the country, and decrying the Schengen agreement — the deal which allows passport-free travel across the common borders of 26 European countries — as "madness."

Those within the Jungle camp in Calais comprise only around 2 percent of the total number of refugees and migrants who are entering Europe. This year, one million refugees and migrants have arrived in the continent by land and sea. Some 51 percent of these were fleeing Syria, according to figures from the UN refugee agency. More than 3,700 more have died on the way.


The number of new arrivals to the Jungle has diminished as winter set in, and not all the people there plan on traveling to Britain. Some have already claimed asylum and are waiting to be allocated housing. Others try their luck at the Channel Tunnel entrance every night, traipsing through fields and climbing fences in a bid make it onboard a train to England.

Earlier in December, the famous graffiti artist Banksy left his mark on the Jungle. "He came in the night. I didn't know who he was," one man, who camps near the concrete bridge the artwork was painted on, told VICE News.

The painting depicted Apple founder Steve Jobs. In a statement, Banksy explained: "We're often led to believe migration is a drain on the country's resources, but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant.

"Apple is the world's most profitable company, it pays over $7 billion a year in taxes — and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs."

Calais authorities have now said they plan to protect the artwork.

Standing in front of it, VICE News jokingly suggested that the residents become entrepreneurs and start charging visitors to see the mural — recent reports suggest they have begun doing just that.

The artwork by graffiti artist Banksy, depicting Steve Jobs. (Photo by Michel Spingler/AP)

An increasing number of volunteers are taking it upon themselves to provide the food and clothing that the Jungle's residents desperately need.

VICE News visited a new operation run by Care 4 Calais, which is now spread over two large warehouses, filled with boxes and boxes of donations. The "sorting warehouse" is where clothes are organized into cardboard boxes based on size and type — all waterproof medium-size jackets in one, all small fleece jackets in another — then they are piled into the second warehouse to be distributed.


"It's a big operation, very big. People are so generous," said John Sloan, a co-founder of Care 4 Calais who has been in France for three months, adding that the group tries to get donations into the camp within seven days.

VICE News was asked to keep the location of the warehouses secret, because of a fear of backlash from parts of the local community.

"Operating in Calais has its good days and its bad days," Sloan said. "There are people who support us and there are people who don't support us and there are people who don't like what we're doing full stop."

Claire Mosley, the other co-founder of Care 4 Calais, said the opposition had sometimes been quite confrontational — claiming the volunteers had been refused accommodation and that certain restaurants had refused to serve them.

Sloan, however, vowed to stay "until the situation was resolved."

"The problem is enormous and people need to be found proper housing as soon as possible, whether it's in the UK, France, or wherever. They can't carry on living like this."

St Michael's church in the Jungle camp. Sermons are held daily here. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

On a recent weekend a crowd of mainly Afghan migrants gathered in the Good Chance Theater to watch a series of speeches by a group of politicians and activists from London. A petition was signed on stage, stating the visitors' intentions to fight to let all those camping in Calais enter Britain.

Afterwards, a Labour party councilor from London shouted: "Welcome to the UK." The crowd applauded with appreciation, while an Afghan man standing near the back smiled skeptically. "She can try, but David Cameron won't accept us," he said.


Khan, a 24-year-old from Afghanistan, has been in Calais for two months. "It's difficult, very hard," he said of his attempts to cross the Channel.

Related: 'This Is the Jungle': Calais Migrant Camp Now Includes a Church, a School, and a Nightclub

Khan used to be a shopkeeper in Afghanistan — "a big store" — but he was robbed and then left the country.

He also spoke of the most recent threat Jungle residents are facing: their removal to migrant detention centers. According to France's prison watchdog, 779 migrants were taken from the Jungle to detention centers between October 21 and November 10.

Khan said the police will only take people from outside the Jungle and they won't give you an opportunity to tell anyone where you're going. "They throw them in jail, you can't tell anyone where you are. Your family, if they are here, they would cry [while looking for you]. They might think you were dead," he said.

Abdul, 20, standing beside him, said he had been in the Jungle for four months.

"French police punch [us], spray gas in [our] eyes," he said. "It's very bad. When you hide in a lorry they catch you and send you to jail."

Abdul named a friend who had died the week before, a tragedy he said has gone unnoticed. "This life is not for a human, it's [for] an animal."

Those trapped in this limbo do find ways to pass the time. Khan said he plays snooker at night, or goes to the disco in the camp's Eritrean area, where he drinks beer. "Last night we danced an Afghan dance together, the Afghan Attan," he said. "You can YouTube it."


A pair of shoes abandoned in the mud in the Jungle camp. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

"I'd describe the Jungle as the very best of behaviors and the very worst of circumstances," paramedic Martin McFigue told VICE News, while sitting inside the camp's new vaccination center.

"The conditions are absolutely intolerable. There's basic sanitation, there's six water pumps for 7,000 people. The weather's atrocious. Accommodation is inadequate. But the overarching thing about it is the people here are so friendly. They have nothing but give everything: they invite us to their house for dinner. The community feeling here is incredible."

McFigue is working with London-based charity Hands International. They've been operating inside the Jungle since October 28, in conjunction with the French authorities; they're one of three charities along with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Médecins du Monde to get this authorization. In that time, the center has inoculated 1,600 Jungle residents against the influenza virus, about 20 percent of the camp's residents.

"The huge concern is with unsanitary conditions and malnutrition there is a big risk of an outbreak of disease," McFigue said.

In January, he said they plan to start vaccinating for hepatitis A and tetanus. McFigue added that there could be outbreaks of tuberculosis if the weather conditions got worse. Cholera also couldn't be ruled out, he said — though it's generally more prevalent in warm conditions, there is a lot of stagnant water around the camp.


"One other concern we have is hypothermia. We're already seeing people with hypothermia and without proper treatment, clothing, accommodation, food, warmth, it's going to get worse." He said if the temperature drops in January, "worst-case scenario, we could start seeing some deaths."

Related: What We Witnessed at a French Migrant Camp Allegedly Controlled by People Smugglers

However, the majority of deaths aren't being caused by disease or unsavory conditions, they're a result of desperate attempts to cross the Channel to England.

It is unknown exactly how many people have perished in this way since the beginning of 2015, but estimates range from 23 to 26. These included a 23-year-old Syrian man who was electrocuted on top of a train, a 30-year-old Syrian woman hit by a car on the highway, an Afghan 16-year-old run over on a train track, and a newborn Eritrean baby who died one hour after a premature birth, brought on after her 20-year-old mother fell from a moving vehicle.

VICE News heard other unverified stories: including Syrians who froze to death in a refrigerated truck, and two people who sailed to sea in an attempt to cross the Channel in a boat, realized they couldn't make it, and turned back before the boat capsized and they drowned.

Yet the thousands of refugees and migrants continue to pray that their time will come, most swearing that — though it is very difficult — they won't give up.

Solomon, a lay preacher who built St Michael's, the Jungle's church, told VICE News that, as an Ethiopian Orthodox Church member, he will celebrate Christmas in early January, but he will probably do something on December 25 too.

The 35-year-old, from Addis Ababa, followed this with an appeal. "The church in the Jungle, we need help. Tell them that." He said the current issue is the need to use gas in the church to keep people warm as they pray.

The building is impressive. Created out of very basic materials, it now has a gate, a storage room, and a surrounding wall, along with the initial structure which was erected over the summer. Daily sermons are held and dozens attend.

Though he talked about festivities, if Solomon's Christmas wishes come true he won't be in the Jungle for either of the two dates he mentioned. He's been trying to get to England for months now and said he attempts it every day: "In the train, in the lorry, in the river, any place, I keep trying."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd