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

VICE News visited the Jungle camp in Calais and witnessed the fast developing infrastructure — including restaurants, shops, a church, a school, and a nightclub that blasts out loud music.
Photo par Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Ali from Afghanistan is sitting on the ground, back bent, concentrating on the task in front of him. Together with a friend, he's hidden from public sight in the darkness behind a curtain, repetitively filling cigarette after cigarette with tobacco. Around him are stacks of cans, bottled water, hookah pipes, and boxes of cookies.

"Business is not good, just busy," he told VICE News, his eyes only briefly straying from his work. "This is the Jungle."


The shop that he's laboring to stock is just one of the entrepreneurial efforts that has sprung up in the Jungle, the main migrant camp in the port city of Calais, France.

When Ali runs out of supplies he travels to the nearest Lidl grocery store. Each item has a markup of between 10 and 30 cents and cigarettes sell at 10 for a euro ($1.11).

The Jungle is currently home to between 2,000 and 3,000 migrants and refugees. While those there have mainly fled war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and dictatorships with compulsory military service like Eritrea, others come from less common starting points like Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan.

A young female migrant carries washing back to her tent. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Nader, a 40-year-old from Sudan, studied law in his home country. He ushered us into his small, cramped shelter — "my flat, I call it" — before offering us bottles of cola and water. Fleece blankets and plastic bags lined the walls, and the only covering on the floor was a blanket. Another man sat huddled in the darkness inside. Nader said he's now hoping to stay on in France to do a master's degree. Candle stubs sat on a plate beside us as we spoke.

The Jungle camp is roughly divided along ethnic lines. There's an Afghan area that some call the "market," there's a Kurdish area, and a Sudanese area. The Ethiopian section has the church, and the predominantly Eritrean part of the camp is home to the "nightclub."

Two or three months ago there was a bit more violence and tension between ethnic groups, according to Nader, but now it's calmed down.


Shops, informal bars, and restaurants in the Jungle migrant camp help support daily life for its residents. This cafe run by a group of Afghan migrants serves basic meals, and provides a quiet sanctuary from the camp outside. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

At 5pm each day, local authorities provide camp residents with their one guaranteed meal. Toilets are also washed around the same time by workers requested by a local NGO.

Some women and children are housed in the Jules Ferry Camp, a more protected space at the end of the main Jungle, but this area is currently full, an NGO worker told VICE News. Those who have made it inside are the most vulnerable — often survivors of rape and horrific sexual violence.

Men in the main camp are allowed to use the showers there, separate from the women.

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

Above the camp runs a highway, where the French police and "gendarmerie" — a branch of the country's armed forces in charge of public safety — stand to observe the migrants moving about below. The nearest section is mostly populated by Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants. Clothes have been left to dry on bushes and non-existent garbage disposal means bottles and discarded plastic bags are strewn on the ground.

Young migrants are usually kicking a soccer ball about, while others burn some of the ever-mounting piles of trash. Nearby is the camp's "nightclub," complete with thumping tunes. A can of beer there costs 1.50 euro, and large piles of empty cans have built up in the vicinity.

Migrants gather round a generator to charge mobile devices in the Jungle, Calais. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Construction is evident across the camp. Migrants band together to build wood structures, before covering them with blankets and plastic bags. One house has a French flag raised above it. "Afghanistan" is painted on one tent's side, while the word "refugee" is emblazoned on another.


In a makeshift but lovingly constructed church, two men and a woman prayed on their knees, their heads touching the ground. After a few minutes, one of the men asked what I thought of the building. He introduced himself as Eruis, from Ethiopia, and says he visits the church every day. He has found solace here, he said, before adding that he's praying he'll make it to England.

Each Sunday he joins 40 or 50 other migrants who attend a service where they "sing many songs."

Half-finished candles and heavily thumbed holy books have been placed on tables at the front of the church. One of the lay priests, Solomon Grama from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, told VICE News he's been leading prayer groups for three years and everyone involved in the church is very proud of the construction. It took some two months to build and was finished just over a month ago.

This general store, run by a group of Afghan migrants, sells the basic commodities. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Near the church, a group of 15 Ethiopians sat on wooden benches. With several cans of beer between them, small glasses were filled before being passed around one at a time.

In another section, a group of Syrians shared Pepsi, while joking about a possible attempt to sail to the UK.

The camp has brought together unlikely friends. One of the men was in the Syrian army just a month ago, while others are refugees forced from their homes by the conflict. In the Middle East they could be killing each other; here they are cautiously planning a peaceful protest, hoping to appeal to the UK to accept them in and offer them refuge. One told VICE News he believes there are only 100 Syrians in the entire camp.


Migrants assist each other in constructing more protective temporary housing. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Jihad Hala, from Damascus, has one of the homeliest-looking shelters in the Jungle. He stood at the entrance to the small shed with his two small children and his wife. Inside there's a mirror on the wall, cartons of juice, and a box of empty cigarettes.

Hala said he's claimed asylum in France already but the authorities have told him to stay where he is. The family is now waiting for accommodation, but they don't know how long that will take. Together all the way, they left Syria about a year ago, traveling through Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, and then on to France, a journey which took about two months in total.

His son was playing with a plastic toy helicopter. The two children may soon start attending the new Jungle school — the "Secular School of Dune Way" — in which migrants and local Calais residents volunteer to teach both children and adults. French is one of the main focuses of the curriculum, beginning with the most basic words.

The Jungle's new Ethiopian Orthodox church. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Walking around the camp, I was asked constantly for information — including details about asylum applications, recent news reports, and questions about why the UK wasn't welcoming refugees from Calais.

Some French and British activist groups are aiming to address these deficits. A poster stuck to a caravan showed a picture of Paddington Bear and the message, "Migration is not a crime," as well as the email address for a group who will help with legal information.


Other posters advertised a "UK Asylum workshop" every Sunday at 1pm, "after Ramadan games" from 3pm on Sundays, and a bike workshop on Monday and Thursday. A map of Calais showed the places where you can catch a free bus, play football, get free clothes, or find the police.

More sheets listed possible interview questions should a migrant make it to the UK and try to claim asylum.

Another notice advertises the camp's "hospital" opening hours — a physician from the Medicins du Monde humanitarian organization comes on site for six hours a day, Monday to Friday.

Migrants pray in a makeshift church constructed in the Jungle. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Christian Salome, the president of NGO L'Auberge des Migrants, told VICE News that his organization has been working in Calais for six or seven years, and there have always been between 2,000 and 3,000 migrants there. "[In] 2009 it was more people coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan, now it's more people coming from Sudan, from Syria, from Eritrea, but the situation is exactly the same."

"Now it's a little bit better in fact here because it's a place where there is notoriety and so instead of having no supporters or nothing they can have a place where they can sleep without being afraid of the police coming in and driving them away," Salome added.

He said raising awareness about the situation is very important, and making the conditions slowly better.

"Now we have 20 shops, we have a church, some mosques, we have schools, and we have a lot of things. That's surprising but that's fine," he said.


The home of a Syrian man and his family who have claimed asylum in France, but for the time being remain in the Jungle camp. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

When asked whether the increased construction and signs of small businesses were a symbol that migrants had decided to settle, Salome said: "I hope the problem will be taken in charge by political men and women and it will be solved because in fact the problem here is quite simple. They are mainly war refugees, they have good reason to go to the UK, they have family there, they speak English."

Salome also raised concerns about the psychological impact of staying in a makeshift refugee camp like the Jungle. "Nothing is done [about that]," he said. "There is no help for traumatized people, not at all. Many people are completely depressed. They stay here and don't know what to do and sleep all the day. They lose their time, they lose their life here."

A French police officer guards the entrance to the motorway above the Jungle camp. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Salem, 36, from Algeria, also brought up mental health issues around the camp. Recently, he said he saw a "disturbed" Sudanese man beat his son publicly and unrelentingly, seemingly unable to stop and unaware of the harm he was inflicting.

"These things break us hard," he said.

"Nobody comes here. Nobody comes to our door to ask how are you guys, how are you doing? Plenty of people here are mentally sick. Me, I'm alright, but people who are mentally sick should be looked after, cared for… The government of London and the government of France, it's a shame for them. Big country, no one's taking responsibility."

Salem, who says he lived in London for 15 years illegally before traveling back home after his mother died, said he has been in the camp 26 days. Now, he's fed up. "The next big virus is going to come from here," he exclaimed, pointing at a pile of garbage near his own tent's entrance.


He said he stole his tent and blankets from another person in the Jungle. "I wish David Cameron would come himself here," he said.

Two young boys take a rest from the heat and boredom of life in the camp. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Richard Burnett, chief executive of the British Road Haulage Association, echoed this last sentiment, while greeting journalists in the camp's center. He said Calais is in a crisis situation, and criticized the UK prime minister for not cancelling his vacations and visiting to get a "firsthand account."

"I don't think there's been enough focus from the British government in terms of waking up to solve this problem," he said. "There's such focus on the issue now."

Waste is disposed of by setting fire to piles of rubbish. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Ahmadi Mahmoodjan, an Afghan 21-year-old, has been here for one month. "For my future this means a bad life," he said, looking around. "I want a better life. I want to be a driver. My future is not here."

"I want to go to school, have a house, everything," he continued. "Nothing in Calais. It's a bad life." Mahmoodjan said he thinks anything would be better than the Jungle. "Any country in Europe. Belgium, France, Germany, England, any country."

"Now we are tired, too tired. We can't count on the good life here."

Nariman Jald Karim, a 27-year-old Kurd from Iraq, spoke slowly and thoughtfully. "Every day is different [in the Jungle]," he said. "Four times I've gone to Europe, they've never accepted me."

Karim has been to England before but was deported. After a month back in the Jungle he's made a decision — he wants to travel back home and join the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS.


"I don't care what happens in my life but now I need to go back," he said. "If not ISIS I'd never go back, but now with ISIS I have to go back. If ISIS controls our land, what can I say tomorrow? For example if someone asks where am I from, should I say I'm from ISIS?"

Sitting on a grassy knoll with a toothbrush in one hand and a juice box in the other, Karim stated that he's been to Calais three times before — in 2006, 2007, and 2011. "Every other time people were hiding in the bushes from the police. This time it's different. People aren't hiding."

A nightly soccer game in the Jungle migrant camp. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

As night falls, groups of men and boys play soccer, with visiting journalists and activists joining in.

Watching them from a nearby concrete slab, Ahmed, a 22-year-old from Sudan, said he asks all the "responsible people" who visit the camp what the solution is, but they rarely offer one.

While he's already begun the process of applying for asylum in France too, he's been told he needs to stay in the Jungle for another few months. His next move is to begin learning French, though he anticipates it will be quite difficult because it's such a "strange" language.

Adam, 30, sitting with him, said he's come across people who have been in the Jungle for more than a year, and come to accept the conditions.

"Even if it's not okay, we have to say it's okay," he said. "Because we live here. We cannot change the reality."

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

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Follow Frederick Paxton on Twitter: @freddiepaxton