Up to 2,000 residents of the Calais Jungle migrant camp are scrambling to avoid destruction of their only semblance of a home after French authorities gave them just three days to move out.
The government said on Monday it planned to destroy about a third of the camp, ordering its residents to relocate to another part of the Jungle or move to a newly-opened government facility. The eviction notice has created a division among the migrants and refugees, who represent about one third of the Jungle's total population — some have banded together to move their tents and wooden shelters, but others have vowed to peacefully protest the clearance, or have simply surrendered to being homeless again.
The French government says it ultimately wants to reduce the size of the Jungle to around 2,000, and police will move in once the deadline is up to get people out. Part of the plan involves relocating people to a recently-opened government facility with space to house 1,500 migrants and refugees, comprised of converted shipping containers that are heated and contain 12 beds each.
While the authorities say the new camp represents better quality accommodation than the Jungle, people are worried that once they are there they will be forced to claim asylum in France, and be subject to restrictions on their freedom. Those staying longer than a month will be required to have a hand scan taken.
They are very distrustful of French police, who regularly tear gas and beat them, and are also unhappy about leaving the community that's been created at the Jungle. They may be living in squalid conditions but their tents and shelters at least afford privacy, and makeshift shops, churches, mosques and restaurants help people get through the grind of daily life.
Abdullah Addis, from Ethiopia, is one of those affected by the order to move. He shares one shelter with seven other people, all male Ethiopians who sleep crammed into one bed. "It's a bit messy," he apologized, before showing VICE News the inside. "At night you can't even move. If you want to move you have to ask first."
Addis said they wouldn't be able to shift the shelter because it would fall apart. When asked where he would live now he said he didn't know. "Sometimes you just give up," he said.
He said that his group was depressed and traumatized — they survived brutal journeys through the Sahara desert and torture in Libya, only to end up stuck in the bottleneck that is Calais. "Visitors think when we smile we are happy but we smile because we have no other choice," he said, telling us how he watched a boatload of people drown in the Mediterranean without being able to help them, and saw 20 of his companions die on the journey from Sudan across north Africa.
A woman from Eritrea told VICE News she wasn't happy moving her from her shelter and now planned to leave the camp, possibly as soon as Friday. She said she would give up on her ideal destination of England and travel to another country — "Maybe Germany, maybe Finland." She said that there was "no humanity in France" and that she didn't trust the French government enough to move into a camp run by them. "I would rather die."
When the French authorities announced the clearance they painted a line on the ground — anyone beyond it would have three days to relocate.
In response, community leaders held a rushed meeting before issuing a statement.
"We, the united people of the Jungle, Calais, respectfully decline the demands of the French government with regards to reducing the size of the Jungle," it read. "We have decided to remain where we are and will peacefully resist the government's plans to destroy our homes. We plead with the French authorities and the international communities that you understand our situation.
The deadline runs out at the end of today but aid agencies have told VICE News that they now believe they may be given until Monday to clear the area before bulldozers come in. When initially given the three-day deadline the organizations said that would only give them time to help the most vulnerable: approximately one person in 10.
The clearance may also impact on some of the camp's entrepreneurs. A basic economy has sprung up in the Jungle with makeshift restaurants, bicycle repair shops, and even a mini nightclub being set up inside wooden shelters by residents. Afghan refugeee Khanzaman, who runs a restaurant, told VICE News that the police had initially told him he'd have to move his business, though he wasn't sure whether he was still required to. "They're coming on Friday but I'm fighting the police," he said. "Everybody has to move. Police have already [said that] but I'm not going to move."
Khanzaman told VICE News he's been living in the Jungle for six months and has been running the restaurant for five months. He said there's no room for it to be moved further into the camp. He also said sales had been less than usual recently as many migrants had begun to leave now.
He wasn't willing to go to the new government camp. "No like," he said.
The migrants and refugees are loath to put their fate in the hands of French authorities, whose security forces often dish out brutal and racist treatment. One refugee told VICE News that he had asked the police to translate the words "barbershop" into French: they wrote "monkey barbershop." Jungle residents also say that locals will throw stones at them. Far-right protests beside the Jungle are commonplace.
John, 27, from Eritrea, said two months ago he was taken by police, flown to Marseilles and put in a detention center. He said his dream is to come to England, which is why he returned again to Calais as soon as he could.
Some of the most vulnerable people whom VICE News saw moving were the Eritrean women.
Soliat, a small, slight, 16-year-old, had made it to Calais by herself. Along with another teenager, 18-year-old Mugata, she had moved from the Eritrean area of the camp next to a motorway into a shelter closer to the center of the camp, near the constructed Ethiopian church. She has been in the camp for one month.
Another Eritrean, Auwat, told VICE News the teenagers were very vulnerable, even though they had a lock on their door. "Sometimes [men] enter their house when they sleep," he said.
Those in the Jungle represent a small minority of the migrants who are making their way to Europe in what has become the biggest global refugee crisis since World War Two — only around 1 percent of those who cross the Mediterranean make it to Calais. The vast majority of those in the camp want to get to the UK because they have family there, they speak English, they feel more affinity with the UK's culture than they do with France, or they think they will have better life chances there.
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