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Clearing France's Migrant Camps: What's Next For Thousands of Evicted Refugees?

VICE News visited migrant and refugee camps in the French towns of Dunkirk and Calais to meet the people being violently evicted by the authorities.
Foto di Sally Hayden/VICE News

Kamal, an elderly Iranian man, has graphic pictures of torture on his phone. The victim stares straight at the camera, emaciated, ribs protruding from a chest that's half scarred bright red from the burning pressure of a hot iron. These photos are of him — ready evidence of what Kamal has fled from and what could happen to him if he were to return. Kamal was imprisoned as a punishment for protesting against the Iranian regime in 2009.


"The police are good," he commented, pointing at the French riot police stationed at the entrance to the so-called "Jungle" migrant camp in the port town of Calais, voicing an opinion that many of his peers won't agree with. Kamal has been in the camp for nine months. When it's eventually cleared he doesn't know where he'll go next — certainly not back to his home country, he said.

Among the dozens of migrants and refugees VICE News spoke to in camps in Calais and Dunkirk, there was no definitive answer on what to do if the camps are eventually fully demolished, as the authorities seem to be aiming for. Some were considering traveling to Belgium or Holland. Others contemplated returning home to countries in the Middle East. However, the majority of migrants and refugees just felt hopelessly stranded — they'd likely merely find somewhere else nearby and continue to try their luck jumping on trains and trucks, sights still set on the United Kingdom and lacking the resources to change course.

Staying in France is not a desirable option for many because the success rate of asylum requests is almost half that of England's (25 percent versus 41 percent), the unemployment rate is about double (10 percent versus 5 percent), and many have family members already in Britain.

Police watch over demolitions in the "Jungle" migrant camp in Calais. (Photo by Daniel Bateman/VICE News)

A migrant sits by graffiti in the "Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, France. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

The Calais camp — home to several thousand migrants — has seen dramatic scenes over the past week. Shelters were bulldozed while the displaced clung to their belongings, squatting on roofs during pounding hailstones in futile attempts to protect their only semblance of a home. Eventually, the Jungle's population will be reduced from almost 5,000 to 1,500 people.


The aim is to house those remaining 1,500 in a new government camp made of converted shipping containers with few communal spaces — a big change from the muddy streets lined with restaurants, churches and nightclubs, which gave life to the makeshift camp. Many migrants do not want to go there as there will be a handprint security system for entry and exit alongside a constant security presence, and they believe they will be forced to apply for asylum in France.

Mokhtahar, from Iraq, said his shelter was the first to be demolished by the police. "I went to have lunch, when I got back I found my house being completely destroyed," he told VICE News. "My cellphone, all of my clothes, even my money, everything was gone. That was my only property… That was my only place for sleeping." He pointed to the clothes he was wearing. "Now, this is all I have."

People in the camp had become very desperate, he noted. "They don't know what to do. They've [become] used to this situation. It was their place for living. But now they don't have anything." Mokhtahar said now that he doesn't have money anymore he'll be forced to stay put.

Another heavily pregnant Iranian woman told VICE News she was moving into the new government-provided housing only to have her baby, after which she would resume her quest to reach England.

Police stand in hailstones to watch over demolitions in the "Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, France. (Photo by Daniel Bateman/VICE News)

A woman washes her hands outside her shelter in the Jungle camp in Calais. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

The evictions in the camps have partly been carried out by French authorities because of concerns about the unsafe conditions and criminal activity going on in them.


However, this action is a double-edged sword — the uncertainty caused by the clearances and the ensuing chaos means that particularly vulnerable migrants and refugees, including hundreds of unaccompanied minors with relatives in the UK, are increasingly defenceless to abuse without adequate protection. Being forced to move will also deny them access to the impressive volunteer efforts evident within the Jungle, where groups provide clothes, food, medicine, and legal advice.

This week, medical volunteers in Calais told the Independent newspaper about allegations that teenage boys are being raped in the Calais camp. Seven teenagers aged between 14 and 16 have approached the volunteers in the past six months, all claiming to have been raped and showing injuries consistent with those claims. A petition calling on the French authorities to protect children in the camp has received almost 20,000 signatures.

Meanwhile, in another major camp at Grande Synthe, Dunkirk, several migrants and volunteers told VICE News that human smugglers continue to wield huge amounts of power over the around 2,000 who are living there in difficult and unsanitary conditions.

This came to a head in January, when four people were injured after a gunfight broke out in the Grande Synthe camp, reported to be a "settling of scores" between rival bands.

The Dunkirk camp is the next slated to be cleared, with inhabitants moving this week to a new purpose-built Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facility.


Shelters are set on fire in the "Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, France. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Police cars parked in the "Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, France. (Photo by Daniel Bateman/VICE News)

Eelke van Woensel Kooy, a 23-year-old cultural anthropology student from Belgium, has been volunteering in the women and children's distribution tent in Dunkirk for nearly a month.

She said there were around 100 children living there, though it's impossible to survey the number of women because many aren't allowed visit the tent — prevented either by men they're travelling with or by smugglers. There were only between 10 and 20 women visiting the tent regularly, including several who are pregnant.

Van Woensel Kooy said she was worried that women and children aren't getting access to the basic necessities that others were receiving. She said the kitchen in the camp was being run by smugglers. "I don't know a lot about it but I think it's the chaos that makes it possible, like there's not one organization but different groups of volunteers that don't really communicate very well," she said.

Moving to the new MSF camp would make the situation better for those who are vulnerable, according to van Woensel Kooy, "because it will be more organized. I guess the police will arrest some of the smugglers. But on the other hand the people are really dependent on these smugglers as well. They've already paid a lot to the smugglers to get here."

"I think I underestimated the role of the smugglers," she continued. "When you work here it becomes really clear."

She said even in the past few weeks there had been violence in the camp at night time.


Commenting on the huge amount of different people at risk here, she said: "[Considering] refugees as one group [is too] heterogeneous. Everyone has their own personal stories. What does a refugee mean? Is it only someone who flees for war or also somebody who just wants a better life?"

Related: Migrants Sew Their Lips Shut in Protest at Calais 'Jungle' Demolition

Attempts to tackle smuggling gangs have been made before. In August, French newspaper Le Monde reported that a total of 1,225 smugglers working for seven Albanian gangs and another 12 networks run by various other nationalities had been arrested in the preceding eight months.

That same month, VICE News visited another camp at Teteghem, near Dunkirk, which was reportedly being controlled by people smugglers. In November the camp was closed down with the final 200 or so migrants there being evicted by police. A suspected smuggler was also arrested.

Back in Calais, 17-year-old Hamid, from Iran, said he was in France alone but had a brother in the UK. Holding out his bandaged arm, he said he was beaten up two days ago by a policeman in the Jungle.

"I am sad," he said about the evictions. "It's not good because if they finish here we don't know where we are going."

Around 30 minutes after VICE News spoke to him, Hamid had a knife pulled on him by a fellow Iranian man, after a fight broke out between a large group of men.

Meanwhile, another Iranian man told VICE News he had seen a British guy come to the area where he was camping and set fire to a shelter, before moving back to record a video of the flames. "I don't know why they are doing that. I don't know," he said.


"MI6," another friend joked.

This comes after reports that activists are setting fire to shelters in the camps — an accusation they have denied.

Children play in the women and children's center in Grande Synthe, France. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

A group of Iranians have sewn their lips shut and gone on hunger strike in protest at the Calais camp clearances. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Only a tiny minority of the refugees who make it to Europe come to Calais — about 2 percent. Of those who are there, some have set themselves deadlines. Saady, 32, from Rabia, a city in northwest Iraq on the border between Iraq and Syria, told VICE News he had given himself another six months to get to England, otherwise he'll return to Iraq.

He said he had nothing to go back to there but would "take some rest."

In the meantime, he is happy to move to the new MSF camp in Dunkirk. "Here is dirty," he said. "The new camp is very clean. We can't stay [in Grande Synthe] anymore.

"We don't want to make any problem with the police because the police from France, they're not bad. They're good to refugees."

Saady — who is hoping to go to either Ireland or England — said his village is very close to Islamic State (IS) territory, and three of his best friends were murdered by the militants. "I didn't want to lose myself," he said.

Of the migrants and refugees in Dunkirk now, he said: "Most of them have problems with government… War makes me tired. So many people here are tired."

Saady also doesn't have enough money to pay a smuggler to cross the Channel Tunnel — something he priced as between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds ($2,828 to $5,657).

Related: We Visited the Lesser-Known French Migrant Camp That's Next in Line for Evictions

According to statistics sent to VICE News by British volunteering organization Help Refugees and gathered by the Refugee Rights Data Project, 73 percent of migrants and refugees in the Jungle have experienced police violence. Of these, 57 percent have experienced tear gas "every day" or "many times a week." Just over 45 percent of respondents claimed to have experienced violence by French citizens, including members of far-right groups. Three quarters of those surveyed had experienced health problems in the camp.

In Calais, 82 percent intended to stay where they were or "didn't know" what they would do if the camps were fully demolished in the coming weeks.

A definitive 92 percent of those Help Refugees spoke to wished to go to the UK; 35 percent had friends or family there. For 23 percent, language was their reason for wishing to journey to the UK, while 86 percent said there was no chance they could return to their country of origin.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd