Identity

Inside France's Biggest Refugee Camp, Girls Are Trapped With No Hope or Escape

As the migrant crisis in Europe escalates, young men and women are risking life and limb to get to England. We traveled with photographer Sarah Tilotta for rare access to the only women's shelter in the French ferry port of Calais.

by Eleanor Ross
Aug 12 2015, 3:15pm

All photos by Sarah Tilotta

Italy spells out death for Claudia. If that sounds melodramatic, try saying "Italy" to a 15-year-old from Eritrea. Her tongue flicks out and she licks her lips; it's a nervous reaction, and she doesn't meet my eyes. Claudia arrived in Calais three days ago. Since then she has been living in the Jungle, a refugee camp one hour's walk east of the French ferry port, which overlooks the Strait of Dover and is the closest point of departure for the UK.

"I tried last night. In the Tunnel." She waves her arm in the direction of town. By "tried" she means that she attempted to get to England, and by "the Tunnel," she's describing the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, the 31.4-mile railway that connects France to England. Migrants in Calais consider clinging onto the train for its 35-minute journey one viable option to get to the country. The other is to climb into the trucks that are transported through the Tunnel on freight shuttle trains and hope the sniffer dogs don't find them. "Tonight I will try again," she says.

A bike path stretches between the camp and the town center. I've stopped Claudia and her friend just outside the entrance to the camp. Above us, two policemen armed with guns stand on the flyover.

Claudia finds it difficult to talk about how she got here. "Eritrea to Libya. Libya for a long time. We waited for months, but it was like my whole life. And then Europe. It was hard." How hard?

"Crossing to Italy, our boat sank," Claudia tells me. "My mother was in the water while I was holding onto the side of the boat. It was dark, and my hands were wet. Her hand left mine, and she drowned. Her clothes were too heavy, and I couldn't hold on to her."

She meets my eyes for the first time; they look like the eyes of a 50-year-old in a teenage girl's body. "Getting to England will be the easiest bit. It has to be." Why not just stay in France? "Five months ago, my father made it to Manchester. He's waiting for me there. I don't have anyone else."

When I was a child I thought Europe would be a paradise. I thought of safety, health, and democracy. In Sudan there was death and horrible things.

The presence of migrants in Calais is not a recent issue. The old camp, Sangatte, opened in 1999, and refugees from Kosovo and the Middle East flocked to it. Although it was closed in 2002, recent crises in Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea have seen an increasing number of migrants fleeing their countries. It is estimated that there are anywhere between two to three thousand people living in the Calais camps, although the real figure could be much higher.

At the entrance to the camp, a female journalist in a sharp suit with coiffed blond hair talks in front of two cameras. She looks out of place here--healthy, well-dressed. She packs up almost as soon as she's done her spiel and walks back to the van. Behind her two girls giggle over an old Nokia cell phone. Everybody has cell phones here; it's how they stay in touch with families who are both ahead and behind them.

A girl of about 17, with a white towel wrapped around her hair, approaches me. Tinny music is playing out of her phone. She waves at me. "My first shower!" she calls, and we both laugh and swing our hips to the reggae music as we walk past each other. She claps to the music and disappears down the side of a tent.

A shower is a generous description of the standpipe that leaks water from one end and drips out of the other. There are ten porta-potties at the entrance to the camp, but other than hot showers in the Jules Ferry refugee center, that's where hygiene opportunities end.

Children walk in the yard of the women's shelter of the Jules Ferry center, adjacent to the Jungle.

The center is run by an organization called La Vie Active and comprises three military-grade makeshift shelters adjacent to the Jungle. It hands out tents, hot food, and provides electricity points for people to charge their all-important phones. There are 100 beds in the center, but there are an estimated 130 occupants, as children share beds with their mothers. Priority is given to the ill and to the pregnant, but there's a long waiting list. If a woman leaves her bed for longer than 24 hours, she loses her space.

Salwa, 25, is from Sudan. The articulate young woman was training to be an anesthesiologist before she began her long journey north to Britain. She now lives in the Jules Ferry center with her mother. Her voice bubbles with frustration as she speaks. "I crossed the sea to come here, to search for a good life in France," she says, "but I had a big shock here, and I'm left with a very negative picture of France. When I was a child I thought Europe would be a paradise. I thought of safety, health, and democracy. In Sudan there was death and horrible things. There was no life there, but it's only slightly better here."

She says that she burns with frustration at her situation. "Every day I cry, cry cry. Sometimes, I get a fever from all the crying, but the doctor tells me there is no time for sadness, or even happiness. There is nothing to do here, just lie down on the beds. I barely have enough food [Salwa estimates she gets a meal she can eat once every two days due to her food allergies]. We are all refugees. We have all requested asylum. All we want is humanity because we all lost that a long time ago in Sudan."

Ahed and her son Khiled walked and hitchhiked from Damascus, Syria, for two months to reach Calais.

Back in the bustle of the main camp, a man walks past and waves. He grins and holds up his cup. "Ca va, mademoiselle? Ca va bien? Would you like some tea?"

The main street of the camp is getting busier. People are milling around, sitting in front of their tents, and watching the world go by. Although almost everyone I see is male, women make up around ten percent of the camp's population. You can see them occasionally--eyes looking out from tent openings and teenage girls in huddled groups. Almost everybody calls at me to wish me a good day and to ask me how I am. One man, Majnoun, who walked from Afghanistan to Italy, approaches me and holds out his hand. "Let's talk. I have tea."

Majnoun takes me to his tent, which is a few minutes walk from the main drag. He has nailed three pallets together to cover the prescription orange tent that charities hand out here. It affords him more privacy, he says. A few of his friends come over and sit with us. They're from Afghanistan and seem to be camp veterans.

Majnoun says that he's been here for eight months. "We've been here so long we get a tent right opposite the nightclub [a big, makeshift tent with a stereo]," he says. "It's Eritrean, and they have great music. It's where boyfriends and girlfriends meet. Lots of parties, and lots of happiness in the nightclub."

19-year-old Shewit Marki is from Eritea. She broke her leg when police pushed her after she tried to get on the Eurotunnel train.

Another man from Afghanistan explains how few female Afghans make it to Calais. Women are often hampered by having children with them, he says. They're physically weaker, and this is a game where being strong has it's advantages. "[There are] lots of female Africans. And they beat us getting on the trains, too. Last night I was at the Tunnel with five other people, and the only one who got on the train was a girl from Eritrea. She was young, but she was determined, and she left us there. I don't know how she had the strength--these African women amaze me."

The camp is sluggish in the morning. Nights are spent trying to get to Britain. I walk past one woman who is stretched out on an old sunlounger. Her eyes are partially closed, but they snap open as soon as my shadow touches her. "You made me jump! I was tanning."

Will life be better in England?

We both laugh, but she is exhausted. "I've been here for six days. I have tried to get to England five times. Maybe tonight I'll take the night off and get some sleep."

Her name is Sabina, and she explains how the night is cold here. "I had three blankets, but it wasn't enough. From 10 PM until 4 AM I've been at the Tunnel trying to get on the trains. I won't try the trucks because there's no point. The French police are too good."

What happens if they catch you? Sabina shakes her head. "They are only doing their job. We are the ones doing something illegal, I know that, but I also know that life will be better in England." She pauses for a minute, suddenly unsure. "Will life be better in England?"

Migrant men perch atop the sand dune that makes up the eastern border of the Jungle.

I tell her that England is an expensive country. It's fine if you're rich but can be tough if you're poor. She nods. "I know. But I can't stay here. I don't speak French, and it is difficult to get jobs in France. In England I have a sister already and two friends. They will help me get a job, and if not, then at least I have them."

"Do you feel safe here?" I ask her, recalling the way her eyes had flashed open when I'd walked past. She squints at me and shakes her head. "I'm 19 years old, and I'm living among men who are twice my age. They aren't married, they're bored, they're angry. No, I don't."

She shrugs her shoulders. Safety is easy to dismiss here; there's so much more to react to. But how would you feel if your 15-year-old sister or your 22-year-old girlfriend was alone, halfway across the world, sleeping in a camp full of men? You can't lock a tent, and there's nowhere to run. "This is a place for animals," one woman tells me.

Cecile, 18, is from Sudan. She has been on the go for six months, and she is tired. I find her along the disused railway tracks that lead up to the camp from the center of town. She is sitting on the side of the railway, her head in her hands. Her left hand is bandaged up--it looks makeshift, and she says she borrowed the dressing from her friend after his hand healed.

White bandaged mitts and legs in plaster are two of the most common sights in the camps. Barbed wire cuts deep. Cecile fell out of a tree while attempting to climb onto a truck last night.

Migrants pause to talk near an overpass next to the Jungle, where they staged an impromptu demonstration demanding "humanity, freedom, and dignity."

"I have only been here for three days, but I don't want to be here any longer," she says. "My grandfather paid $3000 to some men in the village for me to come here, so I must get to England for him. I am scared I'll never get there. I wanted to be a nurse, but now I just want to be safe.

"I heard last night that six people died on the train, so I'm glad I tried the trucks instead. Tonight, I will try the trucks again. It is better than staying in the camps--it is hell here."

I'm 19 years old, and I'm living among men who are twice my age. They aren't married, they're bored, they're angry.

A swaggering group of young Eritrean men walk up the train tracks towards the camp, listening to music on their phones. I ask Cecile why she is here on the side of the road. "I am exhausted. I am scared to sleep in the camp. I am scared to sleep at all."

The main stretch across The Jungle, with chemical plants in the distance

Back in the UK, I take a taxi back to the train station. My driver asks if the migrants smelt as bad as they looked. "I have the answer to the problem," he says. "We'll just get a sniper to stand and shoot them dead one by one as they get to England. Better for them, better for us."

Migrants' names have been changed. Additional reporting by Sarah Tilotta.

Women and children share breakfast inside the family shelter at La Vie Active.

A Syrian woman in the women's shelter. She is seven months pregnant and says she is desperately trying to get to the UK so she can receive asylum.

Women from Eritrea and Ethiopia prepare traditional ingera in the common kitchen area of the shelter.

Migrants near the overpass of the N216, from where police can easily survey activities below in the Jungle.

Salwa becomes faint after leading the protest near the N216 overpass, the route many cars and trucks travel to reach the UK by ferry.