I'm drinking a cup of tea from an X-Factor mug, staring at a shop sign scrawled on a piece of plastic: "chicken and chips." Written like that, I could be at home in east London. But this isn't Hackney or Tower Hamlets. This, as a young man in jeans says as he walks past carrying a bucket of water, is the Jungle.
The Jungle, of course, is the refugee camp on the sand dunes outside Calais, home to over 4,000 migrants, many of whom have spent months if not years getting across Europe from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, and Darfur. Their route is a Magna Doodle of border crossings, internments, and imprisonment that ends here: a place to stare across to the white cliffs of Dover, to sleep under tarpaulin, overlooked by a freeway bridge, the smell of human shit never far away.
For many British people, even those well-meaning enough to take to the streets with a Refugees Welcome placard or to donate to an Amazon aid list, the refugees living in camps like the Jungle, Molyvos, and Sinai are seen as a congealed, non-specific mass of people. That the Jungle is, in fact, a collection of Muslims, Christians, Africans, Arabs, men, women, Eritreans, Ethiopians, drinkers, teetotalers, meat-eaters, vegetarians, dancers, cooks, atheists, children, graduates, and mechanics, all living cheek-by-jowl on an old chemical dumping ground the size of a highway service station is something we too easily forget. We forget to ask who they are. Why they're there. What they left. We forget to ask why a 24-year-old man is sleeping beside a pile of blackberries and burned cans, in a tent made of tarpaulin and garden twine. We forget that the guy doing keep-ups in a pair of bright red trainers once walked across a desert at night, and will later be helping his neighbor learn French. We don't ask why a 21-year-old bilingual son of a government minister would risk suffocation and death by getting wrapped in plastic and hidden in a truck, just to reach the UK.
While Syrians account for 50 percent of the 380,000 estimated refugees who arrived in Europe this year, many of them fleeing a situation in which Britain had to decide whether to intervene militarily, they are but part of a more complex, international picture. According to the UN, 75 percent of refugees come from countries in the midst of armed conflict or humanitarian crisis, which could mean Egypt, Afghanistan, Chad, South Sudan, Somalia, and many, many more. I was invited to go to the Jungle with a group of London-based Catholics, who have been traveling back and forth to Calais to visit Eritrean Christians who have risked their lives to escape the unpaid and otherwise inescapable national service introduced by the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).
Seven percent of refugees risking their lives to reach Europe today are Eritrean, making them "the third largest group of migrants risking their lives to reach safety crossing the Mediterranean, after Syrians and Afghans," according to the Refugee Council. And yet you may be unfamiliar with what they're leaving. Many of us are. Writing in the Guardian, Patrick Kingsley has described Eritrea as "a country with no constitution, court system, elections or free press;" the UN has condemned the Eritrean government for its "gross human rights violations," which could be tantamount to "crimes against humanity." But part of the reason we hear so little of Eritrean refugees is because the UK government is very keen to reduce the numbers given asylum—in fact, the government is rather keen to start sending them back.
The Home Office updated its advice on Eritrea in March, claiming people returning to the country would not face persecution and, according to the Guardian, the number of Eritreans granted asylum in the UK this year plummeted from 73 percent in the first quarter to just 34 percent in the second. Even though the researchers behind the controversial Danish report on which this policy was based have now publicly distanced themselves from the document, arguing that it was unsubstantiated, flawed, and "so simplified that it hurt." And yet, despite this—despite the fact that the UN "strongly urges continued international protection for Eritrean refugees fleeing human rights violations and warns against sending them back to danger in a country that punishes anyone who leaves without permission"—there are still many thousands of Eritreans, stuck in the limbo of the Jungle, trying to make their way across to Dover, illegally, to seek safety. And that was who we were going to meet.
The day started at 4 AM, in a small galley kitchen belonging to Feven, the Eritrean-born Director of Empowering African Women. Feven has been up all night, literally all night, cooking curries and stacking more boxes of injera than I have ever seen in my life. There are piles of injera. Tower blocks of injera. There's enough of the stuff to feed 500 people. Which is exactly what she plans to do; like so many faith-based (and secular) groups, these people have not waited for the UNHRC to organize relief, they have simply packed up their cars with pots, plastic cutlery, boxes of Celebrations, and paper plates and are going over. We drive through the dark, in a Toyota Yaris stacked to the ceiling, heading for Dover.
On the ferry I sit beside Sister Natalia—a nun who barely brushes my shoulder and who just a few years ago was dodging bullets in South Sudan. The journey is quick, smooth, and smells of duty-free. Nobody questions us, nobody checks our car; five British passports and a ferry ticket is all that's needed to ensure a safe crossing. But as we pull into the town I prepare myself for drama; I get ready to be hassled, questioned by police, to fight our way through checkpoints and NGOs. I could not have been more wrong. We simply drive down to the Zone du Dunes, past garages and the Heineken factory, until the road ends, under a concrete bridge, and the mud begins. It is 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning and we have simply driven into the Jungle, past men lining up for showers in the makeshift chipboard cubicles, and wooden-frame shops selling small pyramids of Nido, Fanta, and fruit.
After recent rain, the road through the camp has, in places, turned into a toothpaste-like smudge of claggy gray mud. So we park the car and start to unload. A group of men; largely Eritrean but also Afghani and Sudanese, approach the car and offer to help. They stand, patiently, waiting to be passed an IKEA bag or cardboard box of stuff before walking through the clumps of tents and piles of rubbish to the church. Twice as tall as any other structure, the Jungle's Catholic church is a huge pitched edifice made of sheet plastic, nailed to a wooden frame. Inside there are candles, carpets, pictures of the Madonna; outside are women wrapped in white cheesecloth, sitting around on benches made of palettes, chatting and checking Facebook on their phones. A woman in pink leopard-print sneakers and a fluffy blue jumper sits beside me, idly twisting her headscarf. "It is not nice, this life," she says, utterly deadpan, before accepting the offer of a Mars bar.
"Sometimes I think the British Government is right," says Gabriel, a 24-year-old Eritrean man in a blue T-shirt, who offers to take me for a stroll around the camp. "I don't know all the information about the economics. If they helped these 5,000 people, if they took them all in one day, then another 5,000 people would come. Because the solution isn't in the camp, but to help us in our country—not to let our government use us for national service like this, with no pay. That is why we run away. Before 2000 it was very rare to hear about people running away from Eritrea. But after 2000, when we understood what the government was doing, we began to leave." Eritrean national service is not the two-year military exercise our grandfathers' did. It is an unending, unpaid contract that forces people to work in mines, teach, build roads, and carry out government administration with no pay, for years; it is "essentially a form of government-sponsored slavery." "You go into national service at any time," explains Gabriel. "There are people here who were in national service for 18 years—they have nothing. No money, no house, no wife." Nothing, in short, to show for an entire adult life spent working.
What's more, while most most Eritreans are unable to get the visas they need to leave the country legally, they are at risk of being arrested as "traitors" if they return. The UN has documented that some returning Eritrean refugees, those accused of being traitors, have suffered detention and years of being mistreated "to the point of torture." Which goes some way to explain why so many young men—for they are largely men—will continue night after night, to try to make it to the UK. Going home is simply not an option.
"This area is mostly arabic—Syrians and Egyptians," says Gabriel as we walk past a huge tent covered in writing. Twang-heavy pop music blasts out of a stereo, while men charge their phones off one of the small, gas-powered generators. A young guy, barely more than a teenager, sits in a white plastic garden chair getting his eyebrows threaded beside a giant lake of mud; a boy in a bicycle skids past ringing his bell; a large white minibus pulls up and starts handing out blankets. It feels, in many ways, like we're at the world's worst music festival. How does Gabriel feel if one of his friends gets across to the UK? "At first I was jealous," he admits, smiling at the floor. "But now, I have been here for seven months, and I'm happy for them. When they get there they call me straight away and they say, 'Gabi, keep trying. Try tonight.'" And he will keep trying, he says. He'll try, he'll fail, he'll rest for a week, then he'll try again. Even though each attempt makes him more exhausted and ill than the last.
Around the corner we come up to the Jules Ferry center, which houses the majority of women refugees in the camp. A man at the gate is reluctant to let me—a Westerner, probably a journalist—in to see what's happening. So instead I read the noticeboard outside; the schedule detailing when you can charge your phone, do your laundry, have your one six-minute shower, and get your one meal a day. What's the meal, I ask? Pasta, bread, carrots, a hotdog, and a pot of yogurt. That's it. If it's raining, you can't light a fire to cook, of course, so have to buy food from one of the shops. Gabriel and his friend Abdi—a handsome, tall, fluent English-speaking Afghan guy—often end up sharing a €3 [$3.40] meal between the two of them. How do they get money? "Friends, or families, they might send you money," explains Gabriel. "They have to put it into the name of one of the people here with documents, who will go and take it out for you. But if you ask for €100 [$113] they will keep €10 [$11] of it."
A huge guy in an Obey sweatshirt approaches—he stops, shakes hands with me, offers Gabriel his lighter and then moves on. "Here in the Jungle the problem is that we are from different countries, different cultures, different religions," Gabriel explains. "There are people from Syria, Afghan, Kurdistan, and we're all put together with no laws. No leader." Just consider that for one second; a group of nearly 4,000 men, with different beliefs, different languages, and different cultures, squeezed into an empty field under a highway, with just one meal a day, no work, no privacy, a little booze, a lot of music, no leader, and no rules. And yet, from what I see, it is largely peaceful. People sleep, eat, and pray alongside each other every day without incident. People greet each other with handshakes, multi-lingual greetings, and the offering of cigarettes.
Sister Natalia and the rest of the prayer group start to serve up the Eritrean feast at 4 PM, after saying an extended grace. The line snakes past packing crates, plastic bags, bicycles, empty cans, and a huge pile of branches ready for a special evening bonfire. People chat, eat, put their trash in plastic trash bags. But, as the sun begins to dip, we have to get going. Unlike the thousands of people around us, we have a ferry to catch; we can drive home. Except, of course, when our designated driver Ermias accidentally crashes into a ditch, the front wheel of his blue Yaris whirling uselessly in mid-air. This, I think, is a fucking disaster. There's no way that car is getting out. There's no way I'm getting home tonight. But then, without so much as a horn beep, 50 men start to walk over to our car, carrying bits of wood, rocks, and scraps of plastic. Two guys shovel earth out from under the chassis, ten people lean against the trunk to give the wheel some traction, 20 guys get into the ditch to heave, and with no more than a couple of false revs and a fair bit of hollering, the car is out. We are free. And all because a disparate group of Eritrean, Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, Sudanese, Chadian, Ethiopian, and Pakistani men stood in the dirt and helped us.
I look behind me, the sun throwing long shadows across piles of mud and plastic-strewn trees. I see Gabriel, slowly raising his hand in the air. "You know what I pray?" says Ermias a few minutes later as we speed toward the car ferry. "That I don't see the same people again." And I know what he means. Next time I go to Calais, and drive into the Jungle, I don't want to see Gabriel there—looking more hopeless, hungry, and tired than he is now.
But then, the idea of him scrabbling under wires, clambering through wet sand, being wrapped in plastic to throw off the sniffer dogs, huddling in freezing silence and hanging on to the bottom of a giant truck all just to get to the UK is almost worse. Because, if he gets here, who's to say it's going to be any better? As the British government revels in its hard line of bigger fences, withdrawn benefits, and tiny refugee quotas, the safety of the people who risk their lives to reach us seems even further in jeopardy.
Follow Nell on Twitter.