Some 3,000 people live in a makeshift camp, dubbed "The Jungle," near the port in Calais, France
Most of them are from Sudan, Eritrea or Afghanistan; several are from Syria
"No one comes to Calais because they want Calais. Everyone here wants England."
The swirling wind that whips through the camp picks up dust and pieces of half-burnt garbage that lie in drifts.
Makeshift tarpaulin roofs flap in the breeze, stretched over tree branches and doing little to keep out the elements. A pile of rotting potatoes leaves an acrid stench hanging in the air.
Men sit on plastic chairs in the sand, huddled around a generator, all charging their mobile phones. A woeful Arabic song plays out from the tinny speakers of one man’s phone. Many of these men call home and tell their families life is good in Europe, sparing their loved ones the grim truth: They all came here to reach England, but for now this is their home.
This is “The Jungle.”
’Everyone wants England’
An estimated 3,000 people are living in the camp near the port in Calais. The vast majority are young men, but there are also women and children. Most of them are from Sudan, Eritrea or Afghanistan. Several are from Syria. They all traveled for several weeks, months or even years across Europe to reach Calais, which is just over 30 miles across the English Channel to the United Kingdom.
“No one comes to Calais because they want Calais,” says Khan, a neatly dressed man from Pakistan. “Everyone here wants England.”
Khan says he came because he wants to work in the UK and visit his sick brother who is living in Edinburgh, Scotland. He only arrived a day before, but he says he has already seen a young boy get his finger chopped off in the door of a truck.
Several men hobble past on crutches. Others are in wheelchairs, injured on their nightly excursions to try to stow away in trucks or break into the Eurotunnel.
In the center of the camp, a makeshift medical clinic has been set up to treat the ailments.
Medecins du Monde, the charity that runs the clinic, says the number of trauma-related injuries has increased sharply in recent weeks, as security measures around the Eurotunnel have been ramped up.
Broken arms and twisted ankles from falling off trucks are common. Many come back with slashed wrists, hands and ankles from trying to climb over razor-wire fences.
“They are used to risking their lives. They are almost where they want to be,” says Maya Konforti of local charity L’Auberge des Migrants. “You make the border more difficult to cross, (but) it doesn’t stop people from trying.”
The conditions of the camp, which is based on an old garbage dump in the sand dunes, also cause health problems. Scabies is common – as are eye and respiratory infections caused by the dust and sand.
Learning French, settling down
Camp life revolves around the help offered by local NGOs. Local people turn up in vans several times a day to offload donated food or reused building materials. At the nearby Jules Ferry center – which is funded by the French government – everyone can claim one hot meal a day and take a shower.
There are signs everywhere that life in the Jungle is becoming more permanent. Water, toilets and streetlights have been installed by the local government and many of the migrants have taken time and care to build their tiny houses.
Alpha, from a North African country he didn’t want to name, says he was the first one to build his hut in the Jungle, early this year. Before that he lived in the town center where he says he would constantly be chased away by police. He’s been in Calais eight months and has tried to get into the trucks more than 20 times.
“I love England so much in my heart. I will be there one day – I don’t know when,” he says. He has created a little piece of England here in the Jungle – naming his little blue hut “The David Beckham House” after his soccer idol. He also loves the Queen, he tells us, and has hung on his wall a hooded top imprinted with a Union Jack.
A few huts away is a tiny school with a plastic roof. It opened just a few weeks ago to serve the growing number of migrants who realize that their time in France may be longer than they’d hoped.
Local volunteers teach French in a miniature classroom. Alhady, from Darfur, reads to us proudly about “la neige” (the snow) from his children’s textbook.
As in any town, different groups have carved out their own neighborhoods in the Jungle. In the Afghan quarter, entrepreneurship has flourished even amid the piles of garbage. There are a dozen or so shops and even restaurants selling hot food.
Shopkeepers buy bottled drinks and canned food in bulk from the local supermarket and sell them at a mark-up.
Men laze around in the shade between neat stacks of Coca-Cola and tinned peaches. A sign reads “no credit” in three different languages.
In the Eritrean quarter, a wooden church has sprung from the sand.
Two wooden crosses perch on each end of the sloping roof. Worshipers remove their shoes at the door. One young woman kisses the plywood wall before entering. A group of women kneel in front of icons.
The pastor – a migrant himself – says he holds sermons here every day for around 100 people and everyone is welcome.
The road to the port is less than 100 meters away, but in the last few weeks a tall security fence has been put up, blocking the camp from the trucks on the other side.
Past loops of razor wire, French police can be seen patrolling the perimeter, armed with tear gas and batons.
People inside are feeling increasingly trapped and frustrated but, Alpha says, despite the fences, the dream of getting to England is still very much alive: “Even if they build (the fence) into the sky, put a fire in front, put lions in front, put scorpions, we are going to pass. Because God brought us here.”