September 19, 2016

With winter starting to factor into people's thoughts, prospects seem grim for many of the migrants living in the notorious "Jungle" camp in Calais, in northern France. The French government has vowed to shut the camp down once and for all. Another barrier—a 13-foot-high, half-mile-long wall—appears set to go up. And just this week, Calais residents held demonstrations and set up roadblocks demanding that the camp be razed.

Even though assistance to the camp appears to have thinned, people are still making their way there.

Twenty-five-year-old Abdo from Syria arrived in Calais just nine days ago, “There are many problems in the Jungle because of the high number of people living here now. And on top of that, France wants to shut the camp down. But where will we go? They can’t just press a button and make us disappear.”

Abdo, who wore an orange T-shirt with “I heart UK” written across the chest, puffed nervously on his cigarette as he recalled his escape to Europe. He fled the war in his country in 2012 for the relative safety of Egypt, but like many other Syrians he found himself pushed to the margins of society.

Abdo was left with no choice but to flea to neighboring Libya and risk his life crossing the Mediterranean Sea, despite knowing that in 2016 alone, more than 3,000 people had died or were missing after attempting the same journey.

Today people continue to make the dangerous journey, even though attitudes towards migration are fast-changing in Europe. “In Libya, people are literally queuing up in Zuwara and Sabratha,” Abdo said, referring to the two coastal cities where migrants board rickety boats operated by smugglers.

“Everyone I met when I was in Zuwara wanted to go to Europe. Everyone has somewhere they want to be in Europe, and Calais is one of the places they are aiming for.”

"People will Continue to Risk it" 

Ahmad, a 22-year-old from Sudan, arrived in Calais a week ago. Along with 140 others, he crossed the Mediterranean on a small rubber dinghy; he said that were it not for the MSF search and rescue boat, he might not have survived. 

“In Libya, I saw Sudanese, Nigerians, Senegalese, Moroccans, Chadians, Bangladeshis, Afghans, Ghanaians, Gambians, Eritreans and Ethiopians. There were many men, a lot of women—many of them pregnant—and children. However dangerous it is, people will continue to risk it and come,” said Ahmad.

Ahmad described being made to work “like a slave” in Libya, with barely any pay. “The war in Libya is awful. There is no security for anybody. Anyone can kill you at any time,” he said.

“For us, it isn’t about how rough the sea is or how tough conditions are when we get here. It’s about how desperate we are back home. That’s what pushes us to get on that boat.”

Days after Calais farmers and truck drivers took to the streets to demand the immediate closure of the camp, people continue to arrive, finding places to set up tent. Every evening since the protests, police have reportedly used of tear gas, making life even harder for those sheltering there.

“I used to be an interior decorator but the war in Libya got so bad I had to leave," said Abu Eman, a 42-year-old from Sudan. "There is only life there for people who are members of armed groups. I was lucky at sea because the boat I was on was rescued by MSF,” 

“Things are so bad here, particularly since the demonstration on September 5. Every night at 8:30 p.m., for no reason, police launch tear gas at us. At that time people will be playing football and cricket, not doing anything to harm anyone. I am afraid of the locals, because they want us to leave,” said Abu, who like many others has given up on ever reaching Britain, and now aims to go to the Netherlands instead.

Nowhere Else to Turn

Still, the Jungle provides a much-needed stop-off point; a waiting area of sorts for people who need to figure out exactly what the next step in their long, arduous journey will be.

Some migrants here have seen the vital aid effort by various volunteer groups reduce in recent months. “Many volunteers who used to come here from all over Europe have stopped coming. That makes me very sad," said Mubarak, an 18-year-old Sudanese man who arrived at the camp last year. "Even people I had developed a friendship with have stopped coming. Maybe they’re bored of us? Maybe the Jungle has exhausted them, just like it’s exhausted us?” he said.  

But for some like people, like 15-year-old Ismail from Afghanistan, there is literally nowhere else for them to turn. He arrived this week, after travelling through Iran, Turkey, Serbia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria, Italy and France. “In the forest in Bulgaria, where I was trapped for three days, police shot at us. Turkish police also shot at us. In Iran I was detained and tortured. In Serbia I was beaten by residents. The road from Jalalabad to Calais took me three months,” said Ismail, the innocence of childhood stripped from him along his journey.

Ismail is desperate to reach his father in London. Even though his father is a British citizen, he has been unable to secure family reunion for his son, Ismail, whom, like many others born in conflict-torn nations, does not have a birth certificate.

“I don’t know anything about this life except sadness. I don’t remember a single good day in this life,” said Ismail, as he pitched his tent in the Jungle’s rough soil.

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