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The truth about Calais—migrants speak out

This article is over 8 years, 6 months old
David Cameron calls them a ‘swarm’ and to Sun columnists they are ‘cockroaches’. But every migrant in Calais tells a human story of war and poverty. Dave Sewell went to listen
Issue 2465
Refugees at the jungle in Calais
Refugees at the “jungle” in Calais (Pic: PA)

Guards with dogs search underneath huge queues of lorries in Calais for stowaway migrants. A boat called the Berlioz looms over with an effigy of a shipping boss hanging from its bridge. It’s one of two occupied by crews fighting for their jobs—the dispute that triggered the recent gridlock.

The tension is higher still on the motorway up to the Eurotunnel entrance. Cops stand guard on embankments while small groups of refugees mill around in the bushes.

As night draws closer more will make the seven mile trip from the “jungle”, the shanty-town on an old landfill site where the French state keeps them.

Many, like Gazal, are from war-torn Darfur in Sudan. He told Socialist Worker, “God made the jungle for the animals. So this is the message from the French government when they put us in the jungle—they see us as animals.”

Many male refugees make the hard journey alone and hope to send for their families later. But children do play in the jungle’s alleys and there are women too.

Helen from Eritrea told Socialist Worker, “It’s so difficult here, and I have asthma. It’s dangerous, especially at the tunnel. You can get electrocuted, or hit by a train.”

Most nights a few hundred refugees come to the Eurotunnel. The much higher numbers widely reported are because there are a number of attempts per night—usually the same people.

Carlos from Eritrea was separated from his pregnant wife there last week. “She got on a train and is in Manchester now,” he said. “I jumped up and grabbed onto a train, but it was moving and I came off.”

He held up a bandaged hand. “We’d crossed the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean sea together,” he said. “It was a small boat with hundreds of people. Too many people have died like that. Too many children. ”

Like many Eritreans, Carlos was fleeing a government with compulsory national service, often for many years. “They were forcing me to become a soldier. I didn’t want to.”

Kamil from Darfur pointed out that resources go into repressing them instead of helping them. “We eat one meal a day, we don’t have homes,” he said. “We need help. The weather will change—how will we get through the winter?

“The police have dogs, sticks and pepper spray. There are people with broken arms and legs.”

Solidarite Internationale (SI) is one of four charities that began a joint operation in Calais in June. It focuses on hygiene and sanitation.


While home secretary Theresa May sent by Eurotunnel £7 million for extra fences, SI is building cubicles and giving out buckets to make up for lack of showers. And while riot police got 150 reinforcements last week, SI had one paid worker and two volunteers on site.

Project manager Timothee Shuilon said, “This is the first time we’ve had to operate in France. I just came back from a refugee camp in Myanmar and the living conditions here are much worse.”

The deprivation in the jungle can drive people to violence. Gazal was badly injured in a fight between refugees from Eritrea and Sudan. He said, “Most people come to Europe looking for safety, but they don’t find it here.”

Refugees trying to cross the fence

Refugees trying to cross the fence

But amid the desperation people have organised to make the best of their situation and help each other. Big tents form community centres. A row of ramshackle shops, cafes and restaurants functions as the jungle’s high street. 

Calais’ anti-migrant racists don’t represent everyone. “Many individuals donate food or clothing, or let migrants charge their phones at their homes,” said Timothee. Horrific wars around the world mean more refugees—though only a few make it to Calais.

Osama is from Darfur. “Every day about 100 people were being killed,” he said. “When I arrived here my family told me two of my friends had been killed while I was travelling.”

Britain’s government has a direct responsibility in many of these conflicts—as Afghan refugees know. Fayaz Ahmad has been a refugee for nine years since he was 14, and has already been turned away from Britain, Norway and Germany.

“In Afghanistan at first I was happy,” he said. “I was going to school, I was playing cricket. You can’t do that now. People are shooting at each other, there’s corruption everywhere. I had to leave.”

Khan said angrily, “We’ve heard they want to deport us all back to Afghanistan. The British government knows what the situation is in Afghanistan. It knows about all the Taliban and the violence—so why does it want to send people back?”

Ahmad said, “I don’t understand why they make it so difficult. There are 3,000 people here. It’s not a big number. Germany accepted 60,000 refugees in three months—can Britain really not take 3,000?”


Afghan building worker Amman is trying to get to Britain for work. But he’s been stuck in Calais so long that with the help of some friends and relatives he is trying to build a shop.

“We don’t want to be here,” he said. “I want a job, I want asylum. I want a life—this is no life.”

Politicians talk as if every migrant makes a beeline for Britain. A minority do—largely because more ­people know English than other languages.

But for many, Britain is the last hope after years of being shunted from one country to another.

The EU’s hated Dublin rules mean refugees can only claim asylum in the first country they reach. 

Britain’s government uses this rule to send people back to France, France to send people back to Italy. But the asylum process is so hellish that people take the risk and move on anyway.

Navid said, “They don’t give you anywhere to live while you wait. We have to live outside for six months—and then sometimes it can be another six months, and then another. I can’t live like this for two years!

“If they gave us a home I would apply for asylum here but in Paris there are people sleeping rough on the streets. For that reason we have to come to Britain.”

A surprising number of those in Calais have lived in Britain but been deported.

Amman said, “I was in Stratford, and they sent me back to Afghanistan. But my life was still in danger there, so I had to leave again. And I had to leave my children behind. 

“I needed to walk over the mountains, through Iran where the police shoot to kill—how could they have made it?”

The second trip can be even harder. Navid said, “It can cost a lot of money to make the journey—say £15,000. You have to sell your home and everything you own. So when they deport you, you have nothing to go back to.”

British politicians claim that making the crossing even harder will make people turn away. 

But Kamil said, “It’s hard now. But people are never going to stop—people are going to die.”

Gazal said, “If they build a wall here it will be even more dangerous.”

Amman agreed, “We have to keep trying every night, every day. Watch the news—every day you’ll hear of more deaths. And the government doesn’t care.”

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