Inside “the Jungle”

France's recently razed "Jungle" refugee camp illustrates the human toll of Europe's anti-refugee policies.

The Calais refugee camp last winter. EPA

Last week, French authorities cleared “the Jungle,” a refugee and migrant camp that the New York Times has called “a symbol of Europe’s faltering efforts to handle its migration crisis.” The camp, which sat near the northern port city of Calais, housed between seven and ten thousand people. Many living there qualified for asylum yet remained confined in the camp, barred from remaining in France or traveling to Britain across the English Channel.

The French government, which began busing residents of the camp to “welcome centers” around the country early last week, says it razed the notoriously squalid site for humanitarian reasons. But it’s unclear where the displaced will end up. Roughly 1,500 migrant children are temporarily living in shipping containers. The British government has permitted less than 300 children from the camp to reach its shores since mid-October; French president François Hollande is insisting that the UK accept more.

In the following piece, adapted from Le Monde diplomatique and reported on before the French government destroyed the camp, Elle Kurancid and Sharif Fanselow give us a glimpse inside the Jungle through the eyes of Sami (not his real name). It poignantly captures the human toll of “Fortress Europe,” where refugees like him exist in a world of “rights without recognition.”

“The Jungle exists because of politics and money,” shrugs Sami, a twenty-seven-year-old refugee from Kabul. “I think everyone here knows that.”

Slumped in a chair outside one of the camp’s several resident-run cafés, he continues: “You know what? I love Afghanistan. I miss my cities, my villages, my culture, my family, so much . . . So much. But I can’t have a safe life there.”

“What about a safe life in the so-called Jungle?” I ask. (In the informal settlement that British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has declared “a fetid camp in a land of plenty.”)

“I’m very worried,” Sami sighs. “All the time I worry about my friends here, the volunteers and refugees everywhere, because my words, their words — and yours — will change nothing in this world.”

“What is the logic of the French government?” I ask. (In a land where former president Nicolas Sarkozy maintains that the thousands of people living in the camp — after escaping war, conflict, poverty, state oppression, and climate change — “should not be in Calais or anywhere else, because [France] is a republic and those with no rights to be here should return to their country.”)

Without pause, Sami says: “In the sea, big fish eat small fish. Why? Because the big fish is hungry.” He passes me his mobile phone and points to a snapshot of a sturdy and smiling young man, posing against the backdrop of a brilliant sky. “Do you agree that that’s me?”

At first, I nod in disbelief. Sami has sunken eyes and cheeks by comparison, but even so, the warmth and magnetism of his smile are precise. “Since coming here four months ago from Greece, I’ve lost ten kilos worrying and thinking about selfishness.” He adds: “The only thing we can change is ourselves.”

Before delving into some of his principal concerns, so we might build his case for the court of world opinion, he reiterates: “Our words will change nothing.”

Nevertheless, with impassioned indignation, he begins: “You have a Canadian passport, mine is from Afghanistan — who is going to protect me? No government. If you have a president, maybe they could make life better for the people. But in the Jungle, we don’t have a president to talk with the UK, to talk with France, to make decisions, to make solutions, to give rights to the people. So, we can do nothing.”

Like millions of refugees worldwide, Sami has rights without recognition.

The Logic of Fortress Europe

In late September, when I first met Sami, the construction of a £1.9 million, four-meter-high wall was underway. In the eyes of the powers that be, this “big new wall” will “unblock Calais” — by blocking refugees and migrants from the already-double-fenced road to the English Channel port.

Routinely, countless camp residents attempt to stow away in lorries set to cross the sea border — most failing, some succeeding, and others perishing, including Raheemullah Oryakhel, a fourteen-year-old from Afghanistan who died in mid-September after falling off a UK-bound lorry on the motorway. (Oryakhel had hoped to reunite with his brother, who lives in Manchester.)

Part of a £17 million Anglo-French security package, the smooth concrete wall sends an unambiguous message: in the lands of plenty, commercial lorries and the goods they carry take precedence over asylum seekers.

“We’ve done the fences,” British immigration minister Robert Goodwill explained in early September. “Now we’re doing a wall.”

Around the same time, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced the deployment of an additional two hundred police officers to Calais — where he says a 1,900-strong force is currently operating — to “reinforce the battle” against stowaways.

Such is the logic of today’s Fortress Europe, where lip service is paid to human rights even as powerful nations actively undermine them.

Yet the Jungle’s existence inside the Fortress also represents a Karmic trick: it threatens the French and British states’ immunity from the consequences of their colonial legacies, imperial wars, and neoliberal policies.

“Since the start of [the refugee crisis] we have witnessed a hyperinflation in the language around refugees: they are invariably ‘waves’ or ‘floods,’ and they are ‘streaming’ into Europe,” Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian last year. But beyond the fear-mongering rhetoric, Horvat argued, “[are] very concrete politics that can be traced back to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The “real cause of the current refugee crisis” is economic warfare, he wrote, criticizing the Fortress in general and the British government in particular: “First you overthrow dictators. Then you destabilize countries, make the economy scream, steal resources (oil, public companies, etc.), displace populations and militarize your own region. And then you sell it as a ‘natural disaster.’ Usually, this is called war.”

The Logic of Refugees Welcome

“British war veterans are sleeping on the street next to refugees from countries that we occupied not long ago,” British comedian Jeremy Hardy told thousands of people in London’s Parliament Square during the Refugees Welcome march in mid-September.

En route to the square, scores of demonstrators chanted another condemnation of empire and Fortress, at the guarded gates of 10 Downing Street: “Brick by brick, wall by wall, Fortress Europe has to fall! Brick by brick, wall by wall, racist borders have to fall!”

Such is the logic of Refugees Welcome. When I recount the scene to Sami, he smiles, but only momentarily . . .

“The situation is unacceptable and everyone here knows it,” French president François Hollande said during a late September visit to Calais, where he met with politicians, police, and port officials. “We must dismantle the camp [by the end of this year] completely and definitively.

Although Hollande was mere miles from the camp, he didn’t set foot in the site.

And with the advance of the new police fleet and the erection of the wall, state policies that resemble Nigel Farage’s xenophobic “Breaking Point” campaign are prevailing over any consideration of the rights of refugees. Costly border security, or “enhanced protection standards,” is taking priority over addressing a humanitarian emergency.

In the meantime, ten countries — none of them “big fish” (collectively they account for 2.5 percent of the global economy) — are hosting over half the world’s refugees.

The Next Castle Ditch

Why does Sami worry? “When France and the UK finish the Jungle,” he sighs, “many people here want to go to the UK, so I think about how [the English Channel] will become [the Mediterranean Sea] . . . Maybe, so many people will die trying to cross to the UK.”

In 2014, the bodies of twenty-eight-year-old Shadi Omar Kataf and twenty-two-year-old Mouaz Al Balkhi, both from Syria, were found washed up on the shores of Norway and the Netherlands, respectively. The two men, who reportedly lived in the Jungle, bought identical wetsuits in Calais and headed for the Channel. “You must not try to swim,” Mouaz’s uncle told him over the phone, from his home in Bradford, England. “That wouldn’t work. Hide in a lorry.” But Mouaz had already tried and failed at least a dozen times.

Since 2014, more than ten thousand people have died in the Mediterranean Sea en route to Europe, including nearly four thousand this year. Amnesty International has named it “the world’s deadliest sea crossing.”

In June, after an estimated one thousand people coming from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan drowned in one week while attempting to make that perilous journey, Ruben Neugebauer of the German volunteer group Sea-Watch, offered a sinister analogy on Democracy Now!: “The European Union is using the Mediterranean Sea as its castle ditch, filling it up with dead bodies to scare off those who might come after them.”

An Agence France-Presse photographer and a New York Times reporter recently provided another disturbing comparison: “The analogy to slave ships that once plied the Atlantic was exactly right — except that it’s not hundreds of years ago.”

By the end of 2015, a record 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide — one in every 113 people globally.

“The Jungle Is Life”

After relating his case, Sami says, politely: “We’re done with the interview now.” I reciprocate his distressed frown.

Unexpectedly, though, he shoots up to his feet and motions me to do the same. He points to the rugged road before us: imagine a main street lined with shops and cafés, people toing and froing. “Salaam aleikum,” he smiles, saluting a cyclist gliding along. “Smiling makes my heart feel fresh.”

Playfully nudging my shoulder and pointing at a passerby with a flat-faced wooden bat tucked under his arm, he says: “You see that man? He’s happy, he was playing cricket.”

Sami starts crossing the street. “Follow me,” he calls. We stand in the threshold of a makeshift building. “Look at these guys,” he says, directing his smile at a gathering inside the dimly lit space. “They’re playing a game of pool, and those guys are drinking tea and thinking about their lives.”

We proceed to an adjacent establishment and press our bodies into its frontal plywood wall. Arching his neck forward through the pane-less window, he smiles: “This is my uncle.” He clasps the outstretched hand of an older man who is sitting against the backdrop of shelves stocked with sodas, crisps, and cigarettes. “Tell her about the Jungle,” Sami says to his uncle.

“The Jungle is life,” his uncle gushes. As Sami turns to leave, his uncle and I shake hands. “Are you a tourist?” he chuckles. “A writer,” I smile, uttering the words in a self-conscious whisper.

“Oh,” he replies, still embracing me, our eyes fixed on one another. “The tourists used to go to Africa, and now Africa has come to them.”