Calais Jungle to be demolished, yet migrants resist government rehousing

Shipping containers converted into housing in the Calais Jungle
Shipping containers converted into housing in the Calais Jungle Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

French authorities are getting ready to demolish half of the camp, known as the Jungle, on the outskirts of the Channel port of Calais, displacing about half of the 3,700 people living there. They will be offered space in 98 migrant centres around France or a bed in a government-built container camp set up in the Jungle in January. But not everyone is keen to move in.


Tents and temporary housing structures in the southern part of the Jungle will be torn down late Tuesday and Wednesday.

The container camp in the Jungle is surrounded by a fence and a moat-like ditch, which allows water to run off but only adds to the fortress-like effect.

The area looks like a cross between a protected shipyard and a jail.

Inside each retrofitted shipping container are six bunk beds, heaters, electric plugs and storage lockers.

“The set-up can seem Spartan,” says Stephane Duval, the camp's director. “But when you see what's on the other side, it's a disaster.”

On the other side of the perimeter fence, tents crowd in on each other, along muddy footpaths. People there are certainly colder and more uncomfortable.

And yet Maya Konforti, of the Auberge des migrants, a local NGO that has been helping people with housing in the Jungle, says the containers are inhuman.

“It's not a place to live,” she says. “[People] cannot make themselves a cup of tea, they don't have a place to socialise.”

Indeed, the containers offer just beds. With no running water, residents have to walk 50 metres up the road to another facility for toilets and showers.

They are free to go in and out, day or night, but access is controlled by handprint technology. This makes some people in the Jungle wary: they are concerned that the handprints will yield their fingerprints. They do not want to be fingerprinted in France, which they believe would force them to apply for asylum here. They want to get to the UK.

But the people coming in and out of the containers do not seem concerned about this.

“It's easy. Everything easy in the new camp here,” says Ahmad, coming out of the main gate, heading towards the shower facilities, carrying a plastic bag.

He left his home in a Damascus suburb in August and arrived in Calais four months later. He moved out of a tent into a container bed when the facilities opened in January.

He appreciates the heaters and the clean beds.

“You can sleep and take a rest after your try,” he explains, referring to his nightly attempts to get to the UK, to reunite with family there.

The night before he was stopped by police as he tried to get on a truck that was going into the Eurotunnel. They sent him back to the camp. He's not worried about the handprint reader, which he knows about from when he worked in Syria.

Mohammed is also familiar with the technology.

“I’m not idiot enough” to worry about it, he says. Also Syrian, he moved into the container housing as soon as he could, because he was living in a hostel in Calais before and that cost money.

The container looks like the hostel, he says: “It's comfortable. It's like a hostel. It's better than the Jungle.”

But some people seem to prefer the Jungle.

Naziv has been living in a tent in the camp for two months with his wife, who is eight months pregnant. Originally from Baghlan in northern Afghanistan, they were planning to go to Britain. Now he says he wants to stay in France.

“I want to live in France. And I want a good job,” he says, hopefully. And yet, he has not done any administrative moves to apply for asylum here.

Volunteer Maya Konforti says that, for people like Naziv, the Jungle’s tent camp offers more support in terms of access to volunteers who can help them.

“In spite of the cold and the mud and the dirt and the sanitary conditions that are bad, there is something happening here that is definitely not happening over there,” she says, pointing towards the containers.

The Jungle is by nature a temporary camp and it is unusual to meet anyone who has been there more than three months. And yet it endures, as people keep come with hopes for the future.

Faced with intense criticism of the conditions in the camp, officials are trying to redirect those hopes, encouraging people to go to centres elsewhere in France and to apply for asylum here, instead of aiming for the UK.

The prefect of the Calais region, Fabienne Buccio, says the container housing is a way to send that message.

“It's a place for rest,” she says. “People are in better conditions, where they can be told that their future is not in Calais.”

France, she says, can help migrants. And yet, the message is clearly not getting across.

The number of people living in the Jungle has gone down since last year. But there are still thousands of people there, hoping for a different future.

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