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Why France’s migrant crisis will live on beyond the Calais and Dunkirk camps

Residents of the Jungle register at a processing centre while the camp is demolished, 26th October 2016. Photo: Thibault Camus / AP / PA Images

In the dimly lit car park of a Calais industrial estate, a dozen teenage boys gather around the foot of an electricity pylon. They wear black beanies, jackets that hang awkwardly over their skinny frames and rucksacks barely big enough to carry their meagre possessions. When our unmarked white van pulls in they know the drill. A disorderly line forms by the boot, which has been filled with donated coats, trousers, backpacks and food. The boys may be desperate, but they’re discriminating – bright colours and large bags are no good to them. To get to where they want to go to tonight, they’ll need to become close to invisible.

Once the clothes have been distributed, the volunteers hand out mugs of tea, own-brand Jaffa cakes and Tesco trail mix. “We are all from Eritrea and most of us are 16 or 17,” one of the boys tells me. “We were all in the Jungle together and when the camp was closed we were sent to places around France – but we all returned to Calais.” I ask where he sleeps and he points to the ground on which we are standing.

The boys will not sleep much tonight. Most of them will be awake well before dawn. They will try to clear a 13-foot fence topped with razor wire. They will hope to evade the attention of French police and British border guards, and avoid being taken to a detention centre. They will attempt to sneak inside a vehicle and remain hidden for the duration of the journey across the Channel. If everything goes according to plan, by morning they will have made it to the United Kingdom. And if their prayers are answered, they might be allowed to stay there.

Eritrean teenagers prepare to cross the Channel. Photo: Matthew Lee

French police had finally begun the process of dismantling the shanty town the boys had called home on 24th October. Over three days the Jungle was taken apart – tent by tent, shelter by shelter – by the French authorities. Workmen in orange jumpsuits smashed down wooden shacks with sledgehammers while thousands of residents queued for buses out. In the Jungle’s final hours the scene seemed near apocalyptic; fires blazed and plumes of black smoke rose from the deserted camp.

After the demolition of the Jungle, you’d be forgiven for thinking that France’s migrant crisis was over. The camp’s residents were bussed to reception centres throughout the country and their story, which had been making headlines in the UK, fell off the news agenda. But in the weeks after the camp’s closure, significant numbers of young people returned to Calais to attempt once again to gain illegal entry into the UK.

This is a nationwide problem that’s not going away anytime soon”

Meanwhile, in a largely forgotten settlement in Dunkirk, 30 miles down the road, over a thousand people spent the winter in squalid and dangerous conditions, many of them making their own regular attempts to reach Britain. And on the streets of Paris, the number of homeless migrants and refugees grew with every passing day. This is a nationwide problem that’s not going away anytime soon.



The closure of the Jungle had been on the cards for months before the wrecking crew moved in. A few weeks before the workmen arrived, a group of Calais residents blocked access to the Channel Tunnel and the ferry terminal to protest the French government’s failure to shut the camp down.

While the demolition brought some relief to residents, they’d been in this situation before. The Sangatte migrant camp was closed in 2002 after becoming a point of fierce contention between the UK and France. Shortly afterwards, however, refugees and migrants started returning to Calais in large numbers, desperate to reach the UK. By the summer of 2009 an estimated 1,500 people, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan, lived in the Jungle; in 2015 the camp quadrupled in size within the space of a few months.

In Calais, Sudanese men study a map before boarding a bus taking them to their temporary accommodation, 25th October 2016. Photo: John Stillwell / PA Wire / PA Images

In Calais, Sudanese men study a map before boarding a bus taking them to their temporary accommodation, 25th October 2016. Photo:
John Stillwell / PA Wire / PA Images

At the time of its demolition the Jungle was effectively a small town. There were churches, mosques, restaurants and barber shops. But unlike other towns in France, it was squalid, unsafe and rat-infested. It’s been hard to find consensus among locals, government officials and aid workers about the past two years – but few argued against the camp’s closure. And everybody seems equally certain that it will one day rise again.

The adult residents of the Jungle were moved to hundreds of reception centres across the country – a mix of B&Bs, holiday camps, disused hospitals and empty apartment blocks. These centres d’accueil et d’orientation (CAOs) were established to house people temporarily while their asylum claims were processed; those rejected for asylum in France might face deportation.

More than 1,600 unaccompanied minors (under-18s travelling without parents) were left behind in Calais while the UK and France squabbled over which country should bear responsibility for them. The UK had rejected a French request for it to take all the minors in the Jungle, saying it would instead process applications on a case-by-case basis. The UK’s reluctance to accept unaccompanied minors may have been hardened by reports in several newspapers suggesting that some of them were lying about their age. One Conservative MP, David Davies, even suggested they should undergo mandatory dental checks to make sure they were not adults.

When the camp was closed we were sent to places around France – but we all returned to Calais”

Most minors who were left behind were able to get beds in one of the converted shipping containers installed at the Jungle by the French authorities in early 2016, but others were forced to sleep rough. On 1st November, with the wrangling between Paris and London unresolved, the minors boarded buses under the watchful gaze of French riot police. Many on the buses believed that the shelters they were being taken to would be temporary and that their transfer to the UK, which had previously promised to accept hundreds more unaccompanied minors, would soon follow. Most of them would be disappointed.

Residents of the Jungle register at a processing centre while the camp is demolished, 26th October 2016. Photo: Thibault Camus / AP / PA Images

Residents of the Jungle register at a processing centre while the camp is demolished, 26th October 2016. Photo: Thibault Camus / AP / PA Images

In December, hundreds of unaccompanied minors in France were told the UK had rejected their asylum claims and that they should seek asylum in France. Another blow was to follow. On 8th February 2017, the UK Home Office scrapped its commitment made under the Dubs Amendment to let up to 3,000 child refugees from France into the country. The provision had been added to the 2016 Immigration Act in May following a campaign by Labour peer Lord Dubs – once a child migrant himself, who fled the Nazis in Czechoslovakia – but it was now to be dropped once 350 minors had been admitted to the country. It seemed clear that these young people were trying to reach a country that didn’t want them.

“Some of the unaccompanied children who left the CAOs felt desperate after the UK said it would not fulfil its promises,” says Sue Jex, co-founder of Care4Calais, a British charity established in 2015 to deliver aid to Jungle residents. “They feel they’ve done everything that was asked of them; they filled out the forms, got on the buses and now they feel let down,” she continues. If they’re determined to reach the UK, the illegal option might be the only one left. “The result is unaccompanied children sleeping on the streets. It’s cold and dangerous – there are people traffickers and others who will prey on vulnerable young people,” Jex says.

They don’t know where to turn or what to do. They’re sitting around with no idea what’s going to happen to them one week to the next”

Only a minority of migrants and refugees have so far abandoned their temporary accommodation. Jex estimates that two-thirds of former Jungle residents have had positive experiences at CAOs, many of which have proper beds and access to classes and activities. But it can be hard for migrants and refugees to overcome a sense of isolation and despondency. While stressing that it was necessary to close the Jungle, Jex says she understands why some people are returning to Calais. “Some have run away [from CAOs] because they feel there’s no hope for them,” she says. “They don’t know where to turn or what to do, and they’re just sitting around with no idea what’s going to happen to them from one week to the next.”



When the Grande-Synthe camp opened in March 2016 on the outskirts of Dunkirk, around 25 miles northeast of Calais, it was cautiously welcomed by aid organisations. Its simple wooden shacks and basic bathrooms, constructed by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) with the cooperation of the local Green party mayor, addressed the urgent needs of thousands of mostly Iraqi-Kurdish people who had until then been sleeping rough in a cold, vermin-infested field. According to MSF staff, that original camp wasn’t just worse than the one in Calais, it was on a par with camps they’d seen in African conflict zones.

Photo: Matthew Lee

The new Grande-Synthe camp was only meant to be a short-term solution and the lack of long-term planning shows – it has deteriorated into an awful state. Living conditions are substandard and aid workers claim that people traffickers and criminals are establishing control. There are many children, some unaccompanied, yet security is almost non-existent. When I arrive, the man in the hut with the sign-in register barely bothers to look up from his phone, let alone check my ID.

With the exception of the colourful kitchen run by volunteers, chirpy young people who stir stews while singing along to pop songs, there’s little sign of order. Behind the kitchen there’s a tea room where male residents sit round a wood fire listening to Kurdish music played at an ear-splitting volume. A stall sells camp essentials: phone cards and homemade cigarettes, ten for a euro.

One of the Iraqi Kurds gathered by the fire shows me a letter from UK Border Control, a notification of his arrest. “It was the closest I ever got to the UK,” he says. “I got through three security checks but they caught me on the fourth, hiding in the back of a vehicle. I will try again tonight.” He says he arrived at Grande-Synthe from Stuttgart three weeks ago. The Germans were unfriendly towards him but it will be different in Britain, he insists. He says he loves the Premier League and the English language.

Women are getting raped at night, there is no security and they’re too scared to walk to the toilet”

“I never sleep in this camp,” he says, explaining that not all residents have access to shelters. “I sleep only one or two hours a night, usually in a police station.” Another Kurdish resident joins the conversation. “I have been trying to reach the UK for four years,” he tells me. “There is money there, a better life.” Does he know anybody in the UK? 
“No family, no friends, only God,” he replies.

The camp originally met minimum humanitarian standards, but today the wooden shacks are rotting. An Iraqi-Kurdish resident who volunteers his services as a translator shows me his shelter, where three men share a cramped space. A small paraffin heater has helped them through the freezing winter temperatures, but it hasn’t been good for their health. White mould is spreading on the inside walls and there’s a pervasive musty, damp smell in the air.

A fire destroyed the volunteer-run women’s centre at the camp in January. Its cause is unknown. A new building was rapidly built due to the urgent need for a female-only safe space; aid organisations such as the Dunkirk Legal Support Team say that sexual violence against women and children is rife. “Wherever you have vulnerable people, women and children, you attract bad people,” says Clare Moseley, Sue Jex’s co-founder at Care4Calais. “The donations we need most urgently for Dunkirk are adult nappies. Women are getting raped at night, there is no security and they’re too scared to walk to the toilet.”

Wooden shelters at the Grande-Synthe camp in Dunkirk, 16th February 2017. Photo: Matthew Lee

Wooden shelters at the Grande-Synthe camp in Dunkirk, 16th February 2017. Photo: Matthew Lee

At Care4Calais’s distribution centre in Sangatte there’s plenty of toothpaste, soap and Heinz tomato soup – but they’re short on what’s most urgently needed in Calais and Dunkirk. The teenagers near the ports need sleeping bags, walking boots and jeans that will fit their thin frames. Moseley says that when she recently saw size-26 men’s jeans in Primark, she bought every pair in the store. Outside the warehouse, volunteers unpack 250 pairs of black walking boots Mosely purchased in bulk from Sports Direct.

Moseley first went to Calais shortly after photos of Alan Kurdi, the Kurdish-Syrian boy who drowned in Turkey, caused shock around the world in September 2015. Donations to refugee aid organisations surged after the publication of the photo but gradually tailed off. Since the Jungle closed, and media coverage died away, donations to Care4Calais have slowed to a trickle and it’s far harder to recruit volunteers.



A week after the Jungle was demolished, another French migrant camp was cleared. Approximately 4,000 people were removed from a makeshift settlement near Stalingrad Métro station in Paris. It had been cleared only two months previously, but within days of the Jungle’s closure its numbers had swelled to record highs. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo was under no illusion that the latest camp closure – and the transfer of its residents to CAOs around the country – was a permanent solution, saying that it was necessary so that authorities could humanely handle future arrivals, around 500 of whom were turning up in the city every week.

Sure enough, a replacement Paris camp soon sprang up at a northern section of the Boulevard Périphérique, the ring-road that separates the city from its suburbs. There are two parts of the Porte de la Chapelle camp: a mostly Sudanese cluster beneath a motorway and a mostly Afghan area strung along the perimeter of a newly opened humanitarian centre.

This yellow-and-white tent run by charity Emmaüs Solidarité offers food, medical care, asylum advice and accommodation for up to ten days. Five thousand people came in its first three months of operation and it cannot cope with demand. The security guards at the gates spend their days rejecting pleas from people who haven’t yet been given access.

Migrants and refugees sleep in the spaces between boulders on 16th February 2017 at Porte de la Chapelle, Paris. Photo: Michel Euler / AP / PA Images

Migrants and refugees sleep in the spaces between boulders on 16th February 2017 at Porte de la Chapelle, Paris. Photo: Michel Euler / AP / PA Images

The Sudanese sleep on a grassy patch near a bus stop, twisting their sleeping bags into the small gaps between boulders placed here by the authorities in mid-February to discourage people from settling. The Afghans sleep in single file in the narrow space between a row of railings and the fence of the humanitarian centre. There is a third camp at this noisy intersection, a Roma shanty town built along the rail tracks, hidden from the streets and only accessible by ladder. Roma children mingle among migrants and aid workers, asking for spare change. The atmosphere is tense and at night fights occasionally break out. One man shows me his bandaged hand, which he says was cut open by a Sudanese man during a brawl.

The migrants and refugees I meet are in Paris for a wide range of reasons. Some have had asylum claims rejected in other European countries and want to try their luck in France. Others were moved to CAOs from the Jungle and came to Paris because they felt bored and isolated. A smaller number have given up on Europe altogether. A middle-aged Pakistani man who left the Jungle shortly before its demolition says that Paris will be his final stop on a six-year journey that’s taken him to 22 European countries.

Show me a document saying I can’t enter Europe for the rest of my life and I’ll sign it straight away!”

“I came to Paris so I could arrange to go home,” he says. “The French government has paid for my ticket back to Pakistan and I’m leaving next month.” The Office for Immigration and Integration offers migrants and refugees who agree to voluntarily return to their home countries one-way flights and financial aid. “They asked me to sign a document saying I wouldn’t attempt to enter Europe for five years. I said to them, ‘Show me a document saying I can’t enter Europe for the rest of my life and I’ll sign it straight away!’ Pakistan is safer than it was when I left six years ago and I’m excited about seeing my family again.”

There isn’t a single migrant crisis in France. There are several. There are homeless teenagers in Calais, fearful women in Dunkirk, rough sleepers on the streets of Paris and thousands more migrants and refugees living in limbo in temporary accommodation, unsure what the future may hold.

We want to go to England. London. We will keep on trying until we get there”

On both sides of the Channel, the authorities have stepped up efforts to discourage migrants from going to Calais. The UK Home Office has committed to spending up to £80 million on private security at Calais and Dunkirk. This is in addition to the 13-foot high fence that Britain has constructed, which stretches along both sides of the dual carriageway leading into the port. On 2nd March 2017, Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart banned the distribution of food to migrants.

I asked one of the Eritrean teenagers at the industrial estate why he had left the reception centre he was sent to after the demolition of the Jungle. “There was nothing for us there – no skills, no classes, no future,” he replied. But surely it’s better than this – sleeping rough, risking your life every night?

“We want to go to England,” he told me, smiling. He untucked his scarf and pointed at the Crystal Palace emblem. “London. We will keep on trying until we get there.”


Update, April 2017:

On Monday 10th April 2017 a fire engulfed the Grande-Synthe camp we visited in Dunkirk. At least ten people were injured in the blaze, which raged through the night and followed clashes between riot police and around 150 of the camp’s residents earlier in the day – though, like the smaller fire in January mentioned in our piece, it is not known what caused it.

Grande-Synthe was completely razed in the fire, with “nothing left but a heap of ashes”, according to Michel Lalande, prefect of France’s Nord region, who added: “It will be impossible to put the huts back where they were before.”


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