The story of the Calais Jungle is the story of a dream called England. It is also the story of a prison that did and still does destroy people’s lives.
The camp, which began to be dismantled in 2016, is still surrounded by fences. Police officers patrol the area, searching for people trying to break in. Many local residents voted for and support Marine Le Pen [head of the far right National Rally party and French National Assembly member] and want the area cleared of migrants.
But the people staying at the Jungle at Calais were desperate and did not go easily. Many had lost loved ones. Some were missing arms and legs. All were determined to do what it took to achieve a better life.
When I first went to Calais in 2012, there were still refugee camps. They were crowded, volatile places, full of desperate people striving to reach the UK. One of the first people I met was a man who had lost his leg after attempting to cross the channel riding under a truck axle. His story shocked me – but there were many others like him.
When the camps were abolished in 2016, the refugees were left to fend for themselves in the woodland. The last camp, near the port of Dunkirk, was destroyed in June 2018.
Today when police catch refugees, they send them to other cities across France. But many return again and again to the northern jungles to try their luck again, and try to make it to the United Kingdom.
King of the Jungle
According to the Dublin Regulation, which refuses refugees the right to choose the country in which they seek asylum, refugees must return to the first EU member country where they were originally fingerprinted. However, France does not fingerprint people unless they are seeking asylum, allowing them to continue their journey onwards.
If refugees have money and can hire a human trafficker, they have an advantage. Dealers link refugees to traffickers, who charge between £2,500 (US$3,050) and £4,000 (US$4,850).
All traffickers must pay the so-called “King of the Jungle” – the head of the trafficking operation in Calais – in return for conducting business in the area. It is not easy to meet the king, as he is surrounded by armed bodyguards. But it is important not to upset him. He is the one who sets the rules, and who adjudicates when a fight or dispute occurs.
According to refugees, every nation has its own dealers, traffickers, and territory in the Jungle. For Iranians, most of the dealers are Iranian, but the traffickers and king are usually Iraqi Kurds.
Hitching a Ride
The more a refugee can pay a trafficker, the safer their journey will be. Most travel on trucks headed for the English Channel or attempt to cross the channel by boat. Those who travel by truck must first hide and wait. If they pay more money, the trafficker will wait with them to show them the best way to travel.
Refugees not on "guaranteed" trips will usually attempt to board a truck when it pulls up at a gas station or rest stop. If it has a cloth cover, they cut an “L” in the material and then try to reseal it with duct tape or shoelaces once inside. If the cover is made from metal, the trafficker will try to open the door and let them in that way.
Travelers’ stories are full of complaints about what they have had to endure. For one group, the smell of onions in a truck was so bad that they were forced to shout at the driver to let them out. For others, the cold storage compartments are the worst, where temperatures can drop below freezing.
Most refugees traveling this way are discovered by border patrol searches. They are taken off the truck and sent back to Calais – where, a day or two later, they will try their chances again.
Border searches take many forms. Some measure the CO2 inside the cabin or check the weight of the load; others use X-rays or police dogs. This is in addition to physical barriers such as fencing and barbed wire, which are being strengthened all the time.
Myths and Legends
The other way to travel by truck is even more dangerous. Travelers endanger their lives by hiding in the small compartment under the axle, holding their weight with their hands. This is how one of the men I talked to lost his leg. Journeys across the channel can take two hours. If the traveler falls during this time, there is a strong chance they will die.
But for these people, the risk is worth it for the hope of a better future.
They want to reach the UK because people speak English, and because they believe they have the best chance of finding a stable job there. Many believe the education system will take care of their children and pay them somewhere around £8,000 (US$9,750) for each child. Others have the impression they will be reimbursed the cost of their journey. A few, believing me to be an asylum seeker, suggested I should try to get pregnant as they said I would receive maternity benefits for my child.
But many (if not most) of these assumptions are untrue, and people are often disappointed when they discover they have risked their lives for a dream that does not exist.
Fear and Limbo
Entering the Jungle was frightening. I arrived with two male colleagues. We saw damp beds and torn clothes everywhere, along with leftover food, plates, drinks bottles, and tents.
At one point, we saw a young African traveler hidden on top of a truck that had stopped beside the road. When the driver returned to the truck, some other refugees ran over and informed him about the man. The African man climbed down and the driver rewarded the informants with cigarettes. I never found out if this was their motivation for exposing him, or whether there was another reason.
Later that night, we witnessed a huge brawl between Africans and Afghans. These are common and can sometimes result in severe injuries. Some fights are over food and supplies, others over traffickers and dealers. But police rarely get involved, and the arguments only make the situation worse.
The Afghan refugees had different reasons for making the journey. Some said they came because they were frustrated with the politics in Afghanistan, others because they were victims of brutality as refugees in Iran. Several also voiced anger at Western governments for turning their country into a battlefield over the last half-century.
Many Afghans had been on the road for more than five years. They felt it was their destiny to forever live in fear and limbo. All they wanted, they said, was to find a safe environment where they could work and send their families money.
Failed Promises, Broken Dreams
We left Calais the next day, having heard that Iranian refugees now reside mainly in Dunkirk, 45km away. Here, we witnessed the same brawls and frustrations we had seen in Calais.
We reached a square where many Iranians had gathered. Every time a new face arrived, dealers would approach them and inform them that their only way out of there was to use their services. They provided travelers with SIM cards and promised to put them in touch with traffickers.
We were waiting in the square when Meysam approached us. He said he could send me on a guaranteed trip separately from my male accomplices for £12,000 (US$14,600). A “guaranteed trip” means the driver is aware that he is transporting people, rather than refugees or asylum seekers sneaking into, on top of or underneath their vehicles. However, I had heard many stories of women being sexually assaulted after being separated from their male companions.
For many refugees, exhaustion and frustration eventually leads to resignation. After many failed attempts to leave, they make the difficult decision to stay in France or another transit country permanently.
A few, missing family and friends, choose to give up their dream of Europe completely and return home.
Different Stories, Shared Humanity
During my time reporting on the refugee situation for IranWire, I heard a wide range of stories from many different types of asylum seeker.
I spoke to Iranians who had risked their lives to get to Greece by boat, and people who had been shot at, beaten, and raped. I spoke to people willing to die if they could not make it to Western Europe, and people who chose to turn back en route. I spoke to people who had lost close family members and friends, and people who had completed their journeys and started a new life.
In this series, I wrote about Darius, who felt like he had lost his pride after 20 years living on the streets, and Apo, who sheltered refugees in his home while working as a trafficker.
I wrote about Ashkan, a young musician who lived alone on a French farm and dreamed of one day reaching England, and Mahyar, who was content to stay in France in the hope of becoming a rapper.
I wrote about Paria, who was raped by her trafficker, and Mahshad, a young athlete shot by the police.
These people all had different reasons for making such a long, arduous journey. Some were political, others social or economic. But all had one goal in common: the search for a safe, prosperous life, and a new home they could call their own.
Read other articles in the series: