Living In 'The Jungle,' Migrants In France Seek A Permanent Home

Living In 'The Jungle,' Migrants In France Seek A Permanent Home

12:52pm Aug 08, 2015
Migrants from Africa receive instruction in French in the port city of Calais. Some 3,000 migrants live in a makeshift camp known as "The Jungle." Most are seeking to travel on to Britain, while some are seeking asylum in France.
Migrants from Africa receive instruction in French in the port city of Calais. Some 3,000 migrants live in a makeshift camp known as "The Jungle." Most are seeking to travel on to Britain, while some are seeking asylum in France.
Ari Shapiro / NPR

In the French port city of Calais, a few thousand people from the Middle East and North Africa live in shabby plastic tents. They've crossed the Mediterranean and traveled through Europe to arrive here.

About two-thirds of these people will try to enter Britain, while the remaining third are applying for asylum in France. In April, the French government said migrants would be tolerated at this site, known as "The Jungle."

In the middle of the encampment, NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke with Celine Schmitt of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Here are the highlights of their conversation.

What's the U.N.'s role in this camp?

UNHCR has been working in France and Calais for many years. The situation now is that there are approximately 3,000 people who live here. The majority are fleeing conflicts, violence, persecution. They are refugees. And they are in need of protection. So for UNHCR, it is very important that they have access to asylum. We've been calling on the French authorities to shorten the delays for people to apply. To file an application can take months.

We were told that people arriving at the camp today can't even submit an application for asylum in France until November.

The delay is long. The French government has already increased their capacity to shorten the delays. So now it is more or less two months, and then an additional three weeks to get access to accomodation.

This looks nothing like refugee camps that you see in other parts of the world. Is this up to international standards?

People here are living in appalling conditions. They live under plastic sheeting. UNHCR helps authorities to coordinate refugee camps in other countries, and "The Jungle" is not a refugee camp.

Whose fault is that?

We've been calling upon the French authorities to provide decent accomodation for the asylum seekers, but also there needs to be a more coordinated response by the European Union countries. Because the majority of the people here are among the 200,000 people who have crossed the Mediterranean Sea this year.

EU countries have to work together to find solutions for the refugees when they arrive in Europe. Those solutions mean more solidarity between the EU countries. For example, relocation of refugees. Greece and Italy can't cope alone with the situation.

As you say, more than 200,000 migrants have entered Europe this year. If this camp has fewer than 3,000, why should the world invest its energy in this place that has such a small percentage?

Yes, we have to put the figures in perspective. Four million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries. Europe has received so far this year 220,000 people, which is a relatively small number. But solutions have to be found at the different levels.

Since this camp opened in April, the French government has put up washing stations. People here now get one government-provided meal a day. Do you feel that the government is responding to your pressure?

Yes, they have opened a day center where people can go to take showers, wash their clothes, charge their phones, have a meal every day. So now they are distributing 2,200 meals every day. But more needs to be done to allow people to access asylum and give them decent accomodation.

You've been in many refguee situations around the world — what strikes you most about this one ?

You arrive here in France and see people living under plastic sheets, it is shocking. We've called the situation appalling.

Do you worry about what will happen here when it gets cold and the rains arrive?

The conditions here will be even more difficult during the winter when it's cold. And that's why we'll continue to work with French authorities. We've told them we're available.

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In northern France, a rough camp site provides shelter to a few thousand people from the Middle East and Africa. These are temporary homes made of camping tents or plastic sheets. People living here have fled war or torture. Many of them hope to cross the English Channel and start a new life in England. This campsite is called The Jungle. It's been described as a place of desperation, but as NPR's Ari Shapiro found out, it's also a place of humanity.


ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The Jungle vibrates with activity. People build and cook, wash clothes and kick soccer balls. Arum (ph) is from Sudan. Like many migrants, he's afraid to give his last name. He's hammering together long planks.

ARUM: This is my new house. Well, actually, it is not mine. It is for my friend. This is an Eritrean guy's. They are new here. They have no home, and I'm helping to set up a new home for these guys.

SHAPIRO: The oldest of the group broke his leg two days ago trying to hop on a train to the U.K. Arum says these Eritreans are all under age.

They're all teenagers.

ARUM: They need a leader.

SHAPIRO: So you're their leader.

ARUM: Yeah (laughter). I'm the leader (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Did you come here alone?

ARUM: I am alone. Yes.

SHAPIRO: When did you come here?

ARUM: Two months ago.

SHAPIRO: And now you understand the ways of the camp, and so to help new people?

ARUM: Yeah. I am experienced.

SHAPIRO: Jungles are famously Darwinian places, and it's true that at the jungle campsite here in Calais, there has been violence. If you leave your shoes out, they may get stolen. But it's impossible to miss the people here with almost nothing caring for those who have even less, like Salman Alikoza (ph). He's from Afghanistan.

How old are the youngest people in this group?

SALMAN ALIKOZA: They're only 16, 17. This guy's 11.

SHAPIRO: Eleven?


SHAPIRO: And did they come by themselves?

ALIKOZA: Yeah, some of them.

SHAPIRO: When we finished talking, I give Alikoza a couple of teabags and a bar of soap that I brought from my hotel.

ALIKOZA: For you, young boy.

SHAPIRO: For you, young boy, he says, and hands it all to the 11-year-old. On the other side of the campsite, school is in session.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Be careful. (Unintelligible) - always S.

SHAPIRO: Standing outside of the classroom is Zamako Jones (ph) from Nigeria. He lives here in the jungle, and he built this school by himself.

ZAMAKO JONES: I need to build another one. I need to build hospital. I need to think what I can do to help my brothers in The Jungle.

SHAPIRO: Nobody pays him, but he says this is a way to stay busy while he waits for his asylum application to go through.

JONES: Living in France - it'll be two years now. When I was in Nice, I only helped people from street. And I helped some people there. When I came here, I saw them again. I said, oh, you again (laughter). You always helped me before. I say, yeah.

SHAPIRO: International aid groups at this campsite say these men should not have to build their own shelters. Celine Schmitt is with the U.N. High Commission on Refugees.

CELINE SCHMITT: You arrive here in France, and you see people living under plastic sheeting. It is shocking, and we've called that situation as appalling.

SHAPIRO: She says The Jungle does not come close to meeting international standards for refugees. The U.K. says France must do more to solve this problem. France says these people are only in Calais because they want to get to Britain. Right now, both countries seem to believe that if they just make life more difficult for these migrants, the people and the problem will go away. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Calais, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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