CALAIS — They call the tented settlement in Calais where migrants and refugees attempt to make their way from France to England “La Jungle.” There, some 3,000 dispossessed take their rest after long, fitful hegiras beginning in conflict zones, extending to other conflict zones, across the Mediterranean and through the stench of Europe’s underbelly of poverty.
La Jungle is one of many examples of the villages for the cast out that one finds scattered across Europe these days. There is “Africa Palace” on the outskirts of Rome. There are ramshackle dwellings in Greece near Athens and Gevgelija in Macedonia. As a rule, migrants and refugees make living spaces out of nothing, in places discarded by others—sometimes on their own or with the help of a charity. Fencing often flanks these settlements. Barbed wire is never far from sight.
La Jungle is no exception. It sits on a former landfill site about 4 kilometers outside of the center of Calais. It popped up in April after a similar site was demolished last year. The tents and running water provide both home and temporary shelter to some 3,000 migrants and refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, among other countries.
Walking through the shrubbery along the edges of the settlement, the camps one would find in Kenya or Ethiopia come to mind—though the settlement does not have the neat rows of dwellings typically found in a refugee camp. It is more squalid than the camps in Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia. The flimsy tents protruding from the shrubbery feel more tentative. During the day, there are people gathering firewood for the night. They listen to music, talk in clusters and gather around sources of water the way they do in any refugee camp anywhere.
If there is one thing that refugees share as a rule it is the desire to rediscover and re-create some feeling of home. In La Jungle, home is a bubble tent, a cup of Turkish coffee, and a bath—even if that bath is only a bucket of water. Home is where people put their laundry out to dry. Home is the place where if only for a few hours or a few days there is some sense of safety. A Sudanese refugee with a generator makes brisk business charging a few pennies for people to replenish the electricity in their cellphones.
Sometimes a border exists both as physical space but also as memory. Take another turn and see an Afghan flag or a makeshift Ethiopian church. Visit the homegrown tea shacks where people smoke shisha or eat a plate of eggs and tomatoes. The people gather around waiting for night to come. And when it does, they file out of the camp, some with small plastic bags filled with food for the evening, others with rickety suitcases. Some put on their best clothes for when they arrive to London.
Most return the following day empty handed, some of them with leg injuries from jumping fences, others from falling while trying to jump moving trains. Given the close quarters and meager resources there are outbreaks of scabies in the camp. Still, in most dwellings clothes are neatly folded, or there’s a favorite hat on a wall. One woman who has crossed from Ethiopia wears a white T-shirt with a depiction of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. It is spotless.