Jenni Frazer joined Jewish and Muslim leaders this week inside the infamous ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais, home to 4,500 people seeking a new life in Britain
Musa is 24, tall and strong. He recites his story without self-pity and his friends – none of whom speak anywhere near his level of English – gather round in a circle, seemingly just relieved that someone is paying these young men any attention. It’s only an hour and a half from Britain’s doorstep and yet the shameful Calais jungle scarcely merits a mention in the papers or on TV these days – except when there is trouble there.
Yet on the day a unique group of Orthodox rabbis and imams visited the jungle, the howling wind and freezing temperature, the filthy ankle-deep mud and the hideous, inhumane living conditions did not seem to offer a potential for terrorism. Rather, hopelessness is the name of the game in the Calais jungle. “This”, said Tom, one of the volunteers, “is the last stop on the line for these people. They have nowhere else to go.”
It’s estimated that there are about 4,500 people living in the jungle today, 400 of whom are women and a small number of children. The women and children live in a separate, family area, and will be first to be “re-housed” in metal container homes being prepared at the camp.
The rest of the inhabitants – mainly young men in their late teens and twenties – congregate in areas in the camp depending on where they came from. So there are Sudanese groups, Kuwaiti Bedouin, Afghanis, Kurds, Ethiopians and Eritreans – and some Syrians, although not as many as one might think.
“How do you keep track of who’s here?” I ask a volunteer. “We don’t”, he says. “It’s a matter of walking round and seeing who’s here and who’s gone. We can’t take a census.”
Musa has been in the camp for four months. He is a Darfuri, from Sudan. We speak outside the Sudanese tent, made up of badly tied together tarpaulin and floored with broken wooden duckboards so that the men don’t quite lie on the mud to sleep, but very nearly.
Sanitation and hygiene are more or less non-existent. Inside the entrance, a primus stove flickers a weedy flame to heat a burnt kettle. One by one, the men take a mug of hot water and chuck a spoonful of sugar into it, to keep them going and give the illusion of warmth.
Musa says he studied medical science in Darfur but he was caught up in the conflict and went first to Chad, where he was caught trying to rescue members of his family and spent a year in prison for a border infringement offence. Freed, he went to Libya and spent a further year there. Then he took a boat, when people-smugglers charged 50 people around 1,300 euros each to take them to Italy. Finally, he made his way to Calais. “I want to feel safe and I don’t feel safe here,” he says.
“I want to help my family and get to the UK. We are human beings and the jungle is not for human beings.” In another tent, under the auspices of one of the aid charities that works in the camp, more than two-thirds of the men present told the rabbis and imams that they had family in the UK already.
Their days are spent aimlessly wandering around the camp – although, bizarrely, there are a range of little shops selling quantities of obviously donated stock, from packets of biscuits to Zippo lighters and cigarettes. There’s even alcohol for sale because, as well as the majority Muslim population, there are a large number of African Christians.
Until recently, there was a big church together with several makeshift mosques, but the French authorities bulldozed both the church and one of the mosques in the past week.
Everyone has a horror story about what happens at night, when the refugees take beaten-up bikes or walk to the Channel ferry or Eurostar terminal and try to smuggle themselves into Britain.
Two of Musa’s friends got into a juggernaut and realised that it was driving to Belgium rather than the UK. When they tried to get out, the payload hit them and crushed one of them to death.
Three others hid in an articulated lorry but froze to death inside it. Others have fallen victim to attacks by right-wing gangs who roam Calais at night.
Any visit to the jungle raises more questions than answers. If there were 7,000 people in the summer and 4,500 now, where have 2,500 people gone? How do the camp economics work – where do people get the money to pay for the goods? Why, for example, don’t the Kuwaitis, who could buy and sell the jungle 10 times over, do something to help the Kuwaiti Bedouin in the camp?
All the rabbis and imams who went to Calais were visibly shocked by what they saw. It was left to the senior rabbi from Stamford Hill, Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, to sum up the thinking behind the visit. “There is no question that on the humanitarian issue, this was the right thing to do.”
Now the group is discussing next steps in highlighting the plight of the Calais refugees. Participant Rabbi David Mason of Muswell Hill Synagogue said: “We have to admit these people have been abandoned. A Jewish voice has to ask, am I my brother’s keeper?”