For One French Woman, An Eye-Opening Visit To Calais' Refugee 'Jungle'

Sep 13, 2016
Originally published on September 13, 2016 6:13 pm

Nicole Cordier, 68, is walking through the middle of a four-lane highway outside the northern French port city of Calais. She's there with a few hundred other townspeople, truckers and farmers, to protest a makeshift refugee camp that keeps growing just outside their city.

The highway is empty of traffic on this day, as it is blocked by trucks and giant tractors. Farmers say the refugees trample their crops and hide in their fields. Truck drivers and port workers say the migrants are becoming increasingly aggressive as they try to jump aboard and stow away in containers going through the Channel Tunnel to Britain. Many have relatives or friends in the U.K., and rumors persist that asylum chances and job opportunities are better than in France.

Calais residents say the camp is hurting their economy. British tourists who used to stop and shop in Calais now bypass the city, Cordier says. "And my friends in Paris have this vision that the city is being invaded by immigrants."

Even though Cordier is protesting the camp, she has never actually been there. She asks if she can come along with me to what's become known as "The Jungle."

A few minutes later, we get out of the car in another world. Three bare-chested men are washing at an outdoor spigot. There are pup tents and lean-tos made of sticks draped with tarps. Cordier is jolted by what she sees.

"This is upsetting," she says. "We have a life, a roof over our heads, a TV. We get up in the morning and have breakfast. It must be different for them. Where do you sleep?" she asks a young man. He doesn't speak French, but a volunteer responds that many sleep in tents.

Cordier, who spent her life working as a nursing assistant, seems especially taken with and worried about the children here. She coos at one little girl being held in the arms of a volunteer. She wants to know all of the children's ages and then asks if there's anything they need that she can bring.

Cordier says she never imagined The Jungle would be like this. "I imagined a little camp," she says. "Not an immense camp like this one. This is a city."

We meet up with Alexandra Simmons, who works with Care4Calais, a humanitarian organization devoted to improving life in the camp. Simmons says the French government's partial demolition of The Jungle in February did not stop newcomers from coming. She says the camp now is bigger than ever, with more than 9,000 people and hundreds more arriving every day.

"It's a challenge to try and keep up with the pace that the camp is growing," she says. "To be able to provide the aid needed for the people here in food and clothing and cooking gas. And firewood to keep warm for the winter is a really big challenge that we're currently facing."

The British government is planning to pay for a wall that will be built along the highway to keep refugees off the road and away from trucks. The French government says it will gradually shut the camp down for good in the coming months and place inhabitants in official refugee camps around the country.

But Simmons says the problem in Calais is linked to the larger European refugee crisis and cannot be solved simply by closing the camp.

"If you demolish the camp here," she says, "what will happen is you'll have a large percentage of this population dispersed, so you'll end up with a load of temporary camps across the north coast of France. The conditions here are horrendous enough, but if you start dismantling the camp, then you are worsening the situation. The women, the children, they're the ones who are going to suffer the most if this place gets torn down."

In February, Simmons says, 129 children went missing after the demolitions.

There are about 800 kids in The Jungle, and half are unaccompanied minors, Simmons says. Those unaccompanied minors include more than 100 children with confirmed family members in Britain. But Simmons says they are still unable to join those relatives.

She says the British and French governments are taking months to process asylum claims, and people have no option but to look for illegal ways to survive — squatting illegally in this camp or trying to ride on trucks into Britain.

As we make our way through the camp, Cordier is surprised by the refugees' resourcefulness. People are cooking and washing clothes. There are little shops. Despite the tough conditions, people are friendly. Some ask her how she got a small cut on her knee.

"No one in Calais ever asked me about that," she says.

We're invited into a small hut for tea. Cordier leaves her muddy shoes at the door. Inside, we get a glimpse of the other side of the story told by some of the French truckers.

Abdel, a 20-year-old from Afghanistan who fears giving his last name, says the truckers try to run over refugees. Police are abusive and find any excuse to beat them.

"Sometimes they accuse us of walking on somebody's farm, when we're clearly walking on the road and nowhere near a farm," he says.

"They treat us like animals," he continues. "We are human. They should treat us like humans. Imagine instead of me, it was your son who was here. How would you feel? What could you do? These people are someone's son. They're someone's brother."

Abdel says he was a law student before he left Afghanistan. He says one day American soldiers arrived in his peaceful village. Locals begged the soldiers to leave before they made problems. But the soldiers refused, and his village was eventually destroyed in a firefight with the Taliban.

"They put the war in our countries, that's why we are here," Abdel says. "They made us leave our countries and we did! And now they're just changing their mind. It's just a big game."

At that moment, almost as if on cue, a young man with his head in a big bandage sits down to join us. Cordier looks alarmed and asks what happened. As it turns out, he had been shot by police with a rubber bullet. The youth shows us a picture on his cellphone of his shaved head and stitches.

Cordier becomes angry. "This is shameful, so shameful," she says.

She says every resident of Calais should visit The Jungle and see things for themselves. As we leave, Cordier gives Simmons her phone number. She says she wants to come back to The Jungle as a volunteer to help.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the French port city of Calais, a giant makeshift refugee camp continues to grow despite attempts by authorities to shut it down. Many of the migrants have fled there from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa. And they are using Calais as a staging ground to get across the English Channel to Britain. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley just spent time at this camp. It's nicknamed the Jungle. And she joins us to talk about it. Good morning.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: OK, a place called, or nicknamed, the Jungle - what was it like there?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Renee, this situation of people coming to the north of France trying to get to Britain has been going on for years. People say they have family there, and they believe they have better job or asylum prospects. But in the last two years, it's just gotten to be a crisis situation. The numbers are coming exponentially. And townspeople say it's hurting the economy. They say tourists, especially British tourists, used to stop and shop in Calais, and now they bypass the town. So when I was there, they were holding a protest in the middle of a four-lane highway. Truckers and farmers had blocked it off, and they were protesting. They said they want that camp shut down.

MONTAGNE: And what is the French government going to do about that?

BEARDSLEY: Well, first of all, let me tell you what the British government plans to do. They're going to pay for a wall along a portion of this highway to keep the migrants from jumping on the trucks they say. And the French government says they want to shut down this camp. They're going to gradually dismantle it. But they're going to place these people, they say, in official refugee centers around the country. When I was up there on that highway, I met a Calais resident, Nicole Cordier. She was a retiree, and she was protesting the camp, but she said she had actually never been there, and she asked me if she could come along with me to the Jungle.

We get out of the car in another world.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Very cold water.

BEARDSLEY: Three bare-chested men are washing at an outdoor spigot. There are pup tents and lean-tos made of sticks draped with tarps. This 68-year-old is jolted by what she sees.

NICOLE CORDIER: (Through interpreter) This is upsetting. We have a life, a roof over our heads, a TV. We get up in the morning and have breakfast. It must be different for them. Where do they sleep?

Hello.

BEARDSLEY: Nicole worked as a nursing assistant, and she's especially taken with and worried about the children here.

Hi - Eleanor.

ALEXANDRA SIMMONS: Hi, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Nice to meet you.

SIMMONS: Nice to meet you.

BEARDSLEY: We meet up with Alexandra Simmons, who works with humanitarian organization Care4Calais. She says the French government's partial demolition of the camp in February did not stop people from coming. She says there are already 9,000 refugees with a hundred more arriving every day.

SIMMONS: It's a challenge to try and keep up with the pace that the camp is growing to be able to provide the aid needed for the guys here. And food and clothing and gas and then firewood to keep warm for the winter is a really big challenge we're currently facing.

BEARDSLEY: The French government has announced new plans to shut down the camp. But Simmons says the problem in Calais is linked to the larger European refugee crisis and cannot be solved by closing the camp.

SIMMONS: If you demolish the camp here, what will happen is you'll have large percentages of this population dispersed, so you'll end up with a load of temporary camps across the north coast of France. The conditions here are horrendous enough, but if you start dismantling the camp, then you are worsening the situation. The women, the children, they're the ones who are going to suffer the most if this place gets torn down. For example, in February with those demolitions, 129 children went missing.

BEARDSLEY: Simmons says there are nearly a thousand kids in the camp, including more than a hundred unaccompanied minors with family in Britain. She says the British and French governments are taking months to process asylum claims, and people have no option but to look for illegal ways to survive.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: As we make our way through the camp, Nicole is surprised by the refugees' resourcefulness. People are cooking and washing clothes. There are little shops. Despite the miserable conditions, people speak and smile.

CORDIER: (Through interpreter) I imagined a little camp, not an immense camp like this. This is a city.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: We're invited into a small hut for tea. We leave our muddy shoes outside. Inside, we get a glimpse at the other side of the story told by the truckers. Twenty-year-old Abdel, who fears giving his last name, says the truckers tried to run over the refugees, and police find any excuse to beat them.

ABDEL: Well, we are human. We should treat like as a human. Imagine if instead of me, like, if your son was here, how would you feel? What you could do? They are someone's son. They are someone's brother.

BEARDSLEY: Abdel says he was a law student in Afghanistan until American soldiers arrived. His village was destroyed in the firefight with the Taliban.

ABDEL: They put the war in our countries. That's why we are here. They made us to leave our countries, and we did. Now they're just changing their mind. It's a big game.

BEARDSLEY: Now, Renee, almost as if on cue, at that point a young man came in with his head bandaged, and Nicole was alarmed and asked him what happened. And he said police had shot him with a rubber bullet. And he showed us a picture on his phone of his shaved head and the stitches.

MONTAGNE: Well, I'd be shocked, but what was Nicole's reaction?

BEARDSLEY: Well, she became angry. She said this is shameful what's happening here in France. She said France is a free country, or at least she thought it was. And she said everyone in Calais should come see this camp. And then as we were leaving, Renee, she gave the aid worker Alexandra Simmons her phone number, and she said she wanted to come back to be a volunteer and help in the Jungle.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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