AS NEGOTIATORS LABORED to strike an international climate agreement in Paris, climate and war refugees in the north of France, shunned by the French government and European authorities, continued to perish. On a recent December night, a teenager from Darfur was struck and killed by a van just after sunset as he attempted to enter the Channel Tunnel to cross into the United Kingdom. He was at least the 18th person killed attempting to cross into Britain from the port town of Calais, where the population of a neglected and unauthorized refugee camp has grown from under 1,500 in April to as high as 6,000. Although news reports did not mention it, witnesses swear that the incident was intentional and that the police response was too slow, the driver speeding away in the night as the boy died waiting for an ambulance.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that 3,671 people have died or disappeared as they crossed the sea this year. But migrants have been perishing on land as well. In Austria, 71 died in the back of a cold cuts delivery truck last summer, and in Macedonia, 14 were struck and killed by a train. Overall, though, aside from the Mediterranean Sea, the French side of the Channel Tunnel has become the deadliest place in Europe for migrants. In all, Europe has seen 137 migrant deaths, and one-sixth have been around Calais.
The garbage-dump-turned-refugee-camp where the Sudanese boy lived is known to residents as “the Jungle.” A mass of vinyl camping tents designed for weekend holidays, the camp lies about six miles from the Eurotunnel train station, the primary route by which Calais refugees attempt to travel to England. The most fortunate residents live in simple wooden huts that provide better shelter from dropping temperatures and the camp’s persistent mud.
Watermelon rinds, empty tin cans, discarded clothing, and collapsed tents fill the spaces between shacks, and a putrid smell pervades some areas of the camp; volunteers say it emanates from a nearby industrial plant. Better that stench, however, than the tear gas that regularly wafts through camp, evidenced by canisters strewn along the length of the razor-wire fence built to keep migrants from crossing the freeway toward the train station.
The people who live in the camp fled conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, and other places. Many of them speak English or have relatives in the U.K., or simply believe that England is a place where they can find work and refuge. To apply for asylum there, they must cross the border first, since applications submitted from France are rarely accepted.
To deter them, the French and British governments have poured millions of dollars into extra riot police, tear gas canisters, dogs, fences, infrared cameras, floodlights, and batons, while neglecting to supply adequate meals, sanitation, running water, housing, medical support, or clothing. No governmental or humanitarian organization has responsibility for running the camp. Smaller groups attempt to provide a patchwork of services, occasionally overlapping and squabbling over turf.
Set on the border between two of the world’s richest nations, only a couple of hours by train from Paris and London, the camp in Calais is confirmation of Europe’s indifference toward war refugees from African and Muslim nations. And as winter nears, France and Britain’s violent determination to maintain the border will be tested further. “This is Europe, and France is the fifth or sixth world power,” Celine Schmitt, the United Nations refugee agency’s spokesperson in France, told me. “They should be able to deal with the situation.” Neither the British Home Office nor authorities in Calais responded to requests for comment. The French Ministry of the Interior also declined to comment.
THE JUNGLE’S MAIN STREET was still quiet at 10:30 a.m. Many of the men and women had spent the night attempting to cross, looking for an opportunity to sneak into the back of a semi-truck on its way to the tunnel, or to climb onto a train car already loaded with vehicles. A few days earlier, a man escaping persecution in Afghanistan informed me that for more than a month, there had been a “zero percent” chance of getting through, because of an intensified police presence. Even so, he kept trying. Rumors continued to spread of friends calling to say they’d made it to the other side.
I asked around about the Sudanese boy, but we were in an Eritrean and Afghan section of camp, and no one had yet heard about his death. We phoned a man named Zimako Jones who an aid worker told us might know something.
A refugee from Nigeria, Jones came to Calais from a different region in France, not to go to England, but to start a school here in the camp. He showed me into a wooden structure where half a dozen children ranging in ages from 1 to 8 played on the floor, leafing through books, tapping on plinking electronic musical toys, and shouting in several languages. A girl with a mischievous smile snuck behind me, trying to nab my audio recorder. Although the camp is mostly populated by men, more families and children began arriving over the summer. There are also a number of teenagers traveling alone. Jones, who was not trained as a teacher, said he heard people needed help, so he came.
I asked Jones if he was waiting to go to England, too. “Not England — PARADISE,” he said. “There you get human rights, free life. That’s what they say, not me.” Jones said that he was awaiting a response to an application for political asylum in France. He hopes to move out of the dunes and into town.
The school was bright, decorated with art projects and littered with toys. “It’s the only place they have to play,” Jones told me. He pointed to a little girl who looked to be about four. A bandage peeked out of her sleeve, wrapping her hand. Her parents had been burning a candle and their tent caught fire, burning the girl’s arm, leg, and back.
The same thing happened the night of the November 13 Paris attacks. As terrorists detonated bombs and fired their rifles near the Stade de France, in Le Petit Cambodge and other restaurants, finishing with a standoff at the Bataclan concert hall, news reports showed the Calais camp on fire. Had it been overrun by terrorists? Had residents of the nearby town committed arson in revenge?
Rumors drew a line in flames between the Paris terrorist attacks and the Calais refugees, when in fact the candle fire was simply a byproduct of the camp’s desperate conditions.
As we searched for clues to the identity of the dead boy that morning, the leader of the hard-right French National Front party, Marine Le Pen, was preparing to win the first round of regional elections, which included Calais. Her party’s popularity was bolstered by the Paris attacks and a renewed openness of French voters to view refugees as potential terrorists. In a victory speech, Le Pen declared that the National Front was “the only party that can reconquer the lost territories of the republic, of Calais, where we won 50 percent of the votes, or of the suburbs,” referring to areas with large Muslim populations. (She later lost a second round of elections.)
Jones could tell us nothing about the death. “I don’t listen to that stuff anymore,” he said. He described a little cemetery outside of town where some of the dead have been buried, but said we wouldn’t have much luck finding out anything about the incident. “No one will tell you about that.”
We wandered on and soon met a volunteer named Jessica, who was fretting about what to do with a truckload of in-kind donations due to arrive that afternoon. On Fridays a rush of tents, canned goods, and clothing floods in, mostly from the U.K. Volunteers hand out some of the goods individually, but Jessica was considering simply placing the newest load of donations on a tarp for people to grab.
What comes in is insufficient. That day, I spoke to four young women from Eritrea, who’d been in the camp about two months. All were dressed in thin sweaters inappropriate for the cold. “No clothes. No sleep,” said a 19-year-old named Almaza, demonstrating with an exaggerated shiver. She turned to her friends and said something in their native language. They shrieked with laughter. “Panties,” she said. “Not enough.”
Jessica knew something about the accident. She pointed toward a corner of the camp where once a day about 2,000 hot meals are served with assistance from the French government, and where many Sudanese people live. Another volunteer named Toby led us in that direction and repeated Zimako Jones’ warning: that no one in the Sudanese section would tell us anything. He said we’d need to spend all day warming up to people and drinking tea if we didn’t want a metaphorical door slammed in our face.
We passed many men hammering at new wooden structures. Some were being built by aid groups like Médecins Sans Frontières, others by residents who purchased materials on the black market or were given a self-build package by the local aid group L’Auberge. A flattened section of the camp, emptied of tents and occupied by earth-moving equipment, provided a partial answer to the open question of whether people would be left to freeze over the winter. The French government was building waterproof shelters for only 1,500 of the 4,000 to 6,000 people who are estimated to live there.
It was also engaging in a massive relocation effort. Some migrants have volunteered to wait out the cold in respite centers located around France, where eventually they will be asked to apply for French asylum or leave. Others have been taken against their will by plane and bus to detention centers around the country. They are typically released within five days and then return to the camp. Many of the camp’s residents distrust the French, and having no idea what kind of accommodations will be provided, prefer to stay in the camp in hopes of continuing to their final destination as quickly as possible. And refugees continue arriving, some nights only a handful, other nights a few dozen.
Most of the Sudanese people I spoke to had come from Darfur. One man, named Muhaned, had been in the camp for four months. He said he’d been driven out of Darfur by the Janjaweed militia that came on horseback to his town. His two uncles were killed. He escaped to a U.N. refugee camp in Chad, where he ate three meals a day and stayed in a sturdy tent. “That was Africa; this is Europe,” Muhaned said. In the Jungle, those with the means can purchase food at one of the cafes that have begun to line the camp’s main street. But some told me that they rely on the single government-provided meal and eat little else.
We approached a Sudanese tent. The photographer went first, because this was a sleeping tent not shared by women, then motioned for me to enter. Inside, a few men stood around a cook stove, where one of them was mixing rice and spices into boiling water. We asked them about the boy.
“Four days, four days,” one man, named Yasser, told us. Yasser looked like he could be in his 30s or 40s, older than most of the population of the camp. His English was good, and he spoke rapidly, with authority. The boy had only been in the Jungle for four days. “He didn’t have mobile phone. He didn’t have any paper in his pockets. Just we know his name. His name is Youssef. His age was about 18. He said he was about 18. He came from Sudan, west Sudan, Geneina.”
Yasser knew a man who lived with Youssef and agreed to introduce us. He walked ahead of us, into the afternoon, making calls in Arabic as he searched for his acquaintance. A light but piercing rain the night before had filled the dips in the soft muddy roads with gray water. In the distance low clouds were beginning to move toward the camp.
The last place Youssef lived was a wood-framed shack, shielded from the rain by layers of thick plastic and insulated inside by blankets and sheets lining the walls. It was dim and messy but felt protected. His roommate had only just met him. “I said to him that you can stay here,” he told me, with Yasser translating. He didn’t know much more than Yasser did. Just that Youssef had come from Italy, and before that Libya, where he’d lost his mobile phone, which could have provided vital information about who he was and how to reach his family. He’d planned to call them after he crossed the border.
A sheet scribbled with graffiti, “Open us the way to U.K.,” divided a sleeping area from the rest of the space. Youssef’s bed was a tangle of blankets. Next to it was a cup of Bang! Bang! Nice ’n’ Spicy noodles, a pair of flip-flops, and a bottle of cough syrup. The roommate motioned for me to follow him out front, where he pointed to an empty pair of sneakers, pigeon-toed against the wall.
A small crowd of neighbors had gathered around the shack, and two of them took turns speaking excitedly in Arabic. One arched his arms and then smacked his fist into his hand. They had been present when Youssef died.
They said it was his first time trying to cross. Youssef and five men had heard that a train would be ferrying many vehicles across the Channel Tunnel into the U.K., so they made their way to attempt to board one of the train cars. Yasser knelt in the sand and drew a picture of a two-lane highway. Youssef, marked by an “x,” had almost made it to the other side when a vehicle approached. The men said it began to slow down and then sped up, hitting Youssef, then careened away.
Youssef lay on the pavement, still alive, while two of his companions ran to find the police they knew would be somewhere along the highway waiting to detain border crossers. “They say to them, ‘An accident happened here,’” Yasser translated. “The police, they didn’t believe it. They say to him, ‘Go back to the Jungle.’”
Eventually, police followed the refugees to the site of the accident. No one was able to tell them the license plate number or the name of Youssef’s mother. According to the two men who were there, 45 minutes passed before an ambulance arrived. A police statement published by Agence France Presse indicated that Youssef died of cardiac arrest at 6 p.m.
Many of those who die attempting the crossing appear unnamed in brief media blurbs, unless their deaths happen to be spectacular or slow traffic.
On October 14, a 30-year-old Syrian woman was killed by a car near the tunnel. In mid-September, a Syrian man was electrocuted as he attempted to jump onto the roof of a train. On October 16, the body of a man hit by a freight train was so mutilated that authorities could not at first determine his sex; Eurotunnel tweeted apologies to passengers for the delay.
As we spoke, a young man named Omar approached and thrust a stack of papers toward me. One of them was a photo of Youssef taken after his death. It was a close-up of his face; his lips were parted and stained with blood, the whites of his eyes peeking from under his lids. Even in death his youth was apparent, his eyebrows arched in what could be taken for surprise or disappointment. Youssef’s head was wrapped in a white bandage; his scarf was untied, collar askew. On another sheet was a notice in French, Arabic, and English asking readers to come forward with any information they might have about who Youssef was.
The notice said that Youssef was a member of the Zaghawa tribe, a group that was targeted by the Janjaweed and continues to be attacked by the brutal government-supported Rapid Support Forces that have taken the Janjaweed’s place. Despite peace agreements in 2006 and 2011 — and media silence — the conflict in Darfur is not over. According to Human Rights Watch, 600,000 people were displaced in 2014 and the first five months of 2015. During that period, the organization documented “a wide range of horrific abuses,” including forced displacement; destruction of food stores, wells, and livestock; and “torture, extrajudicial killings and mass rape.” Youssef had grown up a child of the Darfur genocide.
Omar was distracted, eager to distribute his flyers, but he paused when I asked him how he knew Youssef. “My friend,” he replied. Omar, like everyone else, had known Youssef only for a few days. He too had been there the night before.
Youssef’s companions were taken to the police station for questioning. They asked if they could go to the hospital to inquire about their friend. The police told them to go back to the Jungle. Back at the camp, word of Youssef’s death spread among the Sudanese. Some 200 people, by Yasser’s estimate, filed onto the highway and toward the hospital. The police allowed them to pass. “At that time we asked Allah to bless him and said a prayer there in the hospital but then came back,” Yasser told me.
“Now we are very sad for all the things that happen here in this jungle,” he said. “And I think the government of the French don’t have anything — don’t care if he dies.”
As we trudged back toward the main road, a group of men was beginning to gather around a bulletin board where a photo of Youssef was tacked next to the notice, imploring, “If you know him, please inform the Secretary or call Omar.”