WHEN THE BULLDOZERS ARRIVED, the refugees had already moved their shacks and damp sleeping bags to other crowded areas of the refugee squat known as the Jungle. Left behind were stiff tangles of clothing, collapsed tents, and scattered food waste — mud-coated debris that had built up over the nine months or so since refugees began streaming into northern France. The machines were flanked by reporters and police, both anxious to catch signs of rioting among the roughly 1,500 migrants who had been forced to clear out of that section of the camp. For now, the eviction zone was calm and hardly any occupied shelters remained. Tear gas would come at night, as it often did, after most of the reporters had gone.
One week earlier, a group of community liaisons representing the different ethnic groups of the camp in Calais, France (Afghan, Iraqi, Syrian, Eritrean, Sudanese, and others), sat down to a long-awaited meeting with local French officials. Among the problems the representatives had come to discuss, according to an aid worker named Annie Gavrilescu, who helped prepare the agenda, was daily police violence, most frequently deployed as officers attempted to block refugees from boarding trucks headed to the Channel Tunnel into England. But the topic was never broached. Instead, the officials took the liaisons for a walk, marking what would become the camp’s new border with pink spray paint and informing them that hundreds of refugees would have three days to clear a 330-foot buffer zone along the highway.
Although officials carefully timed the eviction in mid-January with the opening of a new fenced-in section of the Jungle, where immaculate rows of heated shipping containers would hold about 1,500 new beds for refugees, there would not be enough space for all of the newly displaced. Families and people forced to move in an earlier eviction had already claimed many of the beds.
The shortage seemed to be according to plan. The local government intended to reduce the camp’s population from approximately 5,000 to 2,000 by convincing some refugees to apply for asylum in France and others to go back to where they came from, and by making life in the Jungle as uncomfortable as politics would allow.
The plan’s next step is already in motion. Last Friday, the local prefect announced that another 1,000 or so asylum seekers would be evicted imminently. This time, they will have approximately a week to clear a southern section of the camp.
The approach is symptomatic of the refugee fatigue that has been spreading throughout Europe. Nearly a year after the influx of migrants to the European Union rapidly accelerated, patience has thinned for a still-growing population of foreigners. The November terrorist attacks in Paris and a wave of sexual assaults linked to refugees on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany, have helped fuel a growing intolerance for new asylum seekers. The situation in Calais displays the tipsy politics European countries play as they attempt to avoid blame for the suffering of refugees, even as they work to repel and expel them.
As I read about the Calais bulldozers, I was drawn back to another eviction story I had heard while reporting from the same camp nearly two months before. I’ve been unable to confirm whether Ali Omar was still in Calais. When we met in December, he’d already lost his phone during one of his near-nightly attempts to cross the Channel Tunnel. But if he was in the camp, then January’s mass eviction would have fit neatly with the pattern of expulsions and evictions he’d been subjected to throughout his 30 years.
(The asylum seekers featured in this piece requested that only their first names be used because of fears that publishing their full names could complicate asylum claims in Britain.)
The first expulsion took place when Ali was a boy, at the end of the Cold War, as the communist government of Afghanistan collapsed and mujahedeen armies fought for control of Kabul. The second was two decades later, after U.S. troops began pulling out of Afghanistan, costing a grown-up Ali his contractor job and sending him to Pakistan in search of work. There, he and other Afghan refugees were labeled terrorists, and Ali again found himself fearfully packing his belongings, this time dragging his own little boy across a border. That second eviction led him to the swamp where we met.
It was in talking to Ali and other refugees like him that I began to understand why people might choose to spend a freezing winter in an unheated wooden shack, without enough food or a clean place to go to the bathroom, all pursuing the remote chance that they might escape from the sixth richest country in the world to the fifth. Moreover, the stories of these refugees illuminated the nature of the immigration policies that now controlled their destinies, ultimately prioritizing deterrence over justice. Many of those I met had worked in war zones alongside the Americans or the English or were escaping a common enemy like ISIS. Their plight reflected Europe’s and the United States’ refusal to accept responsibility for decades of violent meddling in other countries.
IF ALI PERCEIVED the turns in his story to be contradictory, he never revealed it. Although his demeanor was serious, he had an easygoing manner, and his English was good. We met on top of a narrow dune that formed a barrier between garbage-littered brambles on one side and on the other, the blue and black tarps that formed the Jungle’s canopy, protecting refugees’ shelters from weather. The sun was low in the sky and the aid worker with whom I’d arrived at the camp had agreed to pick me up before it set. The aid group, Care for Calais, had brought Ali and his neighbors wooden pallets to prevent the soggy sand from seeping through their tents’ polyester floors. I had just enough time to hear Ali’s story before I left the camp.
Ali’s first flight came in the early 1990s as CIA-supported mujahedeen armies overthrew the weakened communist government of Afghanistan, which had recently lost Russian backing. His family, communists from the mountainous province of Panjshir, had drawn the ire of a commander who would later be revered in Afghanistan as an national hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir.” As Massoud battled other mujahedeen commanders for control of Kabul, Ali’s father and nearly everyone from the small village where Ali was born fled to refugee camps in Pakistan.
In Afghanistan today, Massoud’s image can be found on teahouse walls, taxicab windows, and inside government offices. He even showed up once on a French postage stamp. Massoud was killed on September 9, 2001, by al Qaeda operatives disguised as journalists, and the anniversary of his death is a national holiday. The army he commanded, the Northern Alliance, was key to the U.S. military’s strategy as it bombarded the Taliban after 9/11.
But to Ali, Massoud was one of the forces behind his family’s unraveling. He told me that the commander held a special contempt for communists from his home province, Panjshir. Ali’s mother was shot and killed in her bed by a mujahed when Ali was 3 years old. He believes the shooter meant to kill his father. At the time, his sister was studying in Moscow. She returned for the funeral and began breaking down mentally. The mental illness that began with the death of Ali’s mother ended in his sister’s death years later.
Ali doesn’t remember much about the Pakistani refugee camp, other than his father’s struggle to make ends meet. Although it was safer on the Pakistani side of the border, the mujahedeen still held sway. Ali’s father, who had been a road engineer in Afghanistan, was blocked from skilled work in Pakistan. He toiled in a restaurant until the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and a new set of opportunities presented itself to his family.
DEBATE OVER THE United Kingdom’s role in the Calais refugee crisis exploded across British airwaves a week after the January eviction. Far-right, anti-immigrant groups clashed violently with counter-protesters in Dover. British graffiti artist Banksy unveiled new street art near the French Embassy in London, depicting Cosette from Les Misérables in a cloud of gas with tears streaming down her face. And a high-profile spat broke out between Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn and Prime Minister David Cameron over the U.K.’s handling of the crisis.
Cameron inspired the Twitter hashtag #bunchofmigrants after Corbyn asked him a question about taxes in a parliamentary Q&A. The prime minister pointed at Corbyn and fellow Labor party member John McDonnell, saying, “They met with a bunch of migrants in Calais; they said they could all come to Britain.”
A few days earlier, Corbyn had visited the camp in Calais and another outside the town of Dunkirk and told Sky News that officials should “go through the process of every person in the camps that wants to come to Britain, that has a connection with Britain, and process their application.” He added, “There are a large number of very vulnerable unaccompanied children. … Let’s look at those issues; we have surely a human responsibility to reach out.”
The interviewer, Faisal Islam, asked Corbyn if granting asylum to Calais refugees would create a magnet for others who wanted to come to the U.K. He replied, “It’s a very strange magnet of desperation when people go and live in a fetid swamp with foul water, inadequate sewage, very limited medical facilities, to live in a tent in the middle of winter. It’s not a very attractive option. It shows the level of desperation people have across this continent. We’re talking 3,000 people in Dunkirk; it’s not very many.”
I visited Dunkirk back in December. Located 25 miles from Calais in the suburban community of Grande-Synthe, the camp there was even more wretched than the Jungle. There were fewer wooden shelters and more children. The human smugglers who founded the settlement still maintained control over it, so aid groups had been slower to establish themselves there. By the time I visited, though, the camp had become too big to ignore. From about 800 in October, it had ballooned by December to 2,500 people, who shared 30 toilets, according to Médecins Sans Frontières.
The mayor of Grande-Synthe requested assistance from the French government to build shelters for the refugees. The request was denied. Eventually MSF stepped in, committing to building enough heated tents to accommodate the refugees. “MSF is now forced to compensate for the deficiencies of the state,” the organization said in a blog post. But at the end of January, it was still awaiting permission to start construction. Refugees continued to sleep in thin camping tents set on a field of deep mud.
As I toured the camp with an entourage of newly arrived volunteers, an asylum seeker named Gaber, who had arrived only four days earlier, offered to show me a video of Islamic State soldiers decapitating his neighbor, a soldier in the Kurdish peshmerga army. I declined. Many of the refugees I met in Grande-Synthe came from the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and surrounding areas. Although the Kurds held the city, ISIS militants controlled villages mere miles away, and the peshmerga was battling to prevent them from advancing any closer. The war had destroyed business at Gaber’s barbershop. With hardly any clients left and fear building that his family would not remain safe, he left with his wife and child for England.
As we walked, Gaber became immersed in a debate with the volunteers about why refugees would risk so much to get from France to England. “I think there is more chance to get a job. There is no camp. Straightaway, get a very clean house,” he explained. “Five families here, they try to stay in Germany. Their relatives, friends say please don’t stay here — horrible. Ten families here tried to stay in Sweden or Germany; they said don’t stay there. Go to England — better than anywhere.”
The aid worker who was showing us around, Marni Bosanquet, shook her head. “OK, maybe some people really need to get to the U.K.,” she said. “But people who have no family in the U.K and have no grasp of the English language, there are other countries that could support them. What’s better, that or having winter here? We are doing everything we can. ABC Convoy is about to build more shelters to warm people over the winter. But, still, it isn’t enough. People are getting sick; babies are getting very ill. It feels like it’s not the only option.”
“I don’t know which is true,” Gaber replied, “but people say the law in U.K. is very nice. U.K.’s policies, very nice.” In fact, the ugly conditions on the French side of the Channel are a result of not-so-friendly British border policies.
One of the greatest ironies of British immigration policy is that to be deemed worthy of asylum, one must first find a way onto British soil. “It’s not possible to seek asylum in the U.K. without being physically present in the country,” Rebecca Moore, from the U.K.’s Refugee Council, told me.
A tiny proportion of those granted refugee status each year are resettled from camps outside of Europe, via programs run by the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees. But in 2014, those programs brought only 787 new refugees to the U.K., compared to 7,266 who gained refugee status by applying for asylum. Over the same period, 11,632 claims were rejected.
Last September, David Cameron committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees in the U.K. over five years, a number that seemed paltry compared to the number coming on their own. Between January 2015 and the month of Cameron’s announcement, 22,000 people had already applied for asylum, mostly from inside the country.
In Calais, the British government set up a gauntlet that those fleeing war-torn countries would have to maneuver through before they could apply.
According to the European Union’s Dublin Regulation, refugees must seek asylum in the first European country they enter, which is rarely Britain. The British do not typically resettle refugees from a country as wealthy as France, though exceptions can be made. For example, individuals with a spouse or children in the U.K. can apply to join them; the same is true for unaccompanied minors with extended family in the country. However, in a process that has recently been contested in British courts, refugees have to apply for French asylum before they can be considered for British family reunification. Rather than identifying and assisting refugees with legitimate asylum claims, Britain has poured money into French border militarization.
A joint statement on August 20 by U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May and French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve laid bare the two countries’ deterrence-centered approach to the crisis. The officials pledged to fortify the privately run Channel Tunnel by adding more fencing, cameras, infrared detection technology, flood lights, and security personnel. They announced plans to build a new control room at the railhead “bringing together CCTV, detection equipment, and intelligence feeds.”
“Besides its importance for border control,” the statement said, “we believe that highly effective security reduces the incentive for would-be illegal migrants to travel towards Calais or to remain there.”
Physical barriers would be complemented by a communications campaign. “Border Force officers, operating on the ground, provide migrants with a more dissuasive and realistic sense of life for illegal migrants in the United Kingdom,” the statement said, “that reflects the United Kingdom government’s work to render the U.K. a less attractive place for illegal migrants, including through limiting access to housing and health services in the U.K.”
Furthermore, it added, “The two governments have agreed to establish immediately a joint project team to maximize the number of illegal migrants who return home.”
THE TALIBAN DID NOT care that Ali Omar’s father had been a communist. More interesting to them was that he had opposed their enemy, Massoud. They welcomed him back to Afghanistan with engineering work. But prosperity under the Taliban, if it could be called that, didn’t last long. Years later, after his father died, the U.S. was at war in Afghanistan, and Ali was back in Pakistan, where he had become responsible for supporting his siblings and stepmother.
In Calais, the sun was already beginning to dip below the horizon, and Ali returned to the subject of his father. “The only thing I learned from my father,” he told me, “was escaping, and I don’t like that for my family. I want to find a good country, to study, to be a person with a country.”
But in 2008, Ali was focused on finding ways to feed his family locally. He decided to chase new work opportunities with the scores of American contractors and subcontractors hiring in Afghanistan. He slipped back across the border using a false name. If mujahedeen supporters were to recognize his family name, he said, he would not be able to find a job.
Ali was hired by a subcontractor that built shipping-container housing for U.S. soldiers stationed at various bases. “There was a lot of money in Afghanistan,” Ali told me. “In a month you could find maybe $500.” But the work was dangerous. He arrived at a time when U.S. soldiers and their Afghan employees had become targets of Taliban insurgents. The bases where Ali worked were threatened by fighting and suicide bombers. “So it was good,” he said. “The money was good. It was a little peaceful in Afghanistan in that time.” He laughed when I questioned his logic. “Since I was born, I didn’t see Afghanistan in peace. Full peace.”
NEXT TO ALI’S TENT lived a group of Afghan men who’d met either en route to Calais or after they’d arrived. They shared a small hearth at the base of the dune that they used to heat a stockpot full of water for their makeshift shower — a wood frame curtained by tarps and sleeping bags. It was better, they said, than the cold showers provided by the French government that you had to wait for in long lines.
When I arrived, the men crowded around me, eager to piece together one another’s stories with their varying levels of English. One man said a police officer had hit him with a baton the night before as he searched in the dark for a way to cross to England. Others described routine encounters with stinging tear gas.
But soon the conversation turned back to Afghanistan. One of the men said that back in his village in Kunduz he had witnessed the Taliban hang a man and chop off another’s fingertips. Mohamed Salim from Logar province said he fought alongside U.S. and British special forces for four years until 2014, when both governments significantly cut back military support to the country. He left Afghanistan after the Taliban began threatening his family.
As we talked, Mohammad Qasim approached. He was big enough to be an adult, but his youth was revealed by a grin that spread across his face even when he described sad things. Four months ago, after the Taliban came calling, he left the Aqtash area of Kunduz’s Khanabad district. “Knock-knock, on my door,” Qasim said. “My father opened the door. They see my father and catch him.” Qasim’s father, Mohammad Wisal, had worked as a cook for U.S. soldiers near the Pakistani border at a base called Camp Harriman. The Taliban had retaliated by dragging him out of his home. He never returned. With the blessing of his mother, Qasim fled.
The Atlantic Ocean is a far more formidable barrier than the English Channel to asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia and prevents most Afghans from attempting to reach the U.S. Hence the American government has leeway that the French and English lack to decide exactly how much responsibility it will take for those expelled from Afghanistan.
Contractors who worked with American soldiers are one refugee group the U.S. government has promised to support. Under the Afghan Allies Protection Act, Afghans who face a mortal threat as a result of their work for the U.S. or its contractors or subcontractors are allowed to apply for a “special immigrant” visa. Similar British policies have likewise been criticized for being too slow, too expensive, and requiring too much paperwork and offering too few visas.
McClatchy reported in July that 13,000 Afghans had applied for the 4,000 visas made available between 2015 and 2017. The lucky few who eventually win one frequently wait years to come to the U.S. Although the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, passed last November, upped the number of visas to 7,000, the structure of the program continues to leave out thousands of threatened former workers like Qasim’s father.
Qasim retrieved a ziplock bag from his tent. As he opened it he nearly dropped a tiny SIM card. “This is a SIM from Afghanistan,” he told me, grinning. “I like it.” He put it away and pulled out crinkled identification documents that described his father’s work history with the Americans. They also revealed Qasim’s birthday, in 2001. He was 14.
ALI DIDN’T BOTHER to consider whether his five years working for U.S. soldiers might earn him a U.S. visa. He’d used a fake name the whole time, and he assumed that unless you were a boss you probably didn’t stand a chance. Like the other refugees living in the camp in Calais, Ali had never been able to find security in the bureaucracies of sanctuary.
In 2013, as the American withdrawal continued, Ali’s contract job ended. “They started to leave Afghanistan, and there was nowhere to work.” He rejoined his family in Pakistan, where he found a job at a carpet store, and his wife gave birth to their second boy.
Then, on December 16, 2014, Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers killed 145 people at a school, most of them children. As in France after November 13 or New York after September 11, the Pakistani crackdown on terrorism targeted immigrants and refugees. Thousands of Afghans were deported, and thousands more left Pakistan on their own. Ali’s signal to get out came when he heard that government bulldozers had demolished a settlement of Afghan refugees not far from where he lived. He fled with his wife and children back to Kabul, where his wife’s family offered shelter.
After a lifetime of running from violence and unemployment, migrating back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ali had had enough. “I made the decision to go somewhere, to have a country not like this, to make a good future for my sons,” he said. “When I escape from a dangerous country, I want to go to a safe place.” As an English speaker, Ali chose England.
He sneaked back into Pakistan where he linked up with a trafficker who took him to Iran. From there he traveled to Turkey and then over to Greece in a little boat. In Greece, he climbed into a container that was carried by truck to a ship destined for Italy. He got by on a bottle of water and a biscuit for 48 hours as the container crossed the sea.
Ali had no idea what day it was when he arrived in Calais at the end of September. He came to a section of Sudanese tents and discovered that it was Eid al-Adha, among the most important dates on the Muslim calendar. Although he didn’t celebrate that year, the holiday remained in Ali’s mind as the day he had arrived in Calais. He settled near the friendly Sudanese men, on a sand ridge with the other Afghans. Night after night, he joined scores of men and women attempting (and usually failing) to cross the Channel Tunnel by climbing into the back of trains and semi trucks. I asked Ali whether he thought he would make it to England. “Yes, 100 percent. Maybe now not right now — three months, six months.”
LAST OCTOBER, French Interior Minister Cazeneuve announced another new refugee initiative, this one designed to disperse the Calais and Grande-Synthe migrants throughout France. Respite centers would open around the country, where migrants currently squatting near the English Channel could go and wait out the winter without immediate pressure to apply for French asylum. Cazeneuve only alluded to the fact that those who chose to stay in the camps would be subjected to scattershot attempts at forceful removal.
By December, according to the refugee support organization La Cimade, 1,000 people had accepted the offer of respite, less than a sixth of the total number living in Calais and Grande-Synthe. Another 1,122 were picked up and transported by air or by bus to immigrant detention centers around the nation. Under French law, such centers can only be used to detain people who are to be deported imminently. The Calais and Grande-Synthe detainees did not fit that description, since most qualified to apply for international assistance. Nearly all of those detained were released within five days by judges who cited the irregular procedures surrounding their detention. Most returned to the border.
Similarly, many of those granted access to a bed in the Jungle’s new container camp have rejected the government’s offer. To sleep there, migrants must submit a digital handprint to the charity running the complex. They must punch in a personal access code to enter or exit, allowing the system to track their movements. Many are convinced that the charity will share that information with French or British immigration officials; they fear the data could be used against them when they apply for asylum in the U.K.
The night after the eviction, according to the activist group Calais Solidarity, the camp flooded with tear gas. In response, frustrated refugees began burning debris left behind in the eviction zone. As the wind direction changed, the bonfire smoke and tear gas drifted back toward the police. But by morning they had returned, firing gas even farther into the Jungle.
All in all, the heroic effort that moved most of the shelters out of the eviction area in such a short period of time was a victory for aid workers on the ground, but the eviction announced last Friday will be more difficult. Shortly after the January eviction, Gavrilescu, who has worked in the camp for months with the organization L’Auberge, told me that she didn’t know what would happen the next time police order a section of the camp cleared. The Jungle, with its barebones support network of medical workers, meals, and donation supply chains, had no extra space left. “We’re just expecting them to keep pushing the boundaries,” she said. “I don’t know where we’ll put the people. It’s full.”
For more on the Jungle, read The Intercept’s December report: During Paris Summit, Climate and War Refugees Continued to Perish
Top photo: French riot police walk in front of a fence near the site of the Eurotunnel in Coquelles, near Calais in northern France, Jan. 21, 2016.