Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 19 September 2009 12:00 UK

Hope dims in Calais 'jungle'

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Calais

The French authorities say they will close a squalid camp outside Calais known as "the jungle". The camp is home to several hundred Afghans hoping to cross to Britain.

Tents in "the jungle"
"The jungle" looks like a sort of shanty town - people live in makeshift tents

"Heh lady! Lady - please!"

The cries are coming from every direction.

I have only been inside "the jungle" for 15 minutes, but already I am surrounded by a crowd of desperate-looking Afghan men who are pushing those who speak a little English to the front.

A gawky adolescent waves an arm around the filthy campsite, indicating the pathetic makeshift tents and ragged clothes drying on an overhanging branch.

"Please, lady. What happens to us when they take this away?" he says.

The honest answer is, I do not know.

The French government has promised that each individual will be treated humanely and sensitively.

'What hope? What hope for us?' they shout

There will be a chance for some to seek asylum in France and a chance for others to be helped to go back home.

Many, of course, will simply be deported, although the Immigration Minister Eric Besson insists no-one will be sent back to Afghanistan if the conditions are not safe.

Each of the Afghan men here is keen to make me understand that returning home for him would be a death sentence.

Asylum rejected

One is wanted on suspicion of selling state secrets, another is hunted by his brother-in-law in the bloodiest of feuds. Others fear the Taliban has put a price on their heads.

Member of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) speaks with migrants
UN workers have been explaining the asylum process to migrants

Some of these stories are true.

The campsite looks even more ragged than when I was here two months ago, but also much emptier.

In July there were nearly 800 people here. Now there are only 300.

There is a dark rumour that the French police briefly, but deliberately, weakened their port surveillance systems to allow a few immigrants to slip through the net to Britain.

Beside me there is a heated argument going on in Pashto between two Afghan men and the interpreter from the United Nations refugee agency.

The UN worker has been explaining to the men how the asylum process works in France, but the men are angrily listing the names of scores of their friends who have already been rejected by the French system.

Others show scarred hands where they have tried to sear and burn off the pads of their finger tips.

How can we claim asylum, they are asking, when our fingerprints have already been taken in Greece, in Italy, in Germany?

"What hope? What hope for us?" they shout at the interpreter.


I put the question to Helene, one of the volunteers at the charity Salaam, while they are serving an evening meal to long lines of illegal immigrants near the Calais port.

She shrugs: "You can close 'the jungle', but look at all these people - do you think they can just disappear?" she says.

Migrant in Calais
The Calais-to-Britain trafficking route is popular with people smugglers

She reminds me that that was exactly the thought behind closing the Red Cross Centre, Sangatte, seven years ago. It had become a magnet for illegal immigrants trying to cross the channel to Britain.

The authorities hoped that shutting down the facility would mean the number of migrants arriving in Calais would just dwindle away.

Instead, the migrants built their own camp.

The French government insists that flattening the shanty town will send a strong, clear message to people smugglers that the trafficking route between Calais and Britain is now closed.

In his speech announcing the camp closure, Eric Besson referred to the people smugglers as "mafia" who were preying on the desperation of those in "the jungle".

"The jungle" residents themselves are not big fans of the smugglers - some show us wounds they say were inflicted upon them by the traffickers after they failed to pay pre-arranged fees.

They even claim trafficking gangs killed a jungle member in January. Many are anxious to show me the memorial they built in honour of the murdered man.

'Stinking squalor'

Suddenly everyone is running and shouting.

"They've come!" yells a man as he dashes past me, waving a big stick in panic. "They've come. The bulldozers have come."

"The jungle"
Conditions in "the jungle" are dirty and unhygienic

Outside on the road an articulated lorry has pulled up with a tarmacing vehicle and small car fixed on its trailer.

It seems to take the frightened men a long time to recognise they are not looking at a fleet of bulldozers.

UN refugee agency spokesmen are still patiently talking through the ins and outs of asylum law while groups of men listen suspiciously.

Earlier, the UN spokesman William Spindler had told me that despite working in refugee camps all over the world, he had never visited one with such impossibly insanitary conditions as "the jungle".

It is quite a sobering statement, because I know that Mr Spindler spent many years in Rwanda.

In the cleanest tent in the campsite, the men have made a makeshift mosque and are beginning to pray.

I wonder if they are praying for deliverance from this stinking, flea-infested squalor.

Then I reflect that perhaps they are praying for deliverance from whatever is coming next.

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

France to close migrant 'jungle'
16 Sep 09 |  Europe
French swoop on Calais migrants
21 Apr 09 |  Europe
Desperate lives of Calais migrants
13 Mar 09 |  Europe

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific