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Clearing the Calais ‘Jungle’ – Photo Essay

Following our interactive map, Fortress Europe and Beyond, we explore conditions at the refugee camp in Calais, France, where demolition teams were granted court permission to raze the southern parts of the settlement. About 80 percent of residents have since moved to the north side. Photojournalist Michael Bunel captures daily life at Calais and the recent destruction.

Written by Kate Thomas & Michael Bunel Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

In recent days, the ground at the Jungle refugee camp at Calais has been reduced to sodden mud. The wind in this part of northern France is cold and biting, even as spring approaches. The camp is currently home to about 4,000 refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants – stuck in limbo, holding tight to hopes of crossing the English Channel to the U.K.

This part of northern France was once better known as a stop for booze-cruise tourists from Britain, with its cheap wine warehouses and hypermarkets. But since 1999, when a refugee center was opened in Sangatte, the area became a jumping-off point for refugees and migrants hoping to get to the U.K. When Sangatte became saturated, many people began camping in the Calais woods – or, as they called it, the Jungle. In 2002, the French government bulldozed the camp for the first time.

But people came back, and amid the refugee crisis of the past two years, the camp grew larger than ever, housing some 6,000 people.

Last month, a court in the French city of Lille gave permission for demolition teams to bulldoze the southern side of the camp, just west of the Calais docks. The area had housed some 3,500 people, as well as makeshift churches, food spots, a library and a small, tented nightclub. On March 2, demolition teams and riot police entered, asking residents to leave within the hour or face arrest.

Residents put up a fight, clashing with riot police as tear gas hung heavy in the air. With help from activists and refugee aid groups, they had created those structures themselves, and their identities and temporary sense of belonging were tied up among the wooden poles and canvas sheaths. Nine Iranian men began – and have since ended – a hunger strike, sewing their mouths shut in protest at the decision.

The southern side of the camp is now wasteland. Only the Eritrean church and a school remains. According to the French government, about 1,000 people were moved. However, aid agencies say that the true figure is closer to 3,000. Some have been relocated to shipping containers converted into sterile, shared accommodation units. Others are living at the Grande Synthe site near Dunkirk, another northern French port town.

Some refugee aid groups suggest that there has been a spike in attempted crossings to the U.K. Photojournalist Michael Bunel, whose photographs are shown below, said that people are becoming increasingly desperate. Others, he said, have realized that they may never make it to the U.K. Sentiment remains strong on both sides of the channel; an anti-immigration protest is expected to take place in the U.K. port of Dover on April 2.

With no solution in sight, refugees and migrants in northern France face the prospect of lasting limbo. Life, however, goes on. And there are some bright spots – a theater tent that has played host to such actors as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jude Law is expected to open at two locations – Grande Synthe in Dunkirk and the Calais north camp – later this Spring. Michael Bunel’s images show daily life at the Jungle camp, depicting the reality of the past few months.

‘Fortress Europe and Beyond’ is our interactive map that provides an overview of the barriers between European states, across the Mediterranean and North Africa and in the Caucasus.

Our next stop is Idomeni, Greece, where more than 11000 people are stranded due to Macedonia closing its border.

Top image: Refugees move a house from the southern part of the camp to the north side. (Michael Bunel)

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