Lost in the Jungle

Commentary: For CNET's Road Trip 2016, in a French port criss-crossed by razor wire, we met refugees forced to flee their homes simply for helping British and American troops.

Stephen T. Shankland

This is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series "Life, Disrupted," about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis -- if at all.

Editors' note: On October 24, French police began to clear refugees out of the Jungle as a prelude to demolishing the camp, which charities say holds 5,500 people. Earlier in the year, we visited the facility. This story describes what we found.

On a sunny day in June, my colleague Stephen Shankland picked me up from the Calais Frethun train station and we drove into the French countryside in search of a jungle.

The Jungle is the nickname bestowed upon a series of squalid shantytowns that have grown in Northern France since the first such settlement in Sangatte in 1999. When we visited, more than 5,000 refugees were living in horrendous, overcrowded conditions while they tried to cross into the UK.

Today, humanitarian groups estimate there are more than 9,000 people living there.

The camp known as the Jungle, an overcrowded jumble of tents and makeshift shelters built on shifting sand.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

After years of people coming here to try to hop a truck or train through the Channel Tunnel, the Calais countryside is practically a militarized zone. Banks of fences, topped with razor wire, cut across the scenery. Police officers patrol bridges and train stations

Turning into a side road, we show our press ID to gendarmes standing in the sun. As we wait for them to look over our documents, Stephen asks an officer how the Jungle looks today.

"It's OK," he answers, his face unreadable.

The Jungle is not OK.

Sheets of tarpaulin and pieces of wood prop up makeshift tents and shelters, lines of clothes stretched between them. Burnt bushes and the blackened skeletons of tents are a reminder of a fire that swept through the Jungle recently.

It's quiet during the day, but we see some young men sitting in battered beach chairs in front of their ramshackle tents, like a camping trip at the end of the world.

Around the edges of the camp, men loiter with phones. It's the same scene you see on any town square or station platform, people pacing aimlessly as they chat or standing engrossed in their screen.

Bordering the edge of the camp is a strip of sand a few hundred yards wide leading up to a high bank topped with fences. Orange-jacketed workers walk between two layers of fencing, unspooling hoops of razor wire. Armed police officers walk with them, eyeing us balefully as Stephen climbs the bank to take photographs.

CNET's Stephen Shankland under the towering fences that loom over the Jungle and much of the Calais countryside.

Richard Trenholm/CNET

On the other side of the fencing is the road that leads to the Channel Tunnel. Trucks rumble by and seagulls wheel overhead, tantalizing reminders of how close we are to the water, to Britain, to a new life. The layers of white fences make the trucks look ghostly and unreal.

One young man tells us in decent English about his journey from Afghanistan, where he says the Taliban prevented him from going to school. His name is Kamil Shamal. He wants to teach, he says, or be a businessman.

Shamal has a phone, a simple Samsung, but no one to call. His parents are gone, he says, and he doesn't know the whereabouts of his brother, who set out on the same journey, or a cousin who reached the UK.

Shamal is alone.

He is 16.

Shamal is the first of many to tell us about refugees' nightly clashes with the French police, about violence and tear gas. He's also the first of several to hitch up his trousers and show us an injured leg, the consequence of falling from a lorry.

Although we hear many of these things again and again, he says one thing we wouldn't hear again: "The UK -- it is too difficult to cross. I want to stay here in France."

Astonishingly, every single other refugee we speak to would rather brave the fences and razor wire, the danger of falling from lorries, the gas and batons of the police, night after night, to reach the UK, than stay in France.

"France no good," we hear from an Iranian refugee. "French police no good."

One refugee, Abdul, who did not give his surname, even says he would rather go back to war-torn Syria than stay in France. "The Jungle is the same as ISIS," he says, shrugging.

Amin Talebzadeh, from Iran, traveled from Iran to Istanbul and then to Athens before arriving in France. He says he's been gassed by police while trying to cross to the UK. While he's telling us this, he breaks off and points at the floor, laughing. He and my colleague Stephen are wearing the same Asics running shoes.

Sohail Ahmed, who runs a cafe in the Jungle, tells us refugees often want to settle in the UK because they speak some English or have family in Britain. He's already tried settling in Germany, but the asylum process was too strict. He says he didn't feel welcome in Italy. "If you are on the bus," he says, "they cover their faces like you are garbage."

Everyone smiles when they hear I'm from London. I don't know how to tell them that the situation might not be any better if they make it to the UK. Since Sangatte, the Jungle has been a symbol of Britain's strained relationship with Europe and of the subject of immigration. Now, as police link a rise in racist hate crime to the result of the Brexit vote, things are more tense than ever.

The young family of Nahro Rashed had to flee Iraq simply for doing some work for the Western-backed regime at his garage.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Darya Khan, from Afghanistan, has his own reasons for wanting to leave France.

"They don't know me, they should not look after me," he says. There are people that know him in the UK and the US, he tells us: the soldiers he worked with when he was an interpreter in the Afghan army.

After NATO troops left, Khan says, he was threatened by the Taliban and was forced to flee for his life.

We hear a similar story in another camp a few miles away at Grande-Synthe. Nahro Rashed, from Iraq, owned a garage in Mosul. Occasionally he fixed police vehicles. When Western forces left, Daesh arrived. Like Khan, Rashed's life was threatened for helping the Western-backed regime, and he was forced to run.

Rashed eagerly shows us photos of his wife and two young children, one 6 years old, one aged just 2, on their arduous journey across Europe. Talking to Darya Khan about the British soldiers he'd worked alongside and seeing Nahro Rashed's pictures of his family's horrifying journey, I couldn't help feel guilty about the problems the West had left behind.

While Rashed is welcoming, his friend is less pleased to see us.

"The UK government needs to come and see. Not photos. Not video," he says. Gesturing to my notebook, he tells me, "People come and write things but nothing changes."

Around us, the shelters of the Jungle and Grande-Synthe are spray-painted with neon slogans that surprise me with their optimism and positivity. "Together we are strong." "Don't lose hope." "Freedom for all." "Afghanistan ♥︎ UK."

Another tent reads "Empire payback."

And another, simply "Why?"

First published August 15.
Updated October 27 at 6:01 a.m. PT: Added an editors' note to reference the start of the closure of the Jungle as police began moving refugees out.

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