Refugees cling to Wi-Fi in the Jungle of Calais

Thousands of refugees in northern France rely on internet access and mobile tech for human contact. But that doesn't help much when they're trying to smuggle themselves onto a truck to the UK.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

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. Earlier in the year, we visited the facility. This story describes what we found.

I see why it's called the Jungle.

This refugee camp in Calais is a sprawl of hundreds of flimsy tents, plywood shacks and ramshackle shelters made of tarp, jammed together atop sand dunes next to the English Channel. It houses about 6,000 Afghans, Sudanese, Iraqis, Iranians and other men who fled terror in their homelands only to find reluctance and indifference here in France.

Men bathe at water taps next to a row of battered chemical toilets. Tattered laundry flutters in the breeze. Large gray rats scurry among the tents, while dead rodents litter the sand nearby.

The Jungle, often described as one of the worst refugee camps in France, is primitive and squalid. Charred timbers show where a fire blazed in May after a dispute broke out among the different nationalities -- angry, frustrated and forced to co-exist in this bleak 90-acre space.

But open the settings dashboard of your phone at the right time of day and you find a high-tech amenity: a free Wi-Fi network.

That wireless network, called "Jangala," is beamed into the camp from a crude but serviceable hand-built antenna that sits atop a battered blue truck once used to transport horses. It's called the Refugee Info Bus and it's run by a charity group called Help Refugees. Jangala, the Afghan name for the camp, serves as a lifeline for its occupants, with as many as 400 people logging on every day. Internet access lets them get updates about the camp, share photos, read news from home, learn about asylum rights and study the languages they need in their new world. Most important, Jangala allows them to stay in contact with family and friends.

Madena Rashed, a two-year-old girl from Iraq, at the Grande-Synthe refugee camp in France.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

"Wi-Fi is so important. It becomes your connection to your family," says Beatrice Lorigan, a UK volunteer for the effort, which burns through 50 gigabytes of data every two days. That's nearly 400 times what typical monthly mobile data plans in the US offer. The Info Bus group skirts network data-transfer limits by constantly cycling through new SIM cards, the chips that grant access to phone networks.

It's worth it. When I ask Amin Talebzadeh what he uses his phone for, every app he lists is for communication: Skype, WhatsApp, Viber and Imo. He pays 30 euros a month for phone service -- about $33. That's a princely sum for a 25-year-old Iranian marooned in France without a job.

Those who can't afford that price rely on the Refugee Info Bus.

No one easily leaves behind the comfort of family and friends for a life in which they don't know where they'll find food, clothing or shelter, much less a job. The travel is arduous, dangerous and costs thousands of dollars. But that's what you have to do to escape living with terror and violence, according to dozens of refugees I spoke with in June during a visit to the Jungle with my colleague Rich Trenholm. We also spent time at a fenced-off section of the Jungle offering government housing made of metal shipping containers and another camp of relatively sturdy plywood sheds 25 miles east in Grande-Synthe.

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We wanted to see for ourselves who's providing help and what kind to the refugees and migrants living there. But our larger goal was to find out the role technology is playing in this global humanitarian crisis. Is tech helping refugees? Is it unimportant? Is it frustrating people's efforts to start new lives?

What we found is that phones are the most important survival tool for many of those stranded at the northern tip of France, a three-hour drive from Paris. They're also expensive luxuries if you don't have money. It costs 200 euros for a cheap model, and that's before network access fees. Although apps like Facebook for social networking and Viber for messaging connects them to people back home, they do little to solve the fundamental problems that made people refugees in the first place -- or to help resolve political problems that keep them from settling permanently.

Hostile reception

Aid groups like Salam, Help Refugees and Care4Calais offer free food and clothing. The clothes have to be in good condition. "It's important [for them] to keep their dignity," says a Care4Calais aid worker I met at one of the informal restaurants in the Jungle. I notice that one refugee, carrying lunch provided by Salam, has the same Asics running shoes I bought at REI for $100 -- but his are in better shape.

Clothing isn't the problem. It's that much of France isn't ready to welcome refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people. There were more than 330,000 displaced people in France at the end of 2015, according to the United Nations, and terror attacks on Paris in November just heightened fears of foreigners.

Since we visited, the Jungle's population has swollen to more than 9,100 people.

When Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo in May announced plans to build a new refugee camp in the Paris area, right-wing politicians lashed out. Florian Philippot, vice president of the anti-immigrant National Front party, tweeted that the mayor's plan would bring the Jungle everywhere. Eric Ciotti, president of the Alpes-Maritimes department in southeast France, predicted it would encourage more people from Syria, Iraq and other war-torn countries to make the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing into Europe.

French police are a problem, too. There's no security in the Jungle, and the Bar Human Rights Committee has chronicled cop violence against refugees in Calais.

But Europe's population of 500 million should be able to absorb 1.5 million refugees, counters Andre Jincq, head of French operations for Médecins Sans Frontières, also called Doctors Without Borders. "It is not a crisis," he says. "It is a mistake of organization."

Refugees choose the Jungle because Calais is close to the UK, where they often have family or friends. Many refugees speak at least some English, which means a better chance at employment if they can make the 20-mile, one-hour train ride across the channel.

The UK also has a reputation for handling asylum claims faster than France, which is why refugees try to get to there before starting the process, says Daniel Barney, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders. Even so, it typically takes months to process claims in either country.

A refugee makes the five-mile trek from the Jungle refugee camp to the highway where he can smuggle himself onto a truck.​

A man makes the five-mile trek from the Jungle refugee camp to the highway, where he hopes to smuggle himself onto a truck headed for the UK.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Some refugees try to buy their way onto trucks headed for Calais station, where they hope to catch a train to the UK. But few can pay the 8,000-euro cost per person -- sometimes discounted to 5,000 euros per person in a group -- that human smugglers charge, says Rory Fox, who runs the Dunkirk Children's Center, a 20-person volunteer school at the Grande-Synthe camp.

So refugees try grabbing passing trucks and hauling themselves onboard. It's as dangerous as it sounds. More than 30 men, women and children have died trying since 2015.

And it's frustrating: Most who set out from the Jungle every evening trudge back in the morning, thwarted. Adam Sharawi, a refugee from Sudan, spent nine months traveling by car across Africa, by ship to Italy and by train to France. He wants to settle in England. "The UK has all my friends," he tells me after making the five-mile trek back to the Jungle from yet another futile effort to hop a truck.

It's also getting harder, with authorities erecting miles of high steel fencing to keep refugees off likely spots on the highway. Double rows topped with razor wire are patrolled night and day. It's a low-tech but formidable barrier.

Over time, the Jungle wears refugees down. After seven months working to get to the UK, 16-year-old Kamil Shamal from Afghanistan decided to seek asylum in France, even though he's concerned some French didn't welcome him to the country.

France received 74,200 new asylum applications last year, up from 59,000 in 2014, according to the United Nations.

Helping with the crossing

There aren't any apps for smuggling refugees onto trucks, but tech has helped keep some of them safe on their journeys to Europe.

Mohammad Ghannam, another spokesman for Doctors Without Borders, works with volunteers through a Facebook group to track people crossing the Mediterranean. The boat journeys are treacherous. At least 880 died in the first five months of 2016.

The Grande-Synthe camp 25 miles east of the Jungle offers more humane living but also is much farther for anyone trying to get onto a truck in Calais.

The Grande-Synthe camp provides more-humane living conditions than the Jungle, about 25 miles away.

Stephen T. Shankland

Refugees use phone apps to determine their coordinates, then send longitude and latitude data to the group through WhatsApp every 15 minutes during their voyage. If the messages stop, a volunteer calls coast guard authorities nearest to the passengers' last known location.

Ghannam has tracked 20 crossings, including his brother-in-law's successful journey from Turkey to Greece.

Translation and language apps help, too.

Language barriers are common given that migrants and refugees in the Jungle come from so many different places. I don't know any Farsi, but with a dictionary app on a modest Samsung phone, I learned that one refugee is a welder who wants his children to grow up in Canada, where they can become doctors.

Refugees with phones often use service from Three, a UK carrier. Abdullah Khan, 24, an Afghan in the Jungle, resells SIM cards and account refills purchased in the UK. For about 24 euros, he'll sell you a refill that includes 12GB of data, 300 minutes of talk time and 3,000 text messages. That comes in handy when the Refugee Info Bus is out of range or when refugees are out of the camp, trying to jump onto a truck. "It has good roaming benefits," Khan says of Three, so it's economical in France even though it's a UK carrier.

Want to charge your phone in the Jungle? Find a friend with a power generator.

Stephen T. Shankland

For many refugees, 24 euros is a small fortune. A full meal with a drink and salad at one of the Jungle's unofficial canteens costs about 3 euros. But many make do with free food from aid agencies because they can't even afford that.

Another popular carrier is Lycamobile. Its chief selling point: members can call each other free.

Of course, a phone isn't any good if it can't be charged. There's no electricity in the Jungle. So Khan helps with that as well; he has a precious power generator and will let you juice up your devices -- for friends or customers buying something else at the store.

On the surprisingly chilly June day I visited his store -- a dim room floored with loose planks that's screened off from a larger timber-and-tarp shack by a bed sheet -- his five-plug power strip was maxed out, with chargers scattered on a table. At the front of the store, three propane fuel tanks were tapped for another part of his business, selling naan at three pieces for 1 euro.

Phones are also photo albums, documenting memories both happy and harrowing.

Nahro Rashed, 35, who brought his family from Mosul, shows me photos on his iPhone of his 2-year-old daughter Madena taken before they fled Iraq. He eagerly points out she's wearing a Union Jack T-shirt, a sign the family was already fond of the UK. As we stand at the entrance to his plywood home at the Grande-Synthe camp east of the Jungle, he flips to another photo. It shows Madena and her 6-year-old brother, Muhammad, sleeping homeless under a blanket in Hungary.

It's a reminder that pictures are more powerful than words.

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Nahro Rashed shows a photo of his wife and two children while the family was homeless in Hungary after fleeing Iraq. Phones are useful for communicating, as well as documenting hardships.

Stephen T. Shankland

Other photos show their long journey across Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and other countries. On one ride, the family rode in the back of a truck for 27 hours. Rashed says he'd pay a smuggler to get them to the UK, but adds, "We have no money this year."

Staying in France

The options open up for refugees willing to stay in France, assuming they can clear asylum paperwork hurdles.

Foday Janneh, 30, who fled political upheaval in Sierra Leone in 2012, was homeless when his flight arrived in France, the only destination possible with his connections. He slept on night buses and searched for pay phones so he could request a bed in homeless shelters.

Every day a line of 500 people snaked out of the orientation center in Paris, he says. He passed a grueling asylum interview and after more than a year, became a legal resident. "It changes everything," Janneh told me.

After passing, he got housing, health care and, eventually, a job. "It's like you're reborn."

Janneh spoke to me from the Paris office of Singa, an organization that helps refugees learn French and links them with French people who share personal or work interests. Those interests can be broad and general, like music and sports. In Janneh's case, it was narrow and professional -- accounting. Singa helped him land a one-year job and a spot in a French university program.

Foday Janneh, 30, fled upheaval in Sierra Leone in 2012 and settled in France. He's got a job and government benefits but still worries photos of his face will have political repercussions.

Stephen T. Shankland

Singa holds social and professional networking events and even helps refugees set up their own businesses. "We have people who arrive with skills and the will to do something," says co-founder Nathanael Molle.

Singa organizes events over the internet and is launching a website called CALM -- Comme à la Maison, French for "feels like home" -- to match refugees with housing. Like Airbnb and Uber, it uses algorithms to automate the process. Singa plans a related platform by the end of the year to match refugees with others in Singa's network.

After that, the group plans to introduce Waya, a site in Pashtu, Urdu and other languages offering migrants reliable information on refugee rights, policies and procedures. It will also give advice -- for example, tell the truth during the asylum interview instead of using a script that worked for your friend.

When Janneh was granted asylum and started receiving 300 euros a month from the government, his top priority was getting a computer for entertainment and human contact. "I had to save money and starve myself sometimes -- just one meal a day," he says. "I had nobody to talk to. It was very boring and depressing. I needed this computer to keep me busy."

Whether it's a laptop or access to the Jangala Wi-Fi network, having a digital link to the outside world is critical. "Refugees nowadays are quite connected," Molle says.

Unfortunately, that's only the start.

First published August 10.
Updated October 24 at 5:07 a.m. PT: Added an editors' note to reference the start of the closure of the Jungle as police began moving refugees out. An update in August added new population figures for the Jungle.