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French refugee camps: A study in contrast (pictures)

In Calais, three refugee camps were designed with very different ideas in mind. They each have their own unique problems.

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Richard Trenholm, Stephen Shankland
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1 of 41 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Life, disrupted

We visited northern France, where thousands of refugees are huddled in camps, to see how different types of camps -- built by the government, by charities and by refugees themselves -- deal with this bleak situation, and how each is failing in its own way.

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Many stories

At the various camps we visited, refugees and migrants were happy to talk to us and keen to tell their stories, but they were wary of being photographed.

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They call it The Jungle

The first place we visited was the notorious encampment nicknamed "The Jungle." It's a jumble of tents and makeshift shelters.

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4 of 41 Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Jungle

Many nationalities live on top of one another in the Jungle, which houses refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea and many other countries.

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The Jungle

Everything in the Jungle is cobbled together, like this dilapidated caravan taped up with plastic sheeting.

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The Jungle

Conditions in the Jungle, which grew on the site of a former landfill, are extremely unsanitary.

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The Jungle

Aid agencies rely on donations of clothes and other essentials, including shoes, tents, blankets and food.

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The Jungle

The camp is quiet during the day, but it comes alive at night, when refugees set out to try to climb into lorries or trains to the UK.

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The Jungle

Tarpaulins and plastic sheeting make up most of the shelters. That's less than ideal in the winter. It's also a fire risk.

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10 of 41 Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Jungle

In May a fire swept through the Jungle, eating up the wood and plastic structures. There's no access to proper water supplies, which makes fire a very real danger.

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The Jungle

The Jungle is built on litter-strewn sand dunes.

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The Jungle

When we visited, there were about 5,500 people living in the Jungle. Today, aid agencies estimate that the number is closer to 9,000.

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Government container camp

A large portion of the Jungle was bulldozed in March to make way for the second type of camp we encountered: a fenced-in, government-run encampment housing refugees in metal shipping containers.

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Government container camp

The container camp is separated from the Jungle by fences and a rancid drainage ditch.

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Government container camp

Twelve people can sleep in each modified shipping container, in bunk beds.

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Government container camp

The shipping containers provide a much safer alternative to the squalor of the Jungle. However, there's no communal space, and nowhere to cook.

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Government container camp

The government camp can hold up to 1,500 refugees, though nearly twice that number were displaced when the bulldozers cleared the way for the containers.

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A world away

East of the Jungle and the container camp we found this camp at Grande-Synthe, founded by charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) with the backing of the local mayor. It's only 25 miles from the Jungle, but it could be another planet.

CNET's Richard Trenholm looks over the camp, which has no fences surrounding it.

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Grande-Synthe

The Grande-Synthe camp is much safer and more sanitary than the Jungle.

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Grande-Synthe

British volunteer Rory Fox runs a small school at the Grande-Synthe camp, called the Dunkirk Children's Center. Children are much safer here than in the Jungle.

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Grande-Synthe

The airy Grande-Synthe camp has facilities including a laundry and a small store.

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Grande-Synthe

Shower and toilet blocks are a far cry from the noxious and dangerously overworked portable toilets that serve the Jungle.

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Grande-Synthe

The inhabitants of the Grande-Synthe camp live in wooden huts, which they can lock to protect their meager possessions.

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Grande-Synthe

A volunteer rakes out a surface for the children to play soccer.

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Grande-Synthe

Posters advertise information in Arabic, Farsi and other tongues. French and English language classes are available.

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Grande-Synthe

French architecture students assemble a new structure.

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Grande-Synthe

The Kurdistan red fox -- Vulpes vulpes kurdistanica -- painted on the side of one of the huts. At Grande-Synthe, refugees are predominantly Iraqi Kurds.

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Grande-Synthe

The Grande-Synthe cabins are sturdy plywood constructions with watertight corrugated plastic roofs.

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Grande-Synthe

The huts are raised on blocks to keep out rodents and flooding.

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Grande-Synthe

Though it appears tranquil and safe, Grande-Synthe has a major problem: It's controlled by people-smugglers who let only certain people live there. Heartbreakingly, while the horrendous Jungle becomes increasingly overcrowded, the number of people living in this far more humane alternative is actually falling.

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Grande-Synthe

Trucks rumble by in the distance. There are no fences surrounding Grande-Synthe, and the lack of security is exploited by criminal gangs.

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The Jungle

By contrast, the Jungle is bordered by looming fences topped with razor wire that keep refugees and migrants away from the road.

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The Jungle

Workmen add more razor wire to the towering fences separating the Jungle from the road, where lorries rumble by on their way to the UK.

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The Jungle

There's a constant police presence around the edges of the camp.

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Government container camp

The government container camp is also fenced in. Entrance to the facility is through these turnstiles, which require refugees to input an access code and scan their palms on a hand scanner.

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Government container camp

Refugees associate fingerprinting with deportation, so many were reluctant to have their handprints recorded -- even if it meant swapping the shelter of the containers for the squalor of the Jungle.

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The Jungle

Help from aid agencies goes only so far. An informal economy has developed to meet the needs of the Jungle's population. For example, a bicycle repair shop helps keep the Jungle's few battered bikes on the road.

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The Jungle

Housed in a makeshift tent, the Khyber Darbar cafe offers generous Afghan meals for 3 euros a plate. Cafés like this provide a crucial space for refugees to eat, charge their phones and socialize. Relaxation is important in such a tense living situation, where people are crowded atop one another.

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The Jungle

Small shops sell snacks and drinks bought from nearby Calais, as well as SIM cards and mobile-phone credit.

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Grande-Synthe

Though Grande-Synthe doesn't have the same informal economy as the Jungle, some enterprising inhabitants have set up shop. Abdula Hamid, from Iraq, displays his wares, including bundles of 10 cigarettes for 1.50 euros (about $1.68).

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The Jungle

The cafes and shops of the Jungle provide another crucial service. They let people charge mobile phones, which are a lifeline to refugees.

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