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Fingerprint scanner scares refugees away from safe haven

In northern France, authorities and charities have built three refugee camps with different technology and philosophies. But their good intentions can easily be undermined.

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.

In March, French authorities bulldozed the northern half of a squalid tent city in Calais that houses about 5,500 refugees and is known as "The Jungle." In its place, people were offered clean beds, running water and secure shelter at a camp built from shipping containers.

You might think that's an easy trade. But Afghan refugee Darya Khan, 30, agonized over the decision.

Khan's concern: Claiming one of the 1,500 beds in the container camp would require him to use the high-tech hand scanner that unlocks the facility's turnstiles. That's a problem for the inhabitants of the camp, who associate fingerprints with a European Union law that lets immigration officials deport refugees and migrants.

"The container is safer," Khan tells me, "but people don't trust the container fingerprints."

The notorious "Jungle" refugee camp is an overcrowded, unsanitary tent city in Calais, France.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The French government and charities like Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders, are trying to replace the chaos of the Jungle with safe, secure and sanitary facilities. The Calais container camp and another camp at Grande-Synthe, some 25 miles away, were designed to give thousands of displaced people temporary shelter, security and access to clean water.

They are meant to be more than habitable. They are meant to be humane.

Those good intentions, though, are all too easily undermined. The biometric security system, made by Paris firm Zalix and maintained by French private security contractor Biro Sécurité, was installed without understanding the concerns of the people on the ground. The tech isn't much different from the fingerprint sensor in an iPhone, but it's scaring people away from a safe environment.

In June, my colleague Stephen Shankland and I visited three camps in Calais to get a sense of how -- or if -- technology was helping refugees. We found volunteers offering free Wi-Fi access to help refugees stay in touch with relatives at home and learn new languages. Aid groups provide food, clothing and advice. They organize art classes and ad hoc music performances so these men, women and children can build a sense of community in bleak surroundings.

But some of those efforts bump into refugee concerns over European Union laws, in particular the Dublin Regulation governing illegal immigration. The law says the country in which an illegal immigrant is caught is recorded as his or her "first point of entry." If you're discovered in Hungary, that's where you have to apply for residency or asylum. And if you're subsequently found in another country, you can be deported to Hungary.

The Dublin Regulation also specifies that illegal immigrants be fingerprinted and that personal information be stored in an international database. So if you're hoping to eventually settle in the UK, as many of the refugees and migrants in northern France are, you don't want to be fingerprinted anywhere other than Britain.

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Refugees have been slow to overcome associating the container camp's handprint scanner with deportation, says Beatrice Lorigan, a British volunteer who helps provide Wi-Fi to the Jungle from a converted bus.

"Everybody was really suspicious," she says, a laptop with a cracked screen balanced on her knee.

Volunteers believe the information stored in the system is separate from the immigration database, but without official confirmation refugees aren't reassured.

The government in Calais didn't respond to a request for comment. Neither did Zalix, the scanner manufacturer, or Biro, the security contractor.

'Stop wasting taxes on this bullshit'

The container camp has a single entrance. Residents open the hand scanner, which is enclosed in a gray plastic box. They type in an access code and place their hand on a palm reader.

If the code and print match, the scanner unlocks a turnstile, the kind you see at any major sporting event.

When we try to take a closer look at the hand scanners, security guards in red Biro Sécurité uniforms warn us not to take photographs.

Residents of the government camp use the handprint scanners that control access to the containers. This was as close as we could get before private security guards warned us off.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The guards and fences look formidable. But around the back of the container camp, refugees have hollowed out a patch of soft sand under the fence and casually slip in and out.

The hand scanner, guards and fences reflect the authoritarian attitudes of the hard-line Calais government, led by Mayor Natacha Bouchart. Just 20 miles from Dover's famous white cliffs, this busy port is the nearest point to the UK on the European mainland. For more than 15 years, the peaceful countryside has been a bottleneck for refugees and migrants heading to the UK, to the dismay of locals. At the entrance to the Jungle, a squat concrete pillbox is spray painted with English-language graffiti reading, "Stop wasting taxes on this bullshit."

Some 20 miles east along the French coast, near Dunkirk, authorities in Grande-Synthe have a more sympathetic attitude toward refugees. Here, Mayor Damien Careme has supported humanitarian organizations including MSF and Utopia 56 in building a very different type of community.

Grande-Synthe is the first French refugee camp to meet the humanitarian standards set by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Nestled between a leafy stream and a rail yard, the camp is relatively low-tech: a grid of roughly 360 cabins made of plywood with small windows and corrugated plastic roofs.

Families can lock the cabins to protect their belongings. The site has airy toilet and shower blocks cleaned by French attendants, in stark contrast to the overworked, foul-smelling portable toilets at the Jungle. A laundry and small store line a sleepy square near the entrance. Unlike the Jungle, children scamper around the grounds and gather at school buildings. Posters advertise French and English lessons, some of which are exclusively for women, while other signs offer rides into town and useful information in Kurdish, Arabic and Farsi.

A public address system is broken and there's no money for the costly repairs, but improvements are still being made. French architecture students raise the frame of a new building while British volunteers rake gravel to create a football pitch during our visit.

Mohammed Ali, 31, a refugee from Iraq who spent time at a Jungle-like camp nearby before the new facility was built, says life is better at Grande-Synthe. "I really miss my country, my family, my friends, my culture," Ali tells me as I watch him transfer contacts to an iPhone from his old phone. "But sometimes you have to leave to save yourself."

The Grande-Synthe camp built by MSF with the backing of a sympathetic mayor is a world away from the squalor of the Jungle.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Unlike the container camp, Grande-Synthe is built around the autonomy of the people who live here.

"They have access to legal information to make the best decisions for themselves," MSF's Daniel Barney says. "And they have access to community facilities, community kitchens and places where they can have a bit of dignity and take ownership of their daily lives."

There are no guards and no fences at Grande-Synthe. Importantly, there are no high-tech handprint scanners.

Grande-Synthe has been built with the best of humanitarian intentions, but organized crime has infiltrated the camp.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The absence of those security measures, however, leads to a different problem: criminals control who gets to stay here.

'Crime central'

People smugglers, many with ties to the Iraqi Kurdish community, deposit hopeful travelers at the camp and then demand thousands of euros more for promised passage to the UK. The camp appears tranquil by day, but it's chilling to hear from refugees, migrants and volunteers about the invisible grip of the people-smuggling gangs. Even here, far from the chaos and destruction at home, refugees face violence: one man tells us about gunshots in the camp recently.

Rory Fox, a volunteer at the camp's school, describes Grande-Synthe as "crime central."

Gary Thomas, an English volunteer helping out at the Grande-Synthe school, says the smugglers bring people in and charge new arrivals for keys to huts before transporting them across the Channel to the UK. The camp, which should house 2,500 migrants, is less than half full -- and the number of occupants is actually falling.

The handprint scanner at the container camp and the crime at Grande-Synthe are now driving many refugees to the wretched slum both were supposed to replace: the Jungle.

But the Jungle hasn't had any of the thought and planning that went into building the other camps. Volunteers are trying to address that situation even as its population swells. (Since we visited, the population has risen to more than 9,100.)

British, French and other European volunteers wearing white vests that bear the logo of Care4Calais distribute meals and warm clothing to people throughout the Jungle. Donations are made online, where the group organizes online communities that reach out to people around the world who want to help.

These online communities also allow charities and humanitarian organizations to coordinate their efforts. Care4Calais works with Calaid, l'Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees to invite donations of money and essentials. Clothing, food and hygiene products are badly needed. Donors can also buy items like tents, sleeping bags and shoes to be delivered to the camps.

Among the most essential items for these displaced people are mobile phones, which let the refugees find information about what's going on around them, tap into translation apps and stay in touch with friends and family.

Another group, the Hummingbird Project, allows people to donate their old smartphone to a refugee. The group is particularly keen on getting phones to an estimated 420 unaccompanied children who have ended up in the Jungle. Phone Credits For Refugees, a British charity, runs a program to help refugees maintain contact with their families by purchasing phone credit for them.

The Jungle also has its own informal economy, which runs along a stretch of dusty sand known as the "high street."

Cafes operating out of cobbled-together shelters offer generous Afghan meals for a few euros, supplementing the overstretched food supplies donated by charities. Shops sell bottled water, energy drinks and cigarettes, as well as all-important mobile phone SIM cards and credit.

We met refugees charging their phones for free at power strips running from a portable generator in Khyber Darbar, one of the bigger cafes. Young men chat with volunteers and other refugees while watching Will Smith in "I am Legend" on a flat-screen TV perched precariously in a corner of the tent.

"My heart does not accept it," says refugee Darya Khan, pictured in Calais.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The TV was practically the only concession to relaxation we saw in the Jungle. A tent where a charity gives out information has a sign advertising movie showings, but the laptop of the Spanish volunteer manning the operation is broken so the movies have stopped.

"It's food, sleep, food, sleep," Amin Amini, a 25-year-old from Iran, says of the tedium of camp life.

Still, the high street is vulnerable to the whims of Calais authorities.

Police swept through last month, arresting vendors and confiscating stock. Volunteers from the Refugee Info Bus, which supplies free Wi-Fi in the camp, used their smartphones to record officers in riot gear drinking the water they had just confiscated. The shops and cafes violated health regulations, police said, a cruel irony given the unsanitary condition of the place as a whole.

The Jungle has no electricity, so the loss of a portable generator is keenly felt by those needing to charge their phones. This week, a judge in Lille granted the restaurants and shops a reprieve from closure because they're vital to the community, in part because they offer phone charging.

The deteriorating state of the Jungle finally convinced Khan, the Afghan refugee, to move into the container camp despite his misgivings about the handprint scanner. He still hopes to continue his journey soon and settle somewhere he can live a normal life.

"My heart does not accept it," Khan says of his life in Calais. Like all the refugees we spoke to, he doesn't expect the French to provide for him. "They don't know me, they should not look after me," he says.

Even so, he and many of the people stranded here deserve better than the Jungle.

First published August 13.
Updated October 27 at 5:58 a.m. PT: Added an editors' note to reference the start of the closure of the Jungle as police began moving refugees out. Updates in August gave new population figures for the Jungle and clarified the relationship between the hand scanner and the immigration databases.