Calais Jungle refugee camp

(© iResist 2023 – both images and text are not to be reproduced in any circumstance)
In the freezing February of 2016, as I visited the Calais Jungle and then Dunkirk in unstoppable rain and piercing cold, all I could see was a world of blue plastic tents trying to stay intact in harsh winds. The squalid area of scrubland had become a symbol of the refugee crisis in Europe after more than 1 million desperate people, many escaping the war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan fled to Europe by sea during 2015. The Calais jungle and Dunkirk refugee camps sprawled across an expanse of land, a chaotic maze of makeshift tents and shelters lining the muddy pathways, forming a labyrinth of interconnected living spaces for thousands of displaced families, individuals and many unaccompanied children. 

Thousands of people from different countries resided in these camps; it was filled with the sounds of multiple languages, the whispers and of daily life, the sound of burning wood and the people encircling its fire to keep themselves warm. Walking through the narrow slippery pathways, I could feel the palpable sense of uncertainty and longing that hung in the air.

The refugee crisis was by the escalation of conflicts and civil wars in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, leading to a significant influx of refugees seeking safety and better opportunities in Europe but the residents of the camps were from multiple ethnicities, not restricted to war hit countries.

As I walked through the camp, I could see people from different ethnicities clinging together, their faces reflecting the profound loss and uncertainty they had endured. Women were mostly inside the presumed safety of the tent. Children were walking around, trying to find activity and reason around their tents in ankle high mud. Men, weary and worn, standing in a never ending queue for food shared stories of their arduous journeys, the dangers they had faced and the dreams that still flickered within their hearts. Some men were performing ablution in freezing cold water of a public tap, preparing for their daily prayer. 

For me, it was a big question if living in these miserable conditions was worth the pain, specially for the families with small children. It is obvious that people in war hit countries had no choice but to put themselves in such a situation for a hope of survival. But it’s a big question if living in these conditions was worth it for the economic migrants coming from poor countries, most of whom were young energetic men ready to endure hardship for a secure economic future?

Calais, situated in close proximity to the English Channel, became a strategic transit point for migrants and refugees aiming to reach the United Kingdom. France attracts immigrants from those countries which had once been colonies of France as people can benefit from the familiarity with French language. While the allure of the UK is its perceived economic opportunities, existing diaspora communities and familiarity with English language and that made Calais an attractive gateway for those hoping to reach the UK. The presence of the Channel Tunnel, connecting France and the UK, and the ferry ports in Calais and nearby Dunkirk added to the allure of the area for migrants. Many sought to stow away on trucks, trains, or ferries crossing the English Channel, hoping to reach the UK undetected. The limited availability of legal pathways to seek asylum or migrate to the UK left many migrants and refugees with no choice but to resort to irregular and dangerous methods. The lack of accessible and efficient processes for claiming asylum or resettlement created an environment where migrants were driven to take risks and seek alternative routes.

Insufficient capacity in reception and asylum systems both in France and the UK contributed to the establishment of the Calais Jungle. The backlog of asylum applications and lengthy processing times left many migrants stranded in Calais while awaiting decisions on their cases. It was a common perception among migrants and refugees that Calais could offer opportunities to cross into the UK and they were all waiting for their “chance”. The existence of human smugglers and human traffickers further the perception that reaching Calais was a crucial step towards achieving their desired destination.


Now after reaching the Calais Jungle or Dunkirk camps, survival was a daily battle. Long queues were formed outside distribution points, where aid workers distributed rations of food and essential supplies. I noticed that the queues for hot meals and ration were full of young people while unaccompanied women and children were at a clear disadvantage. It was primarily hard for women with children because it was extremely hard for them to carry their children along to stand in hours long queues and leaving children unattended in the camp was dangerous in so many ways. Some charities or volunteers were offering help in the form of a “shower with warm water” once in many weeks which shows the living conditions and level of desperation. The camps suffered from insufficient sanitation and hygiene facilities, including a shortage of toilets, showers, and waste management systems. Living in harsh conditions, with limited access to healthcare and psychological support, resulted in physical and mental health problems among refugees in the Calais Jungle.

Yet, even amidst these challenging circumstances, a sense of community emerged. People formed bonds, helping one another, sharing what little they had and finding solace in their shared experiences. However, this fragile sense of unity was constantly threatened by the presence of criminal elements within the camp. The vulnerable situation of refugees in the Calais Jungle and Dunkirk made them targets for exploitation, violence, and human trafficking. Criminal networks took advantage of their desperation, subjecting them to trafficking, forced , and sexual exploitation. The lack of security and protection mechanisms further exposed them to violence and abuse. Women and children were particularly vulnerable, their safety constantly at risk. Unfortunately, some volunteers working for charities were also involved in the criminal practices. Rather criminals found it as an opportunity to act as volunteer charity workers with short term commitment and get access to vulnerable people in the camps. 

In the Calais Jungle, the desire for a better future burned brightly. Many inhabitants clung to the hope of reaching the United Kingdom, believing it held the promise of safety, opportunity, and the chance to rebuild their shattered lives. Their methods of crossing vary according to the money they can afford to pay for the journey but all involve significant risks. Some migrants resort to hiding in vehicles, often targeting trucks parked in rest areas or attempting to break into vehicles queued at the port. The cramped and unventilated conditions of these hiding spots pose grave threats to their well-being, including suffocation, dehydration and other health-related issues.

Another method employed by migrants is to brave the treacherous waters of the English Channel using small boats, frequently supplied by smugglers or traffickers. These vulnerable vessels, not designed for such journeys, endanger the lives of those on board causing several accidents and deaths, highlighting the extreme dangers associated with this approach. Furthermore, the involvement of human trafficking networks exacerbates the risks faced by migrants. Exploiting their vulnerability, these networks charge exorbitant fees while subjecting individuals to further peril during their journey.

In late 2016, the French government resolved to dismantle a significant portion of the Calais Jungle and relocated some of the residents to reception across France. 

Today, the Jungle has gone, but the migrants remain. According to Human Rights Watch, there are still about 2,000 migrants “in wooded areas, in and around disused warehouses and under bridges in and around Calais”, including about 300 unaccompanied children while several hundred more are camped in a forest near Dunkirk which had been evacuated by the French government.

Now the migrants waiting in these areas or those who had once been resident here are at the of a political storm in multiple ways. In the UK, the home secretary’s draconian nationality and borders bill, which includes plans to penalize asylum seekers who cross the Channel in small boats with a jail sentence and a ban on receiving state funds looms on the horizon. There is an ever growing hostility to the migrants on the French side too with a constantly growing xenophobia which is reflected in the of French authorities towards minorities and immigrants which has often led to widespread public outrage and protest. 

No matter what the French and the UK government do to deter migrants from taking the risky journeys, addressing the root causes of migration and establishing legal pathways remain vital aspects of a comprehensive solution.

The human stories behind the dangerous journeys and experiences of living in Calais are both compelling and distressing. It is crucial to approach this topic with sensitivity, acknowledging the desperate circumstances that lead individuals to take such risks. As the situation continues to evolve, it is imperative for international cooperation and comprehensive solutions to be sought, with a focus on human rights and the well-being of all involved. Calais Jungle gave me a profound sense of the human spirit, both fragile and unyielding. The refugees I encountered were more than just victims; they were survivors, holding onto their dreams and the belief in a struggle for a better future. I carried with me the immense appreciation of having a life with luxury of having access to necessities and a sense of responsibility towards advocating need for peace, peace beyond prejudice of ethnicities.
Author – Aisha Ghazi (Founder – iResist)