Fasil Sisai says he is 16 but he looks twice that. He has been on the roads for four months now, after leaving his home in the city of Assab in Eritrea. His mother died and he lost contact with his father years ago. When he was left alone in the world, his main worry was evading forced military service in Eritrea, sometimes lasting 10 years or more. He has passed through Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya, where he sailed on a rickety smugglers’ ship to Italy, on to Germany from where he crossed into France. Now he is waiting, at the northwestern tip of that country, like 6,000 others, in the makeshift refugee camp near the port city of Calais, his eyes fixed beyond the horizon, across the English Channel, where Britain lies.
“I want to finish school, to learn English, to find work. In England I can do that and no one will force me to join the army,” says Sisai. His leg is bandaged; he was injured a few nights ago when police pushed him off the tracks as he tried to board a Eurostar train before it picked up speed and entered the Channel Tunnel to Britain.
The refugee camp here has been dubbed “the jungle.” It is not official, but in recent years it has become the point to which thousands of refugees stream from dozens of countries in Asia and Africa.
“I have one mission, to get to England,” says Musa Ismail, who fled the Darfur region in Sudan and has been in the camp for three months already, waiting for the right moment. “England is a soft country, you can live there far from violence,” he says.
But the terror attacks in Paris last week add to the difficulties of reaching safe haven. “It’s clear that now we’ll have a much harder time, because the French and the British will think we’re terrorists like the ones in Paris,” Ismail says. “But look at these people,” he says, gesturing toward the hundreds of tents and makeshift huts deep in the mud on the edges of the camp. “Does it look like anyone here is a terrorist? We are busy trying to survive and move on,” he says.
The residents of the camp and the volunteers assisting them say that more police officers have been in the camp over the past few days. The number of cases of police trying to push refugees, including families with small children, back inside has increased; the tear gas that they fired hit children as well. Police in riot gear are stationed outside the camp and used tear gas canisters can be seen on the road.
Most of the refugees are glad to be interviewed. One group stays away from the media — the refugees from Syria. They all know that a Syrian passport, apparently forged, was found on the body of one of the terrorists in Paris.
Groups of refugees have been living in the forests around Calais for 15 years now, but until two years ago there were never more than 1,000. In recent months, their number jumped to six times that many. These are hardened people, willing to risk their lives jumping on a moving train or truck. Some are run over or fall and are killed. Most are young men, able to go back to the track and the road night after night, trying for the 20th or 30th time to break through to Britain. According to the aid groups here, only about a quarter of the camp’s inhabitants are women and children.
There are refugees from every war and rebellion. Mohammed Faizi, 26, an engineer, who used his English as an interpreter for the British army in Afghanistan, says he fled his home six months ago after the Taliban threatened to execute him for collaborating with the infidels. On his cracked phone, he shows photos of himself with British soldiers and his translator’s certificate. “Other Western countries who fought in Afghanistan took their interpreters back with them but Britain offered us a thousand dollars each and abandoned us I’ll get to Britain on my own. I already got on trucks 20 times and was found or it turned out the truck was going the other way. I’ll make it in the end,” he says.
The refugees do not lack for food or clothing, which are provided by aid groups. Some receive money from relatives who have already managed to reach the West and find work. Some long-time residents have opened shops to sell basic goods in the camp and there are even restaurants. Refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea have opened a church here.
The main problems are the flimsy huts that cannot withstand the rain, and the lack of hot water and toilets. But they stay, because this is the only place from which they can try to sneak into Britain.
Refugees talk about England as a land of unlimited opportunity. Some have friends and relatives who have managed to assimilate into immigrant communities and find jobs, albeit for below-average pay, but which allow them to live in greater comfort than they knew at home. Most importantly, they are far from the fighting and oppression that they fled.
But legal entry to Britain is impossible. The British economy, in desperate need of people willing to work for low wages, could easily take in thousands of strong men who would not be taking jobs away from the locals. But the British public fears waves of immigrants and the Conservative government, worried about next year’s referendum on continued membership in the European Union, will not make such an unpopular decision.
With November’s early sundown nearly upon them, dozens of men set off from the camp to the roads and the train tracks, and to the waiting area for the big trucks. They will try to get on any transport heading to Britain. There will be hours of clashes with police trying to keep them back. “Every night I try. Two nights ago I managed to hide under crates in a truck but only when it was too late I realized it was going the opposite direction, to Paris. I took me four hours to get back, on foot, to the camp,” Ikram Khan, 17, from Peshawar, Afghanistan, says.
But Khan doesn't despair. He smiles and seems reconciled to his situation, like most of the residents of the camp. They have crossed continents to flee their countries and for them, even in the mud and filth of the “jungle,” they are survivors facing one more obstacle on their way to the promised land across the Channel.