CALAIS, France — “Welcome to the Jungle” indeed. Perhaps the most important thing to know about this place — soon to be a non-place — is how little we know about it. Yes, the Jungle is at the center of a heated debate over migration in both France and Britain, whose border it straddles. And, yes, the Jungle is a symbol of the migration crisis that has posed one of the most significant existential challenges to the European Union since its inception.
But at no point have we been able to say exactly how many people have lived in this camp for migrants. The number changed everyday, always difficult to pin down, a subject of dispute between the French government and humanitarian workers. There has never been an official census in the camp. So this handmade sign in front of the now-famous Banksy mural at the Jungle’s entrance is merely an approximation of something that remains unknowable.
At 6:45 a.m. Monday, a line mostly of young men from the Jungle extended for blocks by the side of an empty highway. Aware of the impending demolition of the camp that had become their home for the past few months, and maybe even the past year, these young men — mostly from Sudan and Afghanistan — were waiting to be transferred.
Where? They did not know.
They had mostly hoped for passage to Britain just 20 miles to the north. By Monday morning, however, they had resigned themselves to resettlement in France, as part of the government’s plan to redistribute the residents of the Jungle to “welcome centers” across the country. These are places that — at least in theory — will provide medical assistance, legal advice and job assistance to those who wish to claim asylum here. The problem is that very few of them do.
More than 1,200 police officers were on hand in Calais on Monday to monitor the situation. After the violence that had erupted during a previous demolition attempt — including some migrants sewing their mouths shut in protest — it was clear that the government was expecting the worst. But Monday’s proceedings were relatively calm, as Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve declared later in the day. These officers were guarding the entrance to the registration center, monitoring the flow of migrants in and out. There was none of the expected brutality. One of those pictured here even offered a lighter to the young men in line.
Later in the day, the usually bustling Jungle camp — a town almost, albeit a small, makeshift one — felt considerably less vibrant than it had in the past. Even though many are still here awaiting transfer, the camp is already something of a relic.
For all that is written about the Jungle’s squalor and its violence — and there is much to say about both — by the end, the camp had also become a community of friends, drawn together by forces none of them could have predicted.
But still, on the day their Jungle experience finally ended, hardly anyone looked back.