CALAIS, France — When French officials announced late last week that as many as 1,000 people would be evicted from portions of this city’s infamous “Jungle” refugee camp, they allowed just seven days for migrants to move into shelters nearby or to accept transfers to other centers around France.
Thanks to an 11th-hour injunction filed in a French court Thursday night, that deadline has been pushed back. And for now, those living in the part of the camp slated for demolition — its most densely populated area — are staying put. About 200 migrants and refugees living in the camp and a group of eight British and French nongovernmental organizations filed the action to delay destruction of the camp. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in Lille.
According to Clare Moseley, the British founder of Care4Calais, one of the lawsuit’s co-signers, the complaint argues that while the notorious encampment is not an acceptable solution to the migrant crisis, the demolition proposed by local officials does not provide viable alternatives for those who would be displaced.
“It’s time to tell the migrants of Calais who live in undignified conditions, and give Calais an image that isn’t dignified either, that we have a solution for each of you,” Fabienne Buccio, the Calais prefect, told Le Monde newspaper last Friday. But the proposed alternative is for the migrants to move into a satellite container camp or to be sent to centers across France. In a statement, Care4Calais described that proposal as neither “suitable nor adequate.”
“The refugees don’t want to be all over France,” Moseley said. “They want to be in Calais.”
Once known as the “brightest jewel in the English crown,” Calais, a port city in northern France, is just over 20 miles from the English coast.
The Jungle, within sight of the English Channel, is a community of people from war-torn Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea and other places — all part of the river of humanity that has flooded into Europe in recent months and years in search of asylum and safety.
Overwhelmingly, Britain is the destination of choice for those stranded in the Jungle. Many of them have family in Britain and many speak English, a skill they hope to parlay into sustainable employment.
This is the case for Jaza, a Kurdish man from near Kirkuk, Iraq, who lives in the Jungle with his wife and six children. On Friday, Jaza, who would give only a single name, watched his young daughter giggle as she read books about Disney princesses.
“You know, France is not safe,” he said, gesturing around the camp. The Islamic State “makes problems here. This is not a life for me or for my daughter. If I live or die, it’s no problem. But my children can have a better life than this.”
Despite restrictions from the British government, the Jungle’s inhabitants continue holding out hope of receiving asylum across the channel. On Christmas Day, hundreds attempted to storm the entrance to the nearby Eurotunnel. On Jan. 23, about 200 broke into the port of Calais, where some even boarded a British ferry.
Jaza and his family are waiting for legal admission to Britain. “I’ll wait two months,” he said. “I’ll wait three months.”
Moseley, who came to Calais in September and has stayed since, is highly critical of her government’s immigration policies, which she called “selfish” and “protectionist.” Referring to the Kindertransports of World War II, when British families took in Jewish children from Nazi-occupied central Europe, she said that British officials “have forgotten what our grandparents stood for and fought for.”
Few opponents of the proposed demolition would argue that the Jungle is without problems. After a rainy Friday, its streets were a muddy blend of trash, abandoned shoes and the occasional pool of raw sewage.
But after swelling in size over the past year, the Jungle is no longer a makeshift community, either. A significant amount of entrepreneurial development by migrants and aid groups has created a level of infrastructure that challenges the notion of a transient camp.
There are stores and restaurants, libraries and theaters, churches and mosques. A library called Jungle Books offers residents a host of English and foreign-language tomes, from tattered Penguin classics to more contemporary titles such as Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full” or Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth.” In a play on a famous slogan, a sign in the library reads: “Didn’t Make it to England: Keep Calm and Come to English Class.”
Solomon, who would give only his first name, left his children and extended family in Ethiopia to join his wife in Britain. He arrived in Calais almost a year ago and since then has become one of the principal architects of the Jungle’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The church is now one of the most visually prominent buildings in the camp, its entrance flanked by colorful Christmas trees and decorated with golden-haired angels.
“I have dreams. Everyone has dreams,” he said. “When I came here, I wanted to come to the U.K. But then I built the church. When there’s a chance, I’ll take it, but when there’s not, I have the church.”
“What’s been built here is a town,” said Mary Jones, a British teacher and volunteer who founded Jungle Books last year. But this particular town, pending Tuesday’s hearing, may vanish before long.