The 'Jungle'

As the main point of departure for sea and rail travel to Britain, the coastal town of Calais in northern France has become a ‘hotspot’ for asylum seekers hoping to build a new life in the United Kingdom.

The city is home to France’s largest passenger port, and the fourth largest cargo port. But the signing of the Le Touquet agreement in 2003, which extended the 'juxtaposed controls' border arrangement between Britain and France, has had a bottleneck effect. The 'Jungle’ — the term used to refer to the shanty town settlements that first emerged in 2006, and have since become synonymous with Calais — has no fixed location. But it is most commonly associated with a former landfill site not far from the ferry port that in August 2016 was home to an estimated 10,000 people.

The political discourse around the jungle and those temporarily seeking shelter there thrives on generalisations. Publicly labelled a ‘swarm’ and a ‘bunch of migrants’ by former British Prime Minister David Cameron, in the eyes of many the people here are not individuals but a collective mass — the object of a confused war of words: ‘refugees’, ‘asylum seekers’, ‘economic migrants’.

The reality is far more complicated. Many have fled war and political persecution. Others, notably from Afghanistan and Iran, left to avoid being made to fight for a cause they did not believe in. Many will show you photographs on their mobile phones of family already living in the United Kingdom, whom they hope to join. And some have spent years, occasionally decades, living and working in the UK, only to find themselves suddenly ejected. For them, the journey is not one of migration but a return home.

‘What is it like?’, often asked, is a simple question that defies an equally straightforward answer. Unlike Zaatari in Jordan, where orderly lines of identical shelters extend outwards on a vast scale, the Jungle follows no such logic. It is a city. Alongside countless tents and shelters, nestled into any and all available space with little regard to order, stand shops, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers. While different nationalities have generally grouped themselves together — as is common in any city — these lines are also frequently transgressed by a shared political precarity that unites its citizens. But above all, the Jungle is a city that is constantly changing. Some of these changes are internal and organic, but others have been the result of more profound changes in the political landscape in which the Jungle is deeply embedded, and yet over which it holds no control.

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