They dream of life in Great Britain. Refugees from Sudan, Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan gather in the French port city of Calais to cross the English Channel.
There are usually traffic jams on a Wednesday and Thursday, as a particularly high number of trucks are on the road and get stuck on access roads leading to the ferry harbor. Down below in the "jungle", as the camp's inhabitants call the dunes under the highway, the first ones start running. Younis runs up the embankment with around a hundred others. They jump over the guard rails, then split into small groups behind the trailers. He pulls the lever and jumps into a Polish truck, but quickly comes out again. "That's not for us; only refrigerators!" he exclaims. It's hard to hide behind the large boxes. What are the chances of getting away? "Maybe 80 percent," guesses Younis. But those who made it succeeded at night; it's easier in the dark.
Refugees try to open doors to get in and hide in-between the cargo. They have to be quick as the loud sirens of police cars approach them within minutes. They drive on the shoulder to the front of the traffic jam, and then police officers carrying batons jump out. Whoever has found a spot in the truck and closed the doors is fairly safe. It takes too long to inspect everything. Further back in line, the police drag a group of Sudanese out of a Lithuanian truck. Younis sprinted over the guard rail towards the camp a while back; his countryman Tahir trails him. He says, "The police are violent. They keep us from getting into trucks." He adds, "They spray tear gas in the cars and the baton beatings injure many people. That is not humane; Europe is supposed to be humane." The route goes through Libya; the goal is northern Europe.
Younis states that he has made around 30 attempts to get away in a truck, but it never worked. The twenty-six-year-old comes from northern Sudan and belongs to the Nuba people, who have been discriminated against and persecuted by leaders in the capital, Khartoum. He is actually a teacher, but now has to make ends meet by working as an unskilled laborer. He and his friend Khalid met while fleeing from Sudan to Libya. Khalid was also a teacher and the inhabitants of the "jungle" respectfully refer to him as "teacher" because he speaks English and has the air of a village elder about him.
Both of them traveled in trucks driven by smugglers through the desert from Sudan to Libya. There was little water and whoever complained was beaten; people died. Finally, they all ended up in one camp. Only those who had any money got out.
The two men survived by working illegally in Libya. But Khalid says the situation has deteriorated a great deal recently. Weapons are ubiquitous and "people are attacked on the street and robbed." He himself was beaten up by a former employer; Younis was arrested by the police. It was time to continue fleeing.
To Italy in a fisherman's boat
In the port city of Zuwarah, Younis paid a smuggler 2,000 euros and at night, he was crammed into a fisherman's boat with 350 other people. After a few hours, the boat was still going in circles off the Libyan coast. The eighteen-year-old helmsman had never steered a ship before. In the end, passengers reached the smuggler on his cell phone. He then came with a speedboat and led the small ship into international waters, said Younis. Drowning refugees are bad for the smuggler's reputation.
In the end, the group sent a help signal and the Italians pulled them out of the sea and took them to Sicily, like the other 50,000 refugees this year. A few days later, authorities put Younis in a bus to Milan. He made it to Calais by hiding in the public toilet on a train. Crossing Europe took around twelve days.
Life in the jungle is rough
"I just want to find a place to live. I definitely want to bring my family. I miss them so much! I want to buy my son a bike and to embrace my daughter and wife." He endured the journey through the Sahara, survived the sea crossing, and was very lucky that he didn't drown. "But the greatest joy would be to reunite with my family. I just don't know what comes after Calais," he said.
Every afternoon, he spends 2 hours waiting in the endless line for food at the camp. It is a daily ritual for the nearly 3,000 refugees in "the jungle". The French government pays for the groceries and a non-governmental organization runs the kitchen. There is also living space for 50 women and children, the only ones with a roof over their heads. After meals, the men have to go out to their makeshift city made of plastic coverings, tents and wooden huts. Relief organizations provide material, but the refugees are responsible for building. Waste piles up between the dwellings. "We came from the hell of the Arabic world to the filth of Europe," says Younis.
Hierarchies exist here, as well. The Afghanis, hardened by war, are the silent rulers of the camp. They operate some small "village shops" where the refugees can buy instant soup, canned fish and coke. A brawl always breaks out between the Sudanese and Eritreans. Two weeks ago, tents were set on fire and the police were called. Usually, the same nationalities stick together, especially the Syrians who have set up their tents far away. The want to go to London as quickly as possible – most of them have relatives there. When a young man is asked where he comes from, tears well up in his eyes as he answers, "I come from Aleppo; there is no more Aleppo."
Continue fleeing or stay?
A few days later, Younis devises a new plan. His friend "teacher" was the first in the camp to apply for asylum in France and was offered accommodation in a town in central France. He can now leave the jungle. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve advised the refugees to apply for asylum in France instead of attempting the risky journey to England. Chances of staying there are slim, even for refugees from Syria. The British government's response to the refugee crisis in Europe is: We're not taking in anyone - keep them to yourselves. The thousands who make their way from Calais to England will only find an illegal life or a refugee detention center. Younis has now decided to apply for asylum in France. And if that doesn't work? He does not want to think of the answer to that question.