Almost 6,000 refugees have been removed from the “Jungle” camp in Calais and distributed all over France. The town of Talence near Bordeaux has given a friendly welcome to one small group billeted there temporarily.
"It's ten times better here than in Calais," Chakka (on the right in the photo) confirms. He's sitting on the steps of the dilapidated mansion in the sunshine. "A million times better," laughs his friend Fofana. The two men are from Ivory Coast and met while living in tents in the Calais "Jungle." "We came here together by bus. We stood in line for days; our turn only came on Wednesday. Now we're living here in a container, with two Pakistanis. We get on all right; everyone's relaxed; there are no knives and violence like in the 'Jungle.'"
France shows humanity to refugees
The little palace, abandoned years ago, is a bizarre backdrop for the container camp that's been erected in the garden to house the refugees. Most are Sudanese, Eritrean and Afghan. They can stay here for four weeks, and can regain their strength, explains the manager of the camp, Isabelle Pantebre from the local welfare authority. "They arrived a week ago, completely exhausted. And of course they're very unsure of themselves, too, because they've given up their goal of reaching Britain." Almost all have now applied for asylum in France, and their applications are to be fast-tracked for assessment.
The initial, main difference in this camp is that meals are bigger. "Although the men are young, around 25, some are suffering from malnutrition, and many of them are seeing a doctor here for the first time since they fled," says Pantebre. Right now they just need to be able to relax in a safe place, she continues. "The trauma they've experienced surfaces bit by bit. And it's not just to do with to Calais, but also their journey here and their experiences back home." The French state is showing these refugees a humane face for the first time since their arrival in France.
For many, uncertainty remains
Chakka was one of those who just didn't manage to get on a truck to take him across the Channel to Britain. "I wanted to go there because I have friends there and I don't know anyone in France," he says. "I've been on the road for two years: First I was in a squat in Paris, then in Calais for five months, but by the end I had no hope any more." Worn down by hardship and uncertainty, he accepted the offer of relocation. "I could choose between two regions. And I knew Bordeaux was a big city in the south, so I came here."
He knows, too, that the well-provisioned camp with the friendly helpers in the palace garden is only a way station. "It's not easy for those of us from Ivory Coast. Whether the French like us and will grant us asylum - I have no idea." And he knows that the police in Paris are again driving away hundreds of refugees who have been camping in the Stalingrad metro station in Paris. He is puzzled by how differently they are treated.
"A person needs security. Without security there's no humanity," says his friend Fofana. What will he do if the French authorities reject him? "I'll move on - to Belgium or Germany," he says: There must be room for him somewhere. He hasn't yet realized that the doors have closed all over Europe.
France sticks to its restrictive refugee policy
Isabelle Pantebre is optimistic. "Most of the people here have a good chance of being granted asylum. That has less to do with their country of origin and more to do with their lives and what has happened to them. Many of them were persecuted; some were tortured." The empathetic social welfare worker hopes for a good outcome for her charges. But Afghans, for example, have poor chances if they can't prove that they themselves were persecuted.
The outlook in France is better for Sudanese people in particular. Babacar, who is from a persecuted ethnic group, is already learning his first words in French using an app on his cellphone. "Comment allez-vous? Je suis bien," he repeats slowly. His English is rudimentary; Fofana, who is good at languages, has to help him, translating into Arabic.
The people of Talence are tolerant
It's only ten minutes' walk from the container village into the little town. When Chakka, Fofana and the others walk through it, they don't need to fear verbal or physical attack. There are very few right-wing extremists in the region. In other areas there've been angry protests about the redistribution of the Calais refugees, often incited by the Front National.
But the citizens of Talence are tolerant. "I'm all for it! Our grandparents and great-grandparents went through something similar. It doesn't bother me at all - quite the opposite," says a young passerby. Older residents are also understanding of the situation, especially concerning those who have fled civil war. "People are coming now from places where there's war; we had war here in the 1940s. Everyone flees war, and it's just good if we can take them in," says an older woman.
"It's a nice gesture when people need protection, and we'll just have to see how they integrate into French society," says the next passerby. The little group from Calais has been lucky - for now. Four weeks without fear, violence and hunger - that's the gift that France has given them.