Refuge in the Jungle

In its final days, an enclave in France stands as a testament to migrant survival
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(AFP: Francois Lo Presti)

The migrant encampment known as "The Jungle" in the port city of Calais, France, is set to shut down starting the week of October 24. The British and French authorities who administer the area have, after months of political squabbles, moved to demolish the vast shanty town that migrants have built here as they seek passage to the United Kingdom by road. For those stuck in limbo at the border, authorities have promised to move remaining residents to supposedly safer shelters. They will be required to either apply for asylum in France or return to their countries of origin, which in many cases would be going back to Syria, or another site of humanitarian crisis. Many refugees have protested, understandably, wary of what will happen to them; many will keep risking their lives to cross the border. Whatever happens from here, countless people will still be seeking refuge, drifting ever further from their destination.  Kali Robinson reported recently on some of the lives that have gotten stuck here and how they fit into a wider crisis of borders and cultural conflict in France.

--Michelle Chen, October 21, 2016


CALAIS, France—Marooned just outside this coastal town, thousands of refugees from across the world live in a makeshift town known as the Jungle: they take shelter in tents, makeshift sheds pieced together with tarps, even renovated shipping containers. For refugees fleeing war, desperate poverty and atrocities, the amenities in the Jungle suffice.

Still, worshippers manage to pray regularly, on mats laid out on the ground, or one of the ad hoc mosques scattered on the grounds, or at the single ramshackle church on one side of the encampment.

The prayer reflects their hopes. Many in the Jungle seek to reach the UK and are eager to leave behind their desolate conditions in France.

“Things are so bad here,” Abu Eman, a Calais resident from Sudan, told Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) in September. “Every night at 8:30 pm, for no reason, police launch tear gas at us. At that time people will be playing football and cricket, not doing anything to harm anyone. I am afraid of the locals, because they want us to leave.”

Mohammad Ghannam, a Syrian refugee of Palestinian ancestry, was granted asylum in France and now often goes to the camp as a communications officer for MSF. Ghannam has seen racist and inhumane treatment of refugees in Calais first hand, common occurrences that he said make refugees want to seek asylum elsewhere.

“People told me ‘You’re stupid, because you applied [for asylum] in France,’” Ghannam said.

Under public pressure from both pro- and anti-immigrant groups, France’s Defender of Rights announced last week that the government would dismantle the entire camp by the end of the year and move the migrants to a different, supposedly more decent, site. But their future is far from clear.

A Mosque at the Jungle in Calais (Kali Robinson)

Worse, the centers where Jungle residents are to be relocated have faced resistance in the form of protests, suspected arson and even gunfire from locals, according to French news outlet The Local. The last instance of demolition in the Jungle resulted in the disappearance “hundreds of children,” according to Unicef UK’s deputy executive director, who added that the children could potentially fallen prey to traffickers or other forms of exploitation. Even if the refugees are safely relocated—within France or other parts of Europe—after the camp is razed, those hoping to reach Great Britain will be no closer to their destination now that construction has begun on the British-financed “anti-intrusion” wall blocking Calais’s port, forcing the migrants to remain in France, unless they are minors with family in Britain or they can qualify through the complex bureaucratic petition process.

While France has a history of accepting refugees’ asylum claims, accepting 31.5 percent of last year’s more than 80,000 asylum requests fielded by the government in 2015, and boasts of its ethnically diverse population, by European standards, it also has a deep history of xenophobia. In the wake of the recent influx of refugees, discrimination and bigotry are aggressively displayed by far right political forces, and many Muslims, both migrants and native-born citizens, face intensifying discrimination in work and public space.


Far from the depths of the Calais Jungle, the same conflict between religion and nationality unfolds in the core of urban France. It is experienced daily by Hawa Ndongo. Born in France to immigrant parents, the 24 year-old's identity as a Black, Muslim woman excludes her from certain opportunities, she said. When she considered applying for her university’s journalism program, the school’s board members—erroneously—told her that no journalists wear a hijab like she does.

“I don’t want to choose. It’s always something the French society wants us to choose, like ‘Are you Muslims, are you French, are you Senegalese?’” Ndongo said. “I am all of these things. I cannot say that I am more French, that I am more Muslim. It’s all part of my identity.”

French Muslims like Ndongo, who consider themselves observant and practice their religion openly, face a dilemma. In the country where even Muslim clothing has been at odds with the law, thanks to regulations about public displays of religiosity, refugees arriving from Muslim-majority societies confront certain legislation that requires them to mute their religious expressions outside their private life. With the Muslim population increasing since the 1960s, tension mounts as French secularism meets the predominantly Islamic culture of refugees.

The frustration of reconciling religion and nationality troubles native French Muslims people. But that same concept can be too alien for refugees—who, by definition, are already fleeing traumatic situations— to bear emotionally. According to Ghannam, this was the case when he worked with one Afghan woman and her family, who fled to the Jungle to escape the Taliban. The government granted the family asylum and transplanted them to a tiny French town where Islam was absent. Socially isolated, without access to a mosque or halal food, the mother felt removed from her Afghan and Muslim identity and wished to return to the Jungle.

Some refugees are settled in areas that may be ill-equipped to integrate them. A 2013 report from Forum Réfugiés-Cosi and France Terre d'Asile noted that refugees legally resettled outside major municipalities were often prone to feelings of isolation. These areas tend to host large communities with North African or Sub-Saharan ancestry, due to a wave of immigration in the 60s and 70s, when these groups were encouraged by the government to work in France. As refugees are often placed in these areas and interact with foreign-born communities, integrating into traditionally “French” culture is not easy in a society where your culture comes under attack.

At a rally ahead of last year’s regional elections, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front party and now a presidential candidate, compared the flow of asylum-seekers to the “barbarian invasions” of Rome.

Le Pen has repeatedly showcased her support of so-called “secular values”--code for Western-style liberal values, over freedom of religious expression for Muslims. “We have to oppose all demands that aim to shatter secularism,” she told Al Jazeera last January. “Demands for different clothes, demands for special food, demands for prayer rooms. Demands that create special rules that would allow Muslims to behave differently.” An unsurprising comment from a woman who just last year faced hate speech charges for her 2010 comments comparing Muslim street prayer to Nazi occupation.

Jamal Ismail, an aid worker at the Jungle's "Kitchen" (Kali Robinson)

In many parts of France, the cultural exclusion is more subtle. In 2010, France outlawed wearing face-covering clothing in public, including traditional Muslim burqas and niqabs, commonly-used veils for women. The country has also banned religious symbols in public schools.

A May 2016 study by the French Institute of Public Opinion showed that while most Muslims believed secularism allowed them to practice religion freely, more than one-third felt discrimination against Muslims has increased since last year’s terrorist attacks. This discrimination promotes a potentially radical, even dangerous mindset, according to many academics who have observed issues of identity and alienation as a potential factor behind “radicalization.”

“The difficulties of integration do not arise from the social practices of immigrants, who in the end are quite open,” said French demographer Patrick Simon, in a recent interview with Le Monde, "but from a society that refuses to integrate certain groups on a double criteria: religion (Islam) and skin color of non-European origin— ‘visible’ minorities.”

At times, even native-born citizens are alienated by their fellow French when they appear to be black, Arab or to be Muslim.

These biases form a major barrier to economic and social integration for Muslim refugees. More than half of French citizens surveyed by the Pew Research Center believe refugees are taking French jobs and benefits. In fact, they are likely shut out of the job market: although those legally granted refugee status can work in France, refugees, more than other migrants, take longer to integrate into the workplace due to difficulties in qualifying for jobs in an unfamiliar labor market and social barriers. A 2008 study by the International Labour Organization showed that French citizens with non-European origins were discriminated against when applying for jobs. According to a 2015 study by Institut Montaigne, practicing Catholics were twice as likely as their Muslim counterparts to receive a callback for a job interview.

Being visibly Muslim can bring tensions in the workplace, especially for women who dress in more traditional Muslim clothes. Since employers can ban religious dress, many Muslim women who wear a religious head covering risk being effectively barred from working.

Hadia Hakim, a Syrian Muslim lawyer born in America, moved to Paris to live with her husband, a French native. Though Hakim wears the hijab to work, she said she has seen some Muslims, especially women, downplay aspects of their religious expression to get jobs. Some of her friends will remove their hijab before heading to workplaces that prohibit the veil, and others have been told by their bosses to remove their veils at a client’s request. Her sister-in-law works in a job for which she is overqualified, according to Hakim, because although the work does not require her sister-in-law’s master’s degree, she is allowed to wear the headscarf. Hakim’s own unwillingness to compromise her religious expression kept her from fully integrating, she said.

In Hakim's view, some non-Muslims think they are “saving Muslim women” by protesting the garment, which she wears voluntarily. “While here, I've felt a constant need to defend who I am,” Hakim said, adding that she has only been able to make a few white, French friends. “I have a community, but it’s not a French community.”

Although she intends to live in France for a few more years, Hakim said she hopes to move before having children, so integration is not a concern in her mind. She said that in the future, Muslims could find their place in French society, especially as more young French people become frustrated with bigoted rhetoric and make efforts to befriend Muslims.

“I think in the long run,” Hakim said, “France will change. It’s not sustainable.”


Back in Calais, Malaysian-born English volunteer Sofinee Harun, who helps run a food distribution center in the Jungle called Kitchen in Calais, blames a lack of support systems for many problems refugees face in integrating. Since they are not provided enough information to comfortably navigate French norms and institutions, some Jungle residents cope by compromising their religious values—drinking alcohol or changing the way they dress—in order to avoid confrontations with non-Muslims, or simply to fit in, she said.

“They go against their own cultures without wanting to do that, because they are so vulnerable,” Harun said in a June interview at the camp, taking a break from the massive pots where she and the other volunteers prepare the evening’s meal.

With so many forces working against them, it can seem like refugees and French society will not mix. But to Harun, there is hope yet. She believes non-Muslim French citizens and Muslim refugees can find a way to coexist regardless of their spirituality. To Harun, a person’s religious beliefs are like their food.

“It doesn’t matter what we eat,” she said “We all eat.”



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