Scattered but hopeful: stories of life after the Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp

Some migrants were returned to the Calais area in February. Thibault Vandermersch/EPA

My social media pages suddenly were filled with pictures of celebratory dinners hosted for refugees in French villages and towns, selfies of small groups of students visiting museums or relaxing in parks, and short videos of fireworks from Paris and London. It was January 1 2017 – and these messages were optimistic. Images of sunsets and horizons twinkled on the Facebook feeds. Best wishes for peace and happiness in the year ahead appeared in elaborate English and French on my phone. By post, I received a beautiful painting, a New Year’s gift.

All these salutations came from former residents of the refugee camp widely known as the “Jungle”, which was finally demolished by the French government in late October 2016. So where are the residents now, and what has 2017 been like for them so far?

Between September 2015 and October 2016, along with colleagues from the University of East London, I ran an accredited university short course on “Life Stories” in the refugee camp at Calais. Our last students are getting their certificates in March 2017, and we hope this will encourage them to move on in higher education. A group of 22 earlier students authored a book, Voices from the “Jungle”, which will be published by Pluto Press in April.

We are in touch with many ex-students by phone, social media and email – and we meet up with them when possible. We want “Life Stories” to continue working as a gateway to other higher education possibilities. These include efforts to make universities places of sanctuary, student bursaries, free online degrees for refugees and wider educational support networks. And at UEL, we are taking “Life Stories” further and will start a two-year programme in April to help people from refugee backgrounds advance their education.

Refugees around the world, despite their high motivation for education and, often, strong educational backgrounds, have only a 1% chance of entering higher education. This represents a socioeconomic forfeit for the countries where they settle – and a deep personal loss for them.

Education is rarely the first priority and ex-residents faced many problems. The situation in both France and the UK is stressful and penurious. People are faced with long waits for decisions on asylum claims and appeals and are often stuck in one place, unable to work. While waiting, the horrors of the journey and of earlier traumatic events return. As one young Iranian man said: “I was strong at the time, but now – I feel weak.”

Our students were not economic migrants. They gave detailed accounts with evidence of their imprisonment and torture, the killing of people close to them or threats to their own lives, as well as the terrors and deaths they had witnessed on their journeys to Europe. They hoped to further their education, but they were insulted by the idea that economic self-advancement had led them to leave everyone they loved and to risk their lives in the Sahara, the mountains of Iran, and on the Mediterranean Sea.

For them, Warsan Shire’s poem Home, which starts, “No-one leaves home/unless home is the mouth of a shark”, was highly resonant.

Mixed fortunes

As we were teaching a university course, our team did not work with minors, but some hung out in our classes. After demolition, those in Calais had difficult times, seeming pawns in a waiting game between UK and French government efforts to shift responsibility for them. In the immediate aftermath, a third of one group being tracked went missing. Some unaccompanied minors claimed asylum in France, either because they had better experiences of the country in French reception centres for migrants, away from Calais, or because they gave up on reaching the UK.

Young migrants at a reception centre in Perpignan in southern France in November. Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA

Later, the failure by the UK government to deliver on the Dubs Amendment promise to bring some unaccompanied minors to the UK led many to abandon French government centres and make their way back to northern France, sleeping rough in small encampments. One ex-student, now 19, got in touch from the Dunkirk camp, where the disintegrating shelters were full and he was back in a freezing tent. He texted, using a friend’s phone, to say that he was desperate because he had not had contact with his family in many months.

In the UK, the situation is easier for minors reunited with family. One young man from Afghanistan, Ahmed*, was depressed and silent in the camp, surviving only, he said, by listening to music on his phone. Now, he is living with his sister in Manchester, absorbed in college plans, much too occupied to text us.

Two other unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan, Shahid and Abid, live in group care for 16 to 18-year-olds in London. With no family contact, they rely on each other for emotional support. Local people ask them if they are terrorists or tell them to “go home”. They have bad dreams, jump when doors slam, and fear the deportations common when Afghans turn 18. Sometimes, they say it might be better to go back to Afghanistan now and die there, rather than live with such uncertainty and fear. Occasionally, they think about hurting themselves.

Living in limbo

Some of our adult ex-students in the UK are waiting for Home Office interviews, or decisions about their asylum status. They live in government-provided accommodation on £36 a week. It’s not easy, but they are resourceful. One shares with four other young Sudanese men, buying food and cooking together, spinning out the money. Another, Omar, stayed for many months in a small Welsh city. With transport to and from the town centre costing £4, he was isolated and experienced considerable racism, but still managed to support another asylum-seeker whose money had not yet come through.

Gaining leave to remain is not the end of the story – after a month, you will lose your asylum-seeker housing and allowance, and many benefits will not be available to you. You must quickly find a job and somewhere to live. Many former residents of the Calais camp with leave to remain are now in London, where they have reasonable chances of finding work. But they can get caught in a poverty trap of low-wage, zero-hours contracts, with no time for college or even to go to the library to use a computer. Living in the cheapest areas, they spend many hours and considerable money commuting. And they must save – they often need to pay family back or have relations they must help to survive.

An ex-student with an English degree works 10-hour days for the minimum wage with a four-hour commute. He looks after his younger brother, making sure he’s getting an education – and sends money to his ailing parents in Eritrea.

The situation in France is also not easy for other former students. Milkesa, from Ethiopia, left the camp to claim asylum in France in 2015; his case is still pending. He lives in terror of refusal and its two possible consequences: deportation to Ethiopia, where he would be killed, or living illegally on the street.

Shaheen was injured in his attempts to get to the UK, so claimed asylum in France just before the camp’s demolition. His little daughter back in Afghanistan won’t speak to him. She thinks he is lying because he always says he will see her “soon”. The main characteristic of being a refugee is, he says, “waiting”.

Studies continue

Around 80 ex-Calais residents had a luckier break. They were selected to be students at Université Lille 3, taking French language courses before proceeding to full degrees. One ex-student, Riaz, described it as “a dream coming true”. It’s a great way to ensure refugees’ talents and motivation are made the most of. But it’s not a solution for everyone. Several students have been refused asylum and are appealing, a long and nerve-racking process.

One benefit from the unique Calais situation has been the carryover of friendships and collaborative organising experience. Riaz and Shaheen advocate for colleagues in their reception centres who have fewer language skills. On New Year’s Eve, Omar was volunteering in London with people who are homeless. Some former residents have formed a refugee-led organisation, Hopetowns, to provide support for refugees in the UK.

And despite numerous obstacles, many “Life Stories” ex-students not fortunate enough to be at Université Lille 3 are preparing for higher education. Two already have offers of UK university places. Shaheen and Omar are improving their French and English, respectively, so that they can make university applications. Another “Life Stories” attender, an Iraqi orphan who survived a traumatic journey to the UK, is planning to start an access course: “I will work so hard, and if university – any university – accepts me, I will go,” he says.

* Some names and other identifying details have been changed.