In a caravan in , two little girls are playing a game. While their mother’s attention is elsewhere, they hang out of the small gap of an open window, giggling as they see who can lean the farthest. They could be on a family holiday, if it wasn’t for the squalor surrounding them. Instead, the children are living on mud-covered scrubland, without electricity or heating – just two more inhabitants of the unofficial refugee camp on Britain’s doorstep.
A few minutes’ drive from the ferry port, the “” is a symbol of the UK’s reluctance to deal with the refugee crises on our borders. Here, 200 women and children are said to be living among the 4,000 refugees, crammed into water-logged tents, caravans and even garden sheds. Thousands more live in similar conditions in nearby Dunkirk. While the young men who risk their lives jumping on to trains or lorries crossing the Channel have become the faces of , hidden in their midst are these families, trapped in an agonising limbo.
Rima, her shy son Adnan, five, and lively three-year-old daughter, Nour, are among them. The family fled Syria two months ago – just in time, Rima says, to avoid the fate of their nextdoor neighbours, who were killed in their homes the week before we speak.
The children’s father was imprisoned in 2012, when Nour was two months old. “There is no security in our city,” Rima tells me. “You don’t have to have done anything for them to put you in prison. Every day I begged the guards to release him. They asked me for money, so I sold everything, but it was never enough. Finally, after a year, they told me he was dead. They allowed me to come every day and plead for him when he was dead. They never gave me his body.”
Now, there are no bombs, but we are freezing and still afraid
Rima and her children joined the stream of refugees on what has become known as the “ant road”, from Turkey to western Europe. “Walking through the night was terrifying,” Rima says. “I had a bag on my back and I put my daughter in it. She was ill; she had a temperature of 41C. The most frightening point was when a man on a motorbike wanted to carry my little boy – he said he’d take only the boy, not the girl. I thought he might snatch him.”
Like many of the mothers here, Rima’s fear of imminent danger has been replaced with anxieties about the filthy, cold and sometimes violent conditions of the camp. As it becomes more permanent, little shops, cafes and even nightclubs have sprung up, giving a cruel imitation of a music festival – until the riot police come into view, standing guard near the motorway bridge.
Despite being just yards from pleasant French houses, and a short drive from Calais’s squares and restaurants, the Jungle residents rely on candles for light and open fires for warmth. Small fires that rip through caravans and tents are now a regular occurrence. In heavy rain, the area floods. At night, when the police clash with refugees, tear gas fills the air. The noise and insecurity are taking their toll on the already exhausted, traumatised children.
“Now, there are no bombs, but we are freezing and still afraid,” Rima says, adding that she developed a heart condition after her husband was imprisoned. “There is no heating and we are living in the mud. In the night, my daughter screams in her sleep and hits out, because she has bad dreams. Four days ago, my heart felt so bad that I thought I would die. If I am not here, who will look after my children?”
Around 400 luckier women and children have found a space in the state-run , which also provides a hot meal every day for up to 2,500 Jungle residents who live outside, and a hot shower for around 1,000. Dedicated British and French donors and charities have also stepped in, offering warm clothes and nappies, and opening a women and children’s centre with a playground. But their goodwill alone cannot provide lights, heating or somewhere private to wash.
For the mothers trapped here, all that is left is to put on a brave face and hope for a better life. Communities have sprung up; neighbours look after each other’s children and try to offer support. Despite their trying circumstances, people greet each other warmly.
As one woman tells me, with heart-breaking honesty, “If I cry in this Jungle, will anyone help me? No. I am in the Jungle, so I have to try and smile.”
Here are their stories.
“The Taliban do not like people to play music,” Zari tells me, explaining that her husband was a musician back home. “They came and beat him. I was very frightened.”
Her husband was hung up and hit with a plank of wood before being imprisoned. He managed to escape, and the family fled. “We faced so many dangers,” Zari says. “We had no clothes or bags. We sold our house and land to pay the smugglers. I carried the baby, and my husband carried the girls in turn. Our shoes broke, and for three nights we had nothing to walk in. The children were crying – they kept telling us they were tired and wanted to sleep. But still we had to walk. There were two nights when we had no food to eat.”
The crossing from Turkey to Greece, in a rubber dinghy overloaded with 45 other people, was the most terrifying part of the journey, Zari says. “I was very scared, I couldn’t stop shaking. We made the children sit in the middle of the boat and told them to sleep. The other 44 people were screaming – only my children were asleep.”
Despite the dangers, Zari insists the voyage was necessary. As we talk, her husband shows me a large scar on their older daughter’s leg, where she was hit by a bullet. “In Afghanistan, there is so much fighting and bombing,” Zari says. “We’ve seen people die in front of us. If we had died in , our children would have died, too, because who would look after them?”
Zari’s brother-in-law lives in the UK, and the family had hoped to join him, but they have no more money to pay smugglers. Their son has been ill with fever and diarrhoea since they arrived in Calais. “If we don’t go to the UK, we will die here,” Zari says. “I’m sad inside when I see my children living like this. My husband and I can’t read or write, and we want our children to go to school.”
Before we leave, her husband shows us what the Taliban objected to so violently: a long-necked lute, on which he plays a quavering tune. As melancholy music fills the room and he starts to sing, Zari leans back, her relaxed smile a small act of defiance.
On the day we meet, Sara and her husband have had enough. The family of four are living in a garden shed, insulated with foil. They have been in the Jungle for 45 days, and say life has become intolerable. They had hoped to go to the UK, but have now decided to apply for asylum in France, in the hope they will leave the Jungle more swiftly.
Recently, there was a fire in one of the larger wooden sheds, and their older daughter Hana, seven, was burnt on the leg: the angry scar is still visible. “Now she is so scared, we cannot have even a candle in here,” Sara says. “She won’t go near a fire, even though it is so cold, and she won’t go near the place it happened. The children ask us to pray that it won’t rain or be cold. They are both ill.”
The family escaped the fighting in Iraq by fleeing to Turkey. “When Isis came, they took the area and everything was razed. Then American planes bombed and the moved in – there was a lot of fighting.”
A Kurdish friend, who is acting as a translator, chips in: “No one wants to go back,” he says. “We would rather die here. We have family and lives there, but we need to be safe.”
Staying in Turkey, or other countries closer to , is not an option, they say, because of the way Kurds are treated there. Instead, they took a terrifying boat journey to Greece, and barely escaped with their lives.
Azada is unceremoniously pulling the blankets off her teenage son to wake him up: she wants to tell her story, and needs the sleeping 15-year-old to translate for her. After a brief tug of war, Firaz emerges and, despite the rude awakening, sweetly agrees.
The family lived in Kurdistan, before the war. “I liked my home, and my life,” Azada tells me quietly, “but then Daesh came and started killing everyone.
“My husband was with the peshmerga – he was a soldier – and when Daesh took Kirkuk, he told us to leave and go to the UK; he would stay and fight,” Azada says. “There was no life there any more. I loved Kirkuk, but they destroyed everything.
“They wanted the younger boys to come and fight for Daesh – 16-year-olds – to go and kill for them, so we had to leave. I was scared they would take my sons.”
While the family was trying to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece, Azada’s 17-year-old son was separated from his mother and siblings. They have not seen him since. “My mother is so worried,” Firaz says sadly. “We searched for a long time, but we couldn’t find him. Then someone told us he is in the UK, so now we are trying to join him there.”
Her eyes filling with tears, Azada says there has been another price to pay for the family’s escape: she was three months pregnant when she left Iraq, but while they were in Greece she miscarried.
She worries, too, about her five-year-old son, who is desperately missing his father. “He won’t listen to anyone now, because his father always looked after him.”
They live among other Kurdish families in a wooden room, where the roof leaks, and they don’t feel safe. “There was a fight with the police,” she tells me, “and there was tear gas. We don’t want to stay here. “This is no life. There is no food, no showers, no way to keep anything clean. In the night, there are so many noises, we can only sleep from 7pm to 8pm.”
Like many other refugees in the Jungle, she points to British donations as a sign that the UK is a kind country. And with the hope that her older son may be waiting for them, the family are even more determined to make it there.
“I want a home to rest in, and my children to be able to go to school again,” Azada says. “I am so worried for them. Before Daesh, our life was good. But they have destroyed everything.”
Fatima and her children have just moved from the outdoor camp into the greater safety of the government-run Jules Ferry Centre. Her husband was a supporter of toppled during , and this political allegiance put their lives at risk. “We left because it wasn’t safe for our children,” she says. “People were threatening us. My husband was put in prison and beaten, then men came to the house with guns and weapons. They came many times, so we had to escape. We left in September.”
The family paid to be smuggled out of the country and put on a boat to Italy. When they tried to cross the Mediterranean to Lampedusa, she says, “There were 450 people on the boat. We were all throwing up. We nearly died; the engine broke down in the middle of the sea and we were stuck for 24 hours, waiting for it to be fixed. Only God gave us the strength to withstand the fear; we prayed and we lived.”
Fatima says there was no option but to take the journey. “We had to risk the crossing to survive. What else could we do? Die in ? On the sea, the children were screaming and afraid, but my husband and I helped each other, looking after them, and we made it through together.” Once they eventually got to Lampedusa, their son became ill.
Yet the family remain convinced that life will be better in the UK. “We want to go to England so our children have a chance to be educated,” Fatima says. In the meantime, she is anxious about her eight-year-old daughter, who cannot forget the dangers she has experienced. “She is still in shock,” Fatima says. “She asks if the men will come again with their weapons and guns. She keeps asking, ‘Will we go home across the sea again?’”
Her hopes for her family are simple now. “All we want is to be safe, have a little home, and for our children to go to school.”
Mina looks triumphant. She is back from one of the distribution centres in the Jungle, with jumpers that should fit her two daughters. The family are from a Kurdish area of , and are fleeing not war, but violence at the hands of their own community. Their marriage, she says, was arranged at the same time as her brother’s to her husband’s sister – a cultural practice sometimes called an “exchange marriage”.
“When my brother left my sister-in-law,” Mina explains, “my family demanded I leave my husband. We have been married for nine years and we have two daughters. I did not want to divorce him. My brother was angry and my family threatened to kill us. They beat my husband, so we had to leave.”
At first the family fled in a covered truck to Turkey, but they were tracked down by relatives. “We paid a smuggler to take us to Greece by boat,” Mina says. “It was terrifying. There were 65 people on the boat, it was far too small, and it leaked. Everyone was sick, and tired, and the journey took around 16 hours. During the crossing, the boat broke down. We thought we were going to die in the middle of the ocean, but the police saved everyone. If they hadn’t come, we would have all died.”
Travelling across Europe in covered trucks was not much safer, she says. “In one truck it felt like there was no air and that we would suffocate. The smugglers we paid gave us sleeping syrup for the children, so they would be quiet.”
Here in the Jungle, the family feels trapped. “What is life like here?” Mina asks. “I would not say it is a life, not with a baby. It is somewhere between death and life, but at least here we feel a little safer.
“The baby has been ill. We had to spend three days in the hospital, because she was sick from the water, and we are still suffering. Every night, I dream of the journey. We are so tired, but what other option was there? We could not stay where we were. I hope no one else ever has to go through this.”
Khadija and her husband Mohammed have been married for 10 years. But he had to leave Iraq in 2009; he had been working with the British army, and his life was threatened.
While her husband was away, their son was kidnapped. Mohammed’s brother paid the ransom and then, worried for the family’s safety, left his own wife and children in Basra to bring Khadija and her children to Europe.
“We went to Greece by boat,” Khadija says. “It was so dangerous and difficult. We tried five times to get a boat, and each time we were stopped by the police – we lost our belongings as we ran away from them. Finally, we managed it, but when we got to the beach, I could not stop crying. I was really scared. The boat was just a rubber dinghy and it leaked. I thought we would die together in the sea.”
The family had lost contact with Mohammed, but he spent a month looking for his family in Istanbul before coming to Calais to find them. “I was so happy to see my husband again,” Khadija says, “but I wish it was not in the Jungle. It is so cold and dangerous here – the same as on the journey. We don’t feel safe.
It has flooded twice since they arrived, her husband Mohammed says, and he wants his family to join him in the UK. “I don’t know how. It’s too dangerous to jump on a train or in a lorry – we cannot put our children through that. I spoke to a lawyer, and I have papers for the UK, but he says I cannot bring my family over. I feel I am going crazy. I can’t leave my family and I can’t stay here. What shall I do? Maybe Britain can help.”
Khadija says she tries to keep cheerful, but she cannot help asking her husband when their life will return to normal.
“I ask Mohammed, ‘When will I sit in a warm house? When will my children go to school?’ He says I must wait.”
There are eight people crammed into Moyena’s caravan – Moyena, her husband and six of their nine children – but she wishes there were three more: her oldest son, Reza, was killed before they left Afghanistan, and two older daughters are still there, living with their partners’ families. “It was hard to leave them,” Moyena says. “We had so many difficulties, otherwise we would never have left.”
The family were prosperous, owning their car and three trucks. “We had a good life and were very happy,” Moyena says. “But we had problems. My husband transported US equipment to a military base.”
One night, after trying and failing to find his father, the Taliban killed Reza, a university student. The family fled to another province, but when the Taliban set fire to their car, they knew they had no option but to leave. Moyena says they have family in Glasgow. “I was scared, because I knew it would be difficult to make the journey, but we had no choice.
“When I saw the boat, I could not stop crying. I thought, if one of my children drowns, what will we do? We didn’t think the boat would be so small. We had to cut water bottles in half to bail it out. The waves were so high. The smugglers left the boat – another refugee was left to steer it.”
As her 15-year-old son rests his head against her knee, and she breastfeeds 11-month-old Mohsin, Moyena says she just hopes their lives will get better. “This is not a life. Eight of us in a caravan, with no heating. The children are forgetting how to live – we can’t cook or wash or clean. We don’t have enough wood. We have all been ill, but the children have changed. They have become quieter.
“In Afghanistan, we saw death in front of us,” Moyena says. “Now, we just want somewhere safe for our children to study.”
- All names have been changed.