Calais refugees grieve for Paris, dread backlash

Hundreds of camp residents hold vigil to mourn victims; some fear government and public response to attacks.

Migrants camp in Grande-Synthe
France has seen a rising anti-Islamic sentiment since Charlie Hebdo attack [File: Stephanie Lecocq/EPA]

Calais, France  Dulbar Karem sits cross-legged in her trailer in the Iraqi section of a refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais which holds thousands of people, many of whom mourned Friday’s attacks in Paris while also fearing that they would lead to an Islamophobic backlash.

“We cried for France that night,” she said, bouncing her 11-month-old daughter, Chawy, on her lap. “We didn’t sleep.”

Karem, who left her native Iraqi Kurdistan two months ago with seven members of her family, including a three-month-old, said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has claimed responsibility for the attacks, does not represent her religion.

“ISIL are not Muslims,” she said. “Muslims don’t kill. The Quran never teaches to kill.”

This sentiment was shared yesterday when about 200 people gathered in the camp’s activities’ tent to hold a vigil for the victims of the Paris attacks. Camp residents of all nationalities met, holding hands in two circles for three minutes of silence before participants were given the floor to express themselves.

“There were mostly messages of peace and hope, but there were also a lot of apologies from Muslim members of the community,” said Abby Evans, who runs the Hands International vaccinations clinic next door and attended the vigil.

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“They weren’t apologising for themselves,” said Joe Murphy, whose Good Chance theatre helped organise the commemoration. “They really wanted to stress that ‘we are not those people – this is not Islam.'”

‘Without warrant’

The concern is not without warrant. France has seen a rising anti-Islamic sentiment since last January’s attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher grocery store which killed 17. There were three times as many anti-Islamic acts recorded in France in 2015 as in the previous year, according to the French National Observatory Against Islamophobia. It said that since Friday’s attacks, there have been 116 anti-Muslim attacks in France.

The French government has led divisive debates on national identity and passed laws against wearing headscarves and other religious symbols that have left many in the nearly five-million-strong Muslim community feeling like outsiders.

And far right groups in France – and other European nations – are already looking to capitalise on Friday’s events. National Front leader Marine Le Pen said during a press conference on Saturday that it was “essential that France recover the control of its national borders once and for all” and called for stricter measures on immigration.

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“France must ban Islamist organisations, close radical mosques and kick out foreigners who are preaching hatred on our soil as well as illegal immigrants who have nothing to do here,” she added.

News that a passport belonging to a Syrian asylum seeker was found next to one of three suicide bombers at the scene of the Stade de France attack has helped fan the flames. On Saturday, a Greek minister confirmed that the name on the passport matched a man who travelled through the island of Leros on October 3 before passing through Serbia and Italy. While it remains unclear as to whether the person listed on the passport is the same as the man implicated in the Paris attack, some see this as further proof that France should close its borders to the flood of refugees.

Open-door policy

Some residents of the town of Calais are critical of the EU’s open-door policy to refugees. “This whole idea of opening the borders is a very big problem,” said Michel Leman, who said life in Calais has worsened since the number of refugees in the town increased. “We should at least have more checks to keep out people who don’t belong here.”

He had no problem believing reports that one of the Paris attackers could have passed through several countries before arriving in France.

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Alexandra, a volunteer with the Auberge des Migrants organisation who asked to be identified by only her first name, said: “When we heard about these attacks, we were immediately worried that people were going to start saying that these terrorists passed through Calais [refugee camp] on their journey.”

Already, the camp, referred to by some locals and outsiders as the Jungle, has been a target for suspicion.
On Friday evening, a major fire ripped through a portion of the camp, turning temporary homes into a pile of burned mattress springs. Some claimed the fire, which hit at approximately the same time as the Paris attacks, was started by radicals in the camp.

French politician Eric Ciotti, a member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Republicains party in the National Assembly, afterwards called for the camp to be cleared, adding that “the risk is now that of guerrilla warfare gradually infiltrating this lawless slum”.

Alexandra said those rumours are untrue. “I went with the people who were responsible for this fire to the prefecture to help them give their testimony,” she said. “They admitted that they had left a candle burning and gone to sleep. With the wind, it caught fire very easily.”

Clashes with police

Calais has made headlines in recent weeks for increased altercations with police. While in April there were few or no police monitoring the camp, local authorities have bolstered security in recent months to a now 750-strong police force. The constant presence of CRS officers – France’s riot control force – has created a palpable tension in the camp.

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On Sunday near the vigil commemorating the Paris attacks, dozens of refugees clashed with police, who launched tear gas into the crowd. Because of a massive traffic jam on a nearby road, some took their chances – in broad daylight – to try to hop in or under trucks and cars to cross into the UK, causing momentary chaos. Last week a similar incident ended with police firing nearly 300 tear gas grenades to push refugees back, according to a police spokesman.

Altercations with the police, say medical volunteers, are some of the primary causes of injuries at the camp. But mostly, people are suffering from colds and flu with the onset of increasingly cold weather in northern France.

On Sunday, fears for the upcoming winter were felt when the wind whipped up portions of tents and residents struggled to hammer plastic tarps and wooden slats together to keep their makeshift homes standing. As dirt-filled paths filled with muddy puddles over the weekend, many are worried about the impending winter months in the camp, where many have little protection between their tents and the cold ground.


Abdellaram, a former engineer from Sudan, is busy making a list for volunteers of what he and others in the Sudanese portion of the camp need to stay warm. “We don’t have enough blankets right now,” he said. “It’s very, very cold.”

And yet, even with the increasingly harsh conditions, most residents of Calais don’t have anywhere else to go. While some are still hoping to cross into the UK, others are waiting indefinitely for their asylum applications to be accepted in France. In 2014, France accepted about 21,000 asylum applications, according to the European Commission’s statistics agency, Eurostat, behind Germany and Sweden.

Inevitably, many will be left behind, and some will choose – from the lack of options – to remain for now. Despite the attacks on Friday, an increasing security threat in Europe and a rise in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in the region, many camp residents still say living there is better than where they came from.

“I can’t believe that Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIL] is coming to Europe. That’s very scary,” says Ahmed Alali, who had just finished his education in Syria when war broke out. “But it’s still better here than at home. In France there have been a few attacks, but in Syria there are bombs every day, every minute.”

Source: Al Jazeera