France: Where refugees go to avoid ‘the jungle’

Calais is the most visible sign of France’s refugee influx, but smaller camps scattered across the north are growing.

France, other camps - feature
Refugees have settled in camps across France as an alternative to 'the Jungle' of Calais [Philip Kleinfeld/Al Jazeera]

Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France – It is easy not to notice the refugee camp in Tatinghem, a sleepy little village in the northern French countryside. Tucked inconspicuously between two wheatfields off a bumpy side road, even the locals outside the town pub were surprised to hear of it.

It was mid-afternoon at the camp and a group of Afghan boys was cooking food brought to them every two days by a local church. A child no older than two years crawled out of a shabby hut and played with his infant brother on mud-stained wooden pallets.

One of the older members of the camp, Ramillah – a 29-year-old Afghan man and a former interpreter for the British army who asked to be identified only by his first name – stepped forward and spoke in fluent English.

He arrived at Tatinghem four days earlier after people smugglers drove him across Europe and dropped him off at the camp.

“It’s hard for me to live here,” he said, looking tired and shaken. “Sometimes we get enough supplies. Sometimes we don’t… I wish someone would give me a safe passage to England.”

While the camp in Calais – also known as “the Jungle” with an estimated 3,000 people – remains the largest and most visible sign of the refugee crisis in France, smaller settlements such as Tatinghem are scattered across the north of the country.

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The refugee charity Association Terre d’Errance, or The Wandering Earth Association, estimates there are 11 northern camps. Encampments have also popped up in Paris, Dieppe, Boulogne and Le Havre. 

Traditionally these camps have received little attention.

But now some are growing in size, and as the refugee crisis in Europe intensifies and security at Calais is tightened, the numbers are likely to rise.

Afghan refugees live in small makeshift camps across northern France's countryside [Philip Kleinfeld/Al Jazeera]
Afghan refugees live in small makeshift camps across northern France’s countryside [Philip Kleinfeld/Al Jazeera]

Invisible camps

“For many years we have tried to make the public and media aware that there are other places,” Lily Boillet, a member of The Wandering Earth Association, told Al Jazeera.

“All the attention and focus is in Calais. But if Calais is more protected, people will need an escape. They could move and it could increase the numbers at all the other places,” Boillet explained.

One of the largest refugee camps outside Calais is in Grande-Synthe, a 40km drive north from the small settlement in Tatinghem. 

The camp – predominantly home to Kurds from Syria and Iraq – usually holds about 100 people, but recently the size has tripled.

At the local office of the aid group Salam, Sylvie Cousin, a volunteer who has worked at Grande-Synthe for the past four years, said the charity is overstretched. Food, clothes, and other resources are needed, but the numbers keep rising and public donations are in short supply.

“At the moment it’s very difficult,” she said. “Everyone knows Calais, but not Grande-Synthe. Many charity groups come from the UK to Calais. We need help too.”


People smugglers – who charge high prices to drive refugees to nearby service stations where they attempt to board trucks heading for the UK – have been operating in the area for years.

But smugglers are now thought to be getting increasingly organised and are reportedly using cars with British license plates.

On August 16, a car chase between French police and smugglers driving a UK-registered vehicle ended up at the camp in Grand-Synthe, with the smugglers fleeing into the camp.

The next day the mood at the camp was tense. About 20 riot police trudged up and down a muddy path where there were three parked police vans.

Smugglers were still there, Cousin said, and many of the refugees were afraid to speak, or they would only talk out of sight from the main camp.

“This is a big problem, every day they [the smugglers] come here,” Babou, 21, from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, said nervously.

“It’s very dangerous for everyone – French, Kurdish, Arabic. But Calais is no good,” he said, adding he’d heard there were 5,000 people there.

Further south, in the small commune of Norrent-Fontes, lies another refugee camp where 120 people currently live.

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Berhana, 25, from Eritrea, said he’d already been to Calais but after a failed attempt to reach England, he retreated to Norrent-Fontes for temporary “rest”.

“Calais is more dangerous for people,” he said. “So many of our friends have broken arms and legs or died. But we don’t have any other way. Some people try life in Norrent-Fontes, but most end up going to Calais. If you don’t have a country, then you must search for one to live in.”

At the camp, a group of Eritrean men sat outside makeshift tents, cooking and listening to reggae.

In April, two of the camp’s four wooden buildings burned down in a fire, leaving 80 people without shelter. The Wandering Earth Association has since collected donations and started rebuilding. However, in early August, the mayor of the town stopped them in an attempt to get the refugees to leave.

The camp has been open for 15 years and conditions have always been tough with no running water or electricity.

“The first camp was a lot better, but it has been destroyed,” said a young Eritrean man who asked not to be named, swiping through pictures of the fire on his phone. “Now the rain gets to us.”

An Eritrean man shows the fire-destroyed camp in Norrent-Fontes [Philip Kleinfeld/Al Jazeera]
An Eritrean man shows the fire-destroyed camp in Norrent-Fontes [Philip Kleinfeld/Al Jazeera]

Unaccompanied children

In some places even flimsy tents are not allowed. As night fell in Lille, the fifth-largest urban area in France, 30 West African boys, most of them teenagers, sat around in one of the country’s newest informal camps: a small park off Boulevard Victor Hugo.

When they first arrived three months ago, they were offered a room to sleep in at a local church. Now they stay outside in the park with nothing but sleeping bags after local police took away their tents, mattresses, and cooking equipment.

The French government is supposed to have a system in place for unaccompanied minors, but here the boys sleep in the rain, with their next meal dependent on the generosity of locals.

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“We cannot eat, we cannot go to school, we cannot get clothes and we have no place to sleep,” said Timberland, a young man from Cameroon who left the country after an attack on his village by the armed group, Boko Haram. 

Still, the option of staying in Calais, where at least tents and other sleeping and cooking equipment are allowed, doesn’t appeal to them. None of the boys want asylum in the UK, and many are scared of moving.

“Here is for children,” Timberland said. “In Calais, police beat people. I have seen it on television.”

That night it began to rain. As the last nights of summer pass, it’s hard to picture their plight getting any better.

Source: Al Jazeera