Friday 13 November 2015, I am in Calais, in the North of France, to visit the so-called jungle with my old buddy Boris, who wanted to accompany me. It is late afternoon when we arrive on the site, east of the town. It is already dark; the wind is blowing hard. After having moved past a few vehicles of the riot control forces of the French National Police, we notice a group of men, Sudanese from Darfur, lining behind a white van. A retired couple distributes loaves of bread. We exchange a few words. They cooperate with a local association and have been helping refugees and asylum seekers for fifteen years.
“Where may I find Afghans?”, I ask.
“Do not go there, they might be aggressive”, answers the elderly man.
In the previous days, asylum seekers and human rights activists have protested again their precarious living conditions. Indeed the jungle is presented in the media as an informal settlement where hardly any service is available, where 4500 people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Eritrea converge in the hope of crossing the Channel and setting foot on the British soil. Is it really a place of exception, where the rule of law is suspended and the only function of the state is containment?
Guided by a law student who is volunteering in Calais, we pass some mobile toilets and walk on the muddy path between the tents and the makeshift shelters. We reach an Eritrean- Ethiopian church made of tarpaulins nailed on wooden frames and then some shops: a tandoor, several grocery stores and restaurants. Most shopkeepers appear to be Afghans. I stand in a queue to buy some bread and take the opportunity to start a conversation. Beside Kurdish and Arab speaking patrons from Iraq or Syria, the Afghans are mostly Pashtuns from the South and East. It appears quickly that their trajectories are diverse. Some left Afghanistan several years ago and have spent time in Iran or Turkey before reaching Europe. Some arrived to Calais only a few months after having left their province of origin, be it Kunar or Wardak. But all fled a conflict that is not theirs anymore, an armed combat between a government from which they do not receive much benefit and an insurgency that is now divided and increasingly brutal. In a gesture of hospitality, the baker does not want at first to take money from me. I have to insist. Even in this space of supposed social vacuum, the sense of pride and honor is not lost.
In the evening we learn that a series of coordinated terrorist attacks occurred in Paris. Suspicion falls immediately on Islamic militant groups. The next day all the conversations turn around the potential policy consequences on the asylum seekers and refugees, many of whom are Muslims. A fire broke out in the jungle during the night and many wonder if it was an act of retaliation by some far right groups. I go to a restaurant that I quickly visited the previous night. Three partners run it, they are Pashto speakers from different provinces of Afghanistan. More than by geographical origin or tribal affiliation, they are united by a common experience of long-term mobility. One of them, Ehsanullah, spent seven years in England, but has circulated widely in other European countries. He spontaneously shows me an Italian identity card for foreigner, which allows him to travel legally within the Schengen Area.
“How is it that you stay here, in the jungle, and do not try your chance in a more welcoming setting?”, I ask.
“Here, that’s true, I sleep under a tent, it is cold and windy. But I run my own business, I can make some money. One day, hopefully, I will be able to save enough and bring my family.”
His tone is half-playful, half-afflicted. The quest for autonomy comes at a cost. His goal is not to go to England and settle there; not yet at least. He inhabits mobility.
At the opposite spectrum are people like Faraidun, a 20-year-old man who is wandering alone in the jungle. Having heard me speaking in Persian, he asks for some help. He left his village North of Kabul in spring 2015 and was separated from his companions during a control on a train between Paris and Lille. He arrived Calais the previous afternoon and was provided with a sleeping place under a simple shelter and blankets with a musty smell. He got to know that buses were taking people to state-run reception centers and does not want to stay any longer in such a hellish place. “Don’t go! They will file you, you will be trapped”, interrupt the two adolescents, with whom I was initially talking.
If a place such as the jungle did not provide any comfort to Faraidun, it offers an economic niche to people like Ehsanullah. It cannot be solely depicted as a dead end for migrants who planned to go to Great Britain. It is a microcosm, a site where people on the move – be they from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan or Eritrea – reinvent social and reproduce power relations. Some people are striving to move on as quickly as possible, while others reside in the jungle, which gives them business opportunities they would not have in the host society. Many come here knowing that they will be among people with whom they share the experience of displacement, knowing that they will be able to collect information on the migration routes and the ever-changing asylum regimes of EU countries. If some are indeed hoping to go to England, including Afghans whose ancestors fought against the British colonial empire, it is not the destination dreamed by all the potential asylum seekers who come to Calais. The ranking of destination countries is ever changing. It depends on the presence of an established host community, the existence of social benefits, the perceived integration possibilities into the education system and labour market. Many people I talked to in the jungle are looking to Scandinavia.
After almost 40 years of conflict that prompted one of the most massive forced displacements of population since World War II, Afghanistan does not appear to be moving towards a better tomorrow. The partial withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014 was the expression of a political and military deadlock and not the result of the success of the nation-building effort. We are far from the optimistic picture promised to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. While no segment of the Afghan population managed to avoid displacement during the series of conflicts that has torn the country apart since 1978, three categories of people are overrepresented in the recent flows. First, unaccompanied minors and young single men, who have often spent time in Iran and Pakistan. They feel trapped between their country of origin, which does not offer any educational, professional and social prospects, and their country of first asylum, where they are doomed to remain at best a cheap labour force with no social recognition. Second, young men from the southern and eastern countryside, who are caught between the government and the insurgency. They flee from violence and forced recruitment on both sides. And finally city-dwellers, whose lifestyle was linked to the international presence in Kabul, Mazar or Herat. Many have lost their sources of income with the scaling down of humanitarian and development programmes; moreover, they fear retaliation and reprisals from segments of the population that resented their collaboration with external actors.
These different categories of people may have various profiles and trajectories, but all have protection concerns. They are obviously not the first generation of Afghans to flee hardship and persecution. However, successive generations of Afghan asylum seekers and refugees are not mobile along the same patterns. While their parents had taken refuge in Pakistan and Iran, trying to reach Europe becomes a distinctive feature of the new generation. This journey is costly both in terms of financial exposure of the individual (and the family back home) and of trauma. Getting to Europe is not necessarily a relieving experience due to a lack of understanding and the related mistrust towards asylum institutions and their representatives. Overall, however, there is no reason to think that the number of Afghans – and other asylum seekers – who are leaving their country of origin will decrease. A combination of factors are at play: persistent insecurity in Afghanistan (caused by failure of democracy, crisis of the job market, narcotic economy, demographic trends) and adverse protection and integration environment in Pakistan and Iran.
A fundamental reflection on the adequacy of the existing legal framework and policy response is urgently needed.
Alessandro Monsutti is an associate professor of anthropology and development sociology at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, as well as research associate at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. He worked as a consultant for several nongovernmental and international organizations, including UNHCR. His book War and Migration: Social Networks and Economic Strategies of the Hazaras of Afghanistan was published in 2005.
© Author / Transit Online