In a French refugee camp, reporters are telling the wrong story

In this Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015 two migrant children from Iraq look out of the window of an caravan inside the migrant camp near Calais, northern France. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

No one will say it out loud but violence, not refugees, is what the press is usually covering in Calais, France, the newest front in Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis.

Earlier this month, authorities in the English Channel port announced plans to begin bulldozing a migrant camp, called the Jungle, where between 4,000 and 6,000 people have lived for the past year. But instead of a confrontation, residents of the camp complied with police warnings to abandon a small section of the Jungle’s edge, moving elsewhere in the shantytown. When the bulldozers arrived last week, backed by a phalanx of riot police, only five or six journalists and a handful of local volunteers were there to meet them. Without a showdown, there was no story. 

But wasn’t the media missing something? Across the continent in Greece, the refugees are covered as victims of a humanitarian crisis. In Calais, the same groups are often covered as one side of a violent conflict between dangerous foreigners, local residents, and French police.

The Jungle, located on a former landfill barely a mile from the English Channel, has become a stopover point for thousands of refugees, most of them young men from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran, who are trying to make their way to England after crossing the Mediterranean on leaky boats and boarding packed trains from eastern Europe.

Most have family in England or speak English, and believe their job prospects and chance of obtaining asylum will be better there than in France. To cross the channel, they typically sneak into the backs of cargo trucks, which often stop in traffic before entering the underwater tunnel to England. The camps are a place to live while waiting, and serve as a staging area for the nightly crossings.

As the crisis grew this month, coverage of the refugee trail’s western end has split along the same lines as Europe’s debate over migration. Coverage of the migrants has often portrayed the camp as crime-ridden and the people living there as dangerous. At the same time, some stories have started to depict the Jungle and a second camp in nearby Dunkirk, both run largely by the refugees themselves, as examples of their self-sufficiency, and exhibit A in the case for relaxing migration laws.

Earlier this month, the UK’s Independent newspaper opted to look at the self-sufficiency argument in a long opinion piece by actor Joylon Rubinstein. “There are over 70 restaurants and cafés in the Jungle, countless small shops selling toothpaste, toilet paper and chocolate. There are two churches, three mosques, a theatre, a library, and a women’s centre,” the story argued.

On the other side,, which is far less sympathetic to the migrant case, posted a video that captured a Dutch journalist being mugged at knifepoint in the Jungle, and accused volunteers and NGOs working at the camp of downplaying the incident. On Sunday, the Daily Mail ran a first-person account by Maaike Engels, one of the two reporters attacked. “The film evoked a wild array of responses from both sides of the immigration debate,” she wrote. “We were accused of being Right-wing, ‘pro-Muslim Lefties,’ rank incompetents and even hoaxers.”

A divergence in coverage between a right-wing American website, a conservative UK content farm, and a centrist newspaper is predictable. But the parallel, contradictory stories emerging from the camps mirror the political debate over migration in Europe, where growing right wing movements call the refugees threats to safety and jobs, while supporters of liberal settlement policies claim immigrants benefit European cultures and businesses. At its most extreme, the coverage has grown partisan enough to misrepresent key facts. A couple of days after the attack on the Dutch journalists, Breitbart posted a story about Calais with video of refugees burning some abandoned tents, using the unverified imagery to claim, inaccurately, that the camp had burned down.

Even when both sides get their facts right, the reporting from Calais paints a confusing picture of what’s happening on the ground. Last week, Vice published a photo essay from the smaller Dunkirk settlement, where winter rains and freezing temperatures threatened the lives of at least 2,000 people camping in a flooded field, including dozens of school-age children, most from Kurdish families. The wrenching photos of the Dunkirk camp, termed “even worse than the Jungle,” suggested an acute human rights crisis being ignored barely an hour from London.

At the same time, Agence France Press’s photo blog published a story from the Jungle showing a far less desperate situation. There were shots of refugees participating in the camp’s lively evening social scene involving two dollar plates of Tandoori chicken, 50-cent cups of spiced tea, and plates of Afghan flatbread hawked by enterprising migrants.

So what, exactly, is the story in Calais?

“There’s this fascination with the terrible conditions in the Jungle,” says London-based photographer Shannon Jensen, who has covered Calais for Time and The Washington Post.

“Just the fact that there’s mud and there’s trash, even to the people living there, that’s not the big deal,” she says. Coverage of conditions in the camps has overshadowed the more important story of the migrants’ nightly attempts to sneak into England. “Every night [they’re] going out thinking, ‘This night could change my life. I could be killed, or I could make it, or I could come back dejected again.” She says she’s been surprised by how few reporters have made the short walk to the nearby border fence, or accompanied migrants on an attempted crossing. “I think it’s crazy, because that’s the obvious story to do.” In October, Jensen joined a group attempting to sneak into a truck, and wrote a story on the death of Nawall al Jende, a 26-year-old woman from Dar’aa, Syria, who was struck by a car during the attempt.

If those stories aren’t being told more often, it’s not for lack of access. Residents of the Jungle have been willing to speak to the press, though some are suspicious of larger media outlets. A BBC crew’s effort to interview a young Afghan man who said he’d been abused by riot police with tear gas came to naught after the young man’s uncle cautioned him not to trust the British network’s reporting on refugees.

“This place, it is a very bad place, it’s true,” says Khan Hamadzai, an Afghan resident of the Jungle. “No one wants to be here of course. The police don’t want us here, French don’t want us, but they will not let us leave to England. Why? That is what I would like to know.”

It’s a good question, and not a bad story—the political fight over the fate of the people camped at the edge of the 26-mile-wide English Channel is an ongoing issue. At the Jungle, meanwhile, the near-nightly deployments of tear gas have become small media events, with reporters hanging around the camp at sundown inevitably trading information over the location of police vans, and weighing concern about being in the Jungle at night against a desire to catch a gassing on video.

Over the weekend, between 200 and 400 residents of the Jungle forced their way into Calais’ nearby ferry port and boarded a ship to England, causing police and ferry crews to respond with tear gas and water canons. French plans to close the Jungle by March are moving forward. More conflicts—and more stories about them—are likely in the coming weeks.

Marc Herman is a reporter based in Barcelona. He is the author of The Wizard and the Volcano, The Shores of Tripoli, and Searching for El Dorado, and a co-founder of Deca.