Hundreds of refugees return to 'secret camps' near Calais in bid to reach the UK

One of six hidden camps in the Calais region is seeing ‘several dozen’ new arrivals each week as former ‘Jungle’ residents return to northern France

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of refugees have returned to live in secret camps in the Calais region in the hope of travelling to the UK, The Independent can reveal, just weeks after the demolition of the 'Jungle' shantytown.

There are at least six informal settlements in rural parts of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, each housing scores of refugees and migrants, with numbers growing steadily in recent weeks.

It comes two months after the closure of the Jungle, which was intended to bring an end to the refugee situation in Calais by destroying the camp and dispersing its residents to reception centres (CAOs) across France — an operation the authorities hailed as a “success”.

Calais 'Jungle' exodus: Refugee treatment like 'Nazi persecution'

However, scores of refugees and migrants who were taken on buses to CAO centres have now started making the journey back to the north of France.

Many of them are children whose asylum claims were rejected by the Home Office earlier this month, and have decided to make their own way to the UK after experiencing poor living conditions in the French centres.

One so-called “secret” camp lies on the edge of a small French village called Norrent-Fontes, around 30 kilometres from the port of Calais.

Around 130 refugees currently live in the camp, which has existed since 2008, but the numbers have been rapidly growing in recent weeks, as refugees — particularly minors — have begun leaving the reception centres.

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A camp in Norrent-Fontes has become home to more than 120 refugees (Sue Clayton)

Julien Muller, volunteer for a small French charity called Terre d’Errance which supplies aid at the Norrent-Fontes camp, told The Independent: “There are more and more people coming back. This week there has been several dozen people arrive. I suppose it will grow more in the coming months.

“With the UK Government closing down its transfers of underage refugees to the UK, there have been a lot of minors coming back.

"There are people who are clearly underage and clearly have family in the UK, but they have been told that now it’s closed. Now they're coming back to try make their own way.

“Adults are also coming back from centres in bigger numbers. Some wanted to stay in France, but they have been waiting for two months and they haven’t even been given the opportunity to apply for asylum. They've given up.”​

Mr Muller said the camp was one of six dotted around the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.

Sue Clayton, a refugee advocate and professor at Goldsmith's University, discovered the hidden camp earlier this month.

Describing it as a “mini-Jungle”, she said the conditions were “dire” and that residents of the informal settlement appeared to be afraid to accept aid for fear of drawing attention to themselves.

Professor Clayton said: “It’s a little pocket of woods up a very narrow, single-track lane. You see it through the trees and it's like a mini-Jungle.

"The shelters are put together with various bits of wood and tarpaulin — whatever they can grab. There is no support there. They’ve divided themselves up so there’s a men’s section and a women and children’s section.

“The authorities will find that more and more of these secret camps will pop up because these people are getting increasingly frustrated.

"Many have made the long journey from the centres back to the Calais area which is familiar to them, like a home – or as near to a home as they can make it.”

She said the camp is about two kilometres from a lay-by on the highway that leads up to the port of Calais, where lorry drivers often make their last stop before crossing, potentially making it a “trafficker's paradise”.

“The inhabitants of the new camp can walk across a couple of fields and there is  a lay-by where trucks park overnight – the last  stop before they go through the port,” she said.

“It’s where the deals are done, well away from the port. It’s a trafficker’s paradise.  Everyone around this new camp is vulnerable to them.”

Shahajhan Khan, a 15-year-old refugee from Pakistan who has been living in one of the centres designated for children (CAOMIE) in Anemasse, a town on the French-Swiss border, along with 19 other child refugees, said he and his friends were planning to leave the centre and return to Calais.

The teenager was recently informed that he and most of his friends had been rejected by the Home Office, and said they now had “no other option” but to return to Calais in the hope of “another Jungle”.

He added that they were “living like donkeys” in the centre, and provided The Independent with footage of their warehouse-like sleeping area, and photographs of a meal of bread and yoghurt.

“They promised us they would take us to the UK but said we had to be patient. At this centre they treat us like donkeys," Shahajhan said.

"We are living in a factory and we are eating expired bread. We have waited in these factories without eating properly and now they are saying we can't go. It means we must go back to Calais.

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Young refugees in a CAO in Annemasse eating yoghurt and bread they were forced to buy because they say the food supplied was inadequate ( Shahajhan Khan)

“If they weren’t going to take us they should have told us clearly. We left the Jungle on the condition that we would go to the UK. We accepted these conditions just to go to the UK, and now they are saying we have to give up.

“I hope you will see another Jungle soon.”

The Nord-Pas-de-Calais prefecture rejected reports that there are six informal settlements in the region, and denied there had been an increase in numbers of refugees.

A spokesperson said: “The migrants in the small camps of the Department of the Pas-de-Calais (three in total) are regularly recorded and we have not observed an increase.

“Since the dismantling of the Jungle, no new camp has been established in Calais. State Services remain vigilant: the Mobile Coquelles Research Brigade, which was tasked with combating smugglers, was strengthened in September 2016 and police reinforcements are still being mobilised today.

“Nonetheless, we observe that migrants continue to be present. Around 200 migrants each week are discovered in heavy goods vehicles during cross-channel controls. 

“When migrants are found hidden in heavy goods vehicles during cross-channel checks, the state’s response is firm. If it is confirmed that migrants are illegally in national territory, they are placed in detention."

A long-time volunteer for refugee charity Calais Migrant Solidarity, who didn't want to be named, predicted that refugees would continue to return in growing numbers.

“Migrants used to stay inside the town, but now with the police checks everywhere when they arrive in Calais they quickly go into hiding," he said.

"Their plan might be to stay away from the police-controlled areas for now. They will keep quiet and stay in hidden places for a few months and then after the situation will change again, because there will be more and more people coming.

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The ‘secret camp’ is situated in the countryside, far out from the heavily policed Calais town (Sue Clayton)

“The state [the government] claimed the demolition was a success, but the people of Calais know that the people will keep coming.

"Until there is a structure to welcome people and give them a right to stay, they will occupy places here.

“The reality is that Calais is a border town. It’s a reality that French politics doesn’t want to see anymore, but it will come again.”

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