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For Migrants In France, Life In 'The Jungle' Has Changed

Tents dot the scrub brush in the dunes at "The Jungle," a camp in Calais, France, that houses about 6,000 migrants. Eleanor Beardsley/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

Tents dot the scrub brush in the dunes at "The Jungle," a camp in Calais, France, that houses about 6,000 migrants.

Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

NPR Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley was on assignment in Calais, France, and sends this postcard about conditions at the migrant camp known as "The Jungle."

The Jungle, that squalid camp where migrants live in the rough in the dunes of Calais, has transformed. I was there about five months ago, and I found it a sad, scary place. Since then, the makeshift camp's numbers have tripled to about 6,000 people, and I expected to find even more misery.

There was still plenty of mud, trash and puddles between the tarp-covered shelters. Refugees and other migrants are still dying trying to jump aboard trains to get to Britain.

But I found something this time that seemed to be missing before: a dose of humanity.

There are volunteers from everywhere, including for the first time from Britain, where most of the migrants are trying to go. Christian Salome, head of L'Auberge des Migrants, says the picture of the drowned toddler on a Turkish beach in September provoked a strong reaction.

"That picture seems to have shocked the English more than anyone else," he says. "They had a change of heart. And since then, volunteers from England have been pouring into the camp trying to help set up facilities to make life better for its inhabitants."

The Jungle, which earned its name due to its squalor and chaos, has now become a kind of village with an organized life.

It has a few shops, two schools, a church, a mosque, a library and even a café where you can eat dal and watch Bollywood movies.

Teachers Virginie Tiberghien (left) and Nathalie Janssens check an Iraqi boy's mouth because he has a toothache. The camp has volunteer doctors to provide treatment. Eleanor Beardsley/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

Teachers Virginie Tiberghien (left) and Nathalie Janssens check an Iraqi boy's mouth because he has a toothache. The camp has volunteer doctors to provide treatment.

Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

And there are volunteers providing all sorts of services. There are caravans with doctors and health workers and a team of lawyers giving asylum advice visits every weekend.

Virginie Tiberghien and Nathalie Janssens, teachers who live in Boulogne, not far down the coast from Calais, are part of a team of teachers that volunteers at the schools here. They just helped build a new school for children at the camp.

"What really made me want to help was all the children that are here now," Virginie says.

She and Nathalie say they have gotten to know many of the families here. On this visit, they've brought bags of socks and clothes to distribute.

The two teachers kiss many of the migrants on both cheeks — greeting them like old friends. There seems to be a spirit of friendship and community between the volunteers and the refugees.

Young men hang out around their tent neighborhood. Many tents have blankets on the floor, and people take off their shoes before going inside. Eleanor Beardsley/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

Young men hang out around their tent neighborhood. Many tents have blankets on the floor, and people take off their shoes before going inside.

Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

It's a good thing there are a lot of volunteers, says Salome, because the French state has totally relinquished its responsibility to care for the migrants.

"France is the only country that does not have a refugee camp," he says. "There should be a proper camp for these people."

Salome points to smaller and poorer countries such as Jordan that are housing millions of refugees. He says rich Europe, with a population of nearly 600 million, could easily absorb and care for a few million of these war-weary people.

This week, a French court ordered the city of Calais to put in toilets and water access points and to start collecting garbage.

It's already happening. People gathered around rows of spigots to fill jugs and brush their teeth. Others lined up for showers.

Salome says it's something, but not nearly enough.

"Forty toilets for 6,000 people is a nightmare," he says.

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