CALAIS, France – The kitchen is a rustic grill under a tarp in a fetid-smelling camp teaming with migrants — but for Zubair Nazari it means survival. The teen, who ended up in this port city after a perilous escape from the Taliban, sticks with a group of fellow Afghans who do their best to recreate the tastes of home — a stew of eggs, onions and tomatoes — amid a stretch of squalor known as "the jungle."
"We don't eat like this every day," said Nazari of the simple meal that was, in fact, a special treat cooked up for visitors. "The jungle is not a place for humans. It's just for animals."
An estimated 2,500 migrants are currently at the wind-swept camp surrounded by sand dunes that sprang up in early April when a state-approved day center for migrants was opened nearby. Unlike the others, this refuge far from Calais' city center — and more than a two-hour walk to the Channel tunnel — has mushroomed into a veritable village. A mosque, church and myriad shops, all built by migrants from plastic tarp and plywood, convey a sense of permanence. It's a sign that, while most migrants are desperate to leave Calais, they appear increasingly resigned to the long haul in a city that is groaning under the strain of the migrant load.
Maya Konforti of Auberge des Migrants — Migrants' Shelter — an NGO that helps supply food, tents and blankets, says the camp's building binge is due in part to its far-flung location, with no nearby grocery stores. But another reason is that some 30 percent of the camp population is seeking political asylum in France — and these people know they are in for a prolonged wait.
Squalor is the only constant between this new "jungle" and the makeshift encampments bulldozed by authorities. "There is no water, no food, no clothing," Nazari said. "Where are the human rights?"
Piles of garbage putrefy in the sun. The rare spigots of water and a line of portable toilets are difficult to access for many living in the kilometer-long stretch. One migrant said he last washed his pants in Hungary, weeks ago.
Yet this appears to be the place where France's government is encouraging migrants to huddle, out of sight for most Calais residents and from the Channel tunnel. For the first time since the 2002 destruction of a huge migrant camp outside Calais, Konforti said, "the government says 'Go there. You will be tolerated.'"
Fear follows migrants fleeing war, famine, human rights abuses or poverty — and pervades the camp.
Zubair has been in Calais for a month, and cannot shake his fear of the Taliban. He said threatening letters from the Afghan militants drove him to leave his studies and his country.
"My life was in danger in Afghanistan," he said. He refused to provide details, but some other Afghan residents in the camp said they left for similar reasons, and remain fearful of being targeted inside the "jungle."
"We will feel safe in England," said Zubair. "Maybe when we pass to England the fear will go away from us."
Calais is a necessary evil for migrants trying to reach Britain, which for many has become a kind of promised land. They believe Britain wholeheartedly welcomes newcomers, and that living standards there are the best in Europe. It's a notion the British government is trying to dispel.
One Afghan, Khan Tarakhil, is proof that Britain's arms are hardly wide open. At 14, he sneaked into Britain on a ferry, hiding in a truck loaded with boxes of biscuits. He spent seven years in Manchester, only to be refused political asylum when he was no longer a minor — forcing him into a life in hiding. At 24, unable to apply for asylum elsewhere under European rules, he is trying to sneak back to Britain "to open my case again."
On Wednesday night, "I got over the last fence, dropped down, then the dogs came and they stopped me," Tarakhil said, referring to the dogs used by some security units as part of the effort to block migrants.
Some make it to the other side of the Channel, feeding the hopes of many others. Among them was the father of an 11-year-old who is currently living in the camp. The father reached Britain on Saturday, but the son was caught. His identity was being withheld because of his age.
The child, from Kunduz, Afghanistan, said that he and his father had been in Calais a month. Now, he is determined to join his dad — but knows the journey is daunting.
"He's scared about police spray in the eyes," said Tarakhil, acting as translator. It was a reference to the pervasive use, confirmed by French authorities, of pepper spray to force back migrants trying to sneak into the Eurotunnel site.
"He's scared of trains. People die there," said Tarakhil, referring to the 10 migrants killed by trains since the beginning of June. Still, Tarakhil said, "he goes every day."