By Lin Taylor and Sally Hayden
NORRENT-FONTES, France, Oct 25 – At a small, muddy makeshift migrant camp in the quiet countryside of Norrent-Fontes, some 70 kilometres (43 miles) from Calais in northern France, Ethiopian and Eritrean women prepare to cook injera, a type of flatbread, for their lunch.
Inside a wooden shack lined with mattresses and belongings hanging in plastic bags overhead, Ethiopian migrant Sara, 26, stirs carrots, lentils and potatoes into a stew she is cooking for the 60 women in the camp.
“We support each other, we live together, we love each other. It’s good,” said the former student, who fled Eritrea where she had been living nine years ago, and travelled through Turkey, Greece and across Europe into France.
The security Sara feels in Norrent-Fontes contrasts with her experience of the “Jungle” camp outside Calais which the French authorities began clearing on Monday, ahead of its demolition.
The sprawling, ramshackle camp that has become a symbol of Europe’s struggle to respond to an influx of people fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East was “the worst place on Earth”, Sara said.
The French government says it is closing the camp, home to around 6,500 migrants, on humanitarian grounds. It plans to relocate them to 450 centres across France.
But most migrants in the camp have made their way to Calais because they want to reach Britain, where a greater number of job opportunities and the more familiar English language are big draws, and make regular attempts to sneak aboard trucks or trains bound for the UK.
Although there are roughly 100 men living in an adjacent section of the Norrent-Fontes camp, Sara, who spoke on condition that only her first name was used, said she felt safe.
“You are not afraid to move in the dark. No one will try to attack you. We never hear of any woman attacked,” she said.
Several charity workers told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that many migrants from the Jungle would simply scatter into the surrounding countryside and regroup later in Calais to resume their attempts to cross the Channel.
Sara expects migrants from Calais to reach Norrent-Fontes but is concerned the camp did not have enough space to house them.
“Of course we expect them to come, but we are very crowded,” she said, adding that she was worried authorities will eventually close their camp as well.
Magda, 24, arrived in Calais after a long journey from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, but quickly moved to Norrent-Fontes because she feared for her safety.
“There are so many people (in Calais), so many boys. When you walk down the road they will talk to you and we hear they are raping some girls,” Magda told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Because of that we don’t think (Calais) is safe for us. Here, there is no problem.”
The Norrent-Fontes camp is supported by local volunteers who donate food and clothing, built the wooden shack that the women sleep in, and drive residents to public shower units each day.
While more comfortable than the Jungle, Sara said the camp is just a temporary home, and is determined to study law in Britain to help women and migrants like herself.
Spurred on by friends who have successfully crossed into Britain, Sara said the migrants would take turns trying to sneak onto trucks every night.
“The hardest part (is) if you don’t cross quickly, if you stay a long time here, you will be stressed, you will be bored,” she said.
“You are always thinking today or tomorrow, maybe in one week, then we will cross.”