Marco Tiberio photographs the “Architecture of Exodus”—the hand-built homes where Europe’s migrants await asylum.
In April 2015, France sanctioned the country’s first official migrant camp on a stretch of land striking distance from a chemical plant on the edge of the port city of Calais. Around 1,000 refugees gathered there, forced from other temporary settlements at the fringes of the city. Since 1999, migrants from the Middle East and North Africa have awaited asylum on the unoccupied land at the outskirts of Calais, unrecognized by the French government. Police would periodically come in to clear the camps and uproot the already displaced.
The government-sanctioned settlement was called The New Jungle, and when the Italian photographer Marco Tiberio began documenting it in May of 2015, a month after its establishment, it was no more than a few houses, hand-built by refugees. By the end of the summer, it had reached peak capacity.
The New Jungle offered nothing beyond the land: no toilets, no water, no electricity. In the rainy seasons, the camp flooded frequently. Tiberio had worked with refugees before, but “I was unprepared for the situation I found in Calais,” he says. Returning over the course of a year, Tiberio watched the camp evolve into a dystopian city, “completely cut off from society, where a physical border represented a psychological border between the refugees and the Europeans.” Within the confines of the camp, migrants built their own houses by hand; mosques, schools, churches, and shops followed. As the refugee crisis in Europe intensifies, many in Calais, who now number over 7,000, face a year-long wait for asylum in France or elsewhere in Europe. Desolation is widespread.
In his series Invisible Cities, Architecture of Exodus, Tiberio focused on the physicality of the camp, photographing not the residents of the Jungle but the homes they made, more than 100 houses across the 45-acre plot of land. “I wanted to talk about migration in a different manner, to focus on something apart from poverty, pity, disembarkations, boats,” Tiberio says. “I wanted to show people’s skills and resilience.” As he traveled through the camp, Tiberio, who speaks English, French, and Arabic, began to understand how the houses people built reflected people’s cultural backgrounds and needs.
Those who arrived in Calais from Sudan, Tiberio says, almost always built sturdy homes from the branches of trees, wrapped in blankets and covered with a plastic cloth. Often facing a long road to asylum in France, they design the structures to last. Migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Tiberio says, tend to erect more temporary shelters. Many are looking to the United Kingdom as a destination, since the Eurotunnel is 15 kilometers from the Jungle, and they’ll split their time between the camp and the entrance to the passage, hoping to find a way to cross the Channel. “Their houses are more like tents than real houses,” Tiberio says. “They build them knowing—and hoping—they won’t stay long.”
The resilience and cultural specificity and reflected in Tiberio’s photos, however, is being wiped away; in March of this year, after Tiberio made his last trip to Calais, the government began destroying the hand-built houses, replacing them with shipping containers and standardized tents.
While Tiberio’s work, which will be published as a book titled Immo Refugee this fall, doesn’t depict any residents of the New Jungle, his images throw into relief the lives contained in the small houses scattered across the land. “When we see refugees in the middle of the sea or in detention centers, it increases the distance between them and us,” Tiberio says. His hope is that his work pushes viewers to understand how closely intertwined we are in our shared need and humanity.