Calais camp – 12th and 13th March

Arriving into the camp early on Saturday morning this weekend was a strange experience. I’d been away a mere two weeks but in that time more than half of the camp as I had known it had been demolished or moved. Vast spaces of mud, rubble, clothes and garbage had been left behind. Patches of earth slowly smoked after the fire the day before, and the whole South side of the camp was completely deserted. Walking around that morning, it felt very eerie.

The French authorities had kept their word and hadn’t taken down the community centres; the Church, school, library and information centre stood alone in the mud.

As people woke up, volunteers and locals were busy moving tents for people. The remaining few tents in the southern part of the camp were all being moved to the north, in anticipation of demolition or fire. The day before our arrival there had been a fire at the edge of the southern part of the camp. It had begun as a small fire, but volunteers with extinguishers were refused entry into the area, and it soon became a blaze. The police stood blocking their way, some taking selfies. Fire engines took an hour to arrive by which time dozens of homes and several cafes and restaurants had burnt to the ground. The cafes where I had bought tea and played cards two weeks ago had been reduced to rubble and ash, distinguishable only by the surviving upended metal chairs.

It’s difficult to gauge what the atmosphere is like in the camp during the week. Evictions only occur on week days, probably because the French authorities would rather not carry out the unpleasant spectacle in the midst of crowds of volunteers. At weekends, the camp seems relatively peaceful. There are police milling around the main entrance and occasionally there are skirmishes, but there are no demolition teams and few protests.

The media can be very sensationalist about the situation; volunteers can be too. But speaking to the camps’ residents this weekend, in general, the response has been okay. They’ve shrugged, seemingly unsurprised by their treatment at the hands of the authorities.

South to North

A majority of those who had been living in the southern part of the camp have simply moved their tents to the north which has become much larger and more concentrated. Indeed, the North was in a constant state of construction. Trucks carried temporary homes and volunteers from one side of the camp to the other all day. Refugees and migrants were hammering pieces of wood together and building temporary shelters until it was too dark to continue.

I asked one of the volunteers helping to move a refugee’s tent how everyone was going to fit in the northern half of the camp. “It’s not how they’re going to fit, it’s how they’ll survive,” he commented wryly. “There’s going to be Afghans, Syrians, Sudanese living next to each other and they all hate each other”.

I’m sure there are tensions on the camp – it would be naive to think that there wouldn’t be – and fights do break out, but you also see neighbours helping each other and friends playing cards and crickets. Like any other community…

Fallout from the evictions 

The evictions seem to have had a limited effect so far. The French authorities hope that by demolishing peoples’ homes, they will force people to seek asylum in France or elsewhere or move to the emergency centres across France. So far, this has happened to a very limited extent. The same reasons that the camps’ occupants were not accepting the authorities’ alternatives before, still stand (see my previous blog post). My friend Mohammad, a 33 year old Afghan man, pointed out another reason against seeking asylum in France. He reminded us that it was against the law for women in France to wear a hijab. “If we obey the state’s law, then we break our religious law, so what are we supposed to do?” he asked.

Instead, a majority of the people are still trying to make it to the UK – through legal means if they can, and illegal means if they can’t. It’s difficult to claim any of the statistics confidently but people I’ve spoken to on the camps estimate that while around 70-100 people were making it across each week in the summer and autumn, since the UK has invested a significant sum of money into securing the tunnel, only around 30-40 a week make it across now.

Attempts to cross the channel 

Despite this, people on the camp are still trying to make it across the channel with worrying regularity. In the medical caravans, men complain that their whole body aches after walking for hours each night, and wading through water up to their waists to try and board trucks. If they make it to these trucks, they are forced to hold on for hours, often falling off, or being forcibly removed and this leaves their bodies stiff, bruised and burnt.

One man showed me a video on his phone that he’d taken the night before; he was filming a matter of metres from the ferry he was hoping to board. He hadn’t made it into any of the trucks boarding the ferry so would not manage to get on it.

The unaccompanied minors on the camp 

The younger members of the camp make the same nightly attempts to board trucks or ferries.  A fifteen year old Eritrean boy died trying to make it across to the UK the day we left the camp after one of our first trips. The volunteers at the youth centre are in a very difficult moral position when the kids tell them that they are going to try and make it across. On the one hand, they in no way want to encourage the kids to risk their lives or encourage the people-smuggling trade. On the other hand, if the kids are going to go anyway, they want to make sure that they have enough layers and are wearing gloves so that their hands don’t become numb trying to hold onto lorries for many hours at a time in the bitter cold.

The youth workers have a very challenging task trying to care for the 300 or more unaccompanied minors in the Calais camp. A lot of the kids have serious behavioural problems and are prone to random outbursts of anger and violence. I spent about an hour there on Saturday, during which time the volunteers handed out shoes for the boys. One of the boys did not receive the pair of shoes he had wanted and as a result, went outside and started throwing a broken bike and rocks at the walls of the youth centre. He also hit one of the volunteers, Michael. “I still love you,” Michael told him. Many of the inhabitants of the jungle are struggling from PTSD and other mental health issues. They are now living in squalid and uncertain conditions and many of them have just had their homes destroyed for the umpteenth time. It is difficult to imagine how children as young as eight, and completely alone, are handling that situation when much older adults are buckling under the weight of it.

Having tea with two of my friends on the camp on Sunday, I discovered that one of the boys in the tent with us was 14. He had made the journey to Europe alone and his father back in Afghanistan was calling one of my friends, an older Afghan man, to check up on his son. Afghanistan has been declared a safe country and Afghans in Calais are deemed migrants rather than refugees. But you have to ask how safe the country can be if parents are letting their children travel alone across Europe, rather than have them stay in their home country.

‘The Jungle is finished’ 

Everyone seems unsure about the future of the camp. The volunteers running the youth centre, the school and the medical clinics, are all uncertain about what the next few weeks and months hold. “We’ll have to have a real think in the next few days and decide where we go from here,” said volunteers at the youth centre, regarding the fact that all of the tents around their centre have now been demolished. Staff at the school are also uncertain about how they’ll proceed. Over the weekend the school was closed. It is possible that it will shut down permanently; it certainly will if the jungle gets completely demolished. And that is seeming an increasingly likely situation. The catch phrase on the camp at the weekend was ‘the jungle is finished’.

The Hunger Strikers 

Some in the camp are desperately resisting this. Ten men so far have sewed their mouths shut and gone on hunger strike. There are written messages from them across the camp: “When we have tried to protect our houses from destruction, police have used illegal, violent force against us”. The hunger strikers have organised peaceful protests and presented police with white flowers.

The eight community leaders in the camp, including my friend Mohammad (mentioned earlier), met with the hunger strikers last week to try and dissuade them from continuing their strike. “The EU don’t care about your hunger strike”, they told the strikers. “Everyone who cares about you is here on the camp. Think about your families and stop killing yourselves”. The strikers, however, were adamant and have sworn to continue for at least another month in the hope that further evictions and demolitions on the camps will end. As things stand, the southern half of the camp has been completely demolished and an order to demolish the rest of the camp is scheduled for the end of March.

What will happen to the Jungle’s inhabitants when it’s demolished? 

Few of the people I spoke to know where they will go if and when Calais is completely demolished. Mohammed is happy here. “My heart is happy in Calais,” he says. “I have friends, I am a community representative and I help the unaccompanied kids. I just want to be, to exist.” I ask him what he’ll do if they evict him completely and the camp is demolished. He just shrugs in response. “We’ll go elsewhere,” he says. And, indeed, already several make-shift camps have sprung up between Calais and Dunkirk. The authorities want the jungle gone by the end of April. It seems likely that a majority of its inhabitants will move to these make-shift camps, more closely resembling the squalid camps currently lining the Macedonian border than the relatively well-organised Calais camp.

It seems like a desperate situation but many people remain optimistic. My friend Saber is 23 and originally from Afghanistan. He lived in India for many years, after his father sent him and his older brother there to avoid the dangers in Afghanistan. He went through university in India and worked as a software engineer for Microsoft. Last year, he sold his house and his car to travel to the UK where his parents and five younger siblings now live. He has now been stuck in Calais for over five months, borrowing intellectual books from the camp’s library and philosophising to me. “Sometimes at night I feel like such a fool for coming to Europe. But then I think, life is uncertain for everyone and who knows what’s in store for me”.

I ask him how he manages to be so upbeat in the situation he’s living in. “Well I can either be sad about what’s happened or I can have a smile on my face and what’s happened has still happened. I prefer my smile, it’s better,” he says.

 

 

 

Calais camp on the eve of demolition – 28/02/16

Last weekend was the first time I’d properly explored the Calais camp – its sprawling tents, and various community centres. I walked around trying to capture everything in my head – the women and children’s centre, the kitchen, the library etc. In lots of ways, this was a strange time to get to know the camp; demolition teams were sent in the day after we left, with the aim of destroying well over half the camp in a matter of days.

The camp is far from an ideal home for people. For a start, it’s cold, and there is virtually no way for its inhabitants to get warm. Men stand around small fires with their hands outstretched. But at night they sleep in cold tents with basic mattresses and sleeping bags. Manning the cold and flu stand in the Care 4 Calais medical centre, everyone was coming to ask for packs of tissues or cough sweets.

The political undercurrents in the camp can also contribute to the difficulties for those living in the camp. Of course, these undercurrents are difficult to properly assess as a British volunteer, but there are obviously certain people in ‘charge’. And thievery is very prevalent. Anything and everything that is left out is taken; whether of real value or not. A thermal flask, a mobile phone. We were in hospital on Saturday night with a middle-aged Afghan man who had severe diabetes. He had arrived at the medical caravans with extremely high blood sugar levels and was falling in and out of consciousness. In the hospital, it was obvious that he needed to stay over night, but he refused because he was anxious that the things in his tent would be stolen if he was away from it for a night.

For women, I imagine the camp is an even harsher habitat than for the male refugees and migrants. Walking around the camp both in the day and at night, you will see virtually no women who aren’t aid workers or volunteers. One of the reasons for this is simple statistics; many fewer women and children attempt the dangerous journey to Europe, and a higher proportion of those that do die along the way, than fit, young men. However, it is also the case that an overwhelming majority of the women in the camp tend to stay inside their tents. The cultural attitudes towards women among a majority of the camp’s inhabitants is starkly different from a typical Western attitude. Many husbands feel their wives would be safer inside than outside. I also imagine some of the women would rather not leave their tents, regardless of their husband’s stance. A camp dominated by men can be an intimidating environment.

All of this said, the Calais camp does have some benefits as a temporary home. Unlike the Dunkirk camp that used to stand at Grande-Scythe, in Calais there are at least some temporary buildings as opposed to flimsy tents. These include several community buildings; shops selling red bull, fruit, toiletries, restaurants and cafes offering traditional Middle Eastern food, a volunteer-run kitchen, a theatre, a school, a playground, and a library. In the two ‘fields’ at the entrance to the camp, men have started playing cricket and flying kites. This offers at least some opportunities to occupy oneself. In the library there are dictionaries of most languages, and several copies of English and French dictionaries. Several men were reading elementary French or English books or studying dictionaries when I went in. In the corner of the library one of the refugees was being given legal advice.

The school has two or three classrooms with whiteboards, computers, books and games. Lessons are offered for children and adults. French language teachers work with refugees and migrants to teach them a language that will help them integrate and find jobs if they seek asylum in the country. English lessons and legal advice are also commonly offered classes. In the middle of the school complex there is a playground for children and a table football. The kitchen is also a community space; people sit around chatting or charging their phones.

I spent Saturday evening in one of the Afghan-run restaurant/cafes, eating chicken and rice, drinking red bull and playing endless games of cheat and snap with some of the refugees there. I felt almost guilty for having such an enjoyable evening. But it was also good to know that there were opportunities for fun and socialising in the camp, where it can sometimes feel like there is little ‘life’ of any description.

The women and children’s centre is one of the most strictly guarded places in the camp. Even as a female volunteer I was only cautiously allowed in. Men are strictly not allowed in. In one of the make-shift rooms, children were playing with balloons and were about to watch Cinderella on a projector set up for ‘cinema’ day which was every Sunday. On Saturday there had been a ‘beauty’ day for the women on the camp, where they could come to a safe space and enjoy make-up and chats. Being there felt surprisingly normal; it resembled an average children’s birthday party and the kids were excitable and happy.

The French authorities are justifying their demolition of the camp by claiming that it does not provide proper living standards. Volunteers and long-term aid workers can only agree; every one of them would rather the refugees and migrants had better living conditions and opportunities. If the French authorities were offering Calais camp residents a fuller life elsewhere, I imagine few of them would complain. But the French authorities are offering no such thing and unsurprisingly many of the refugees and migrants feel like yet another home and community is being snatched from them. At least in Calais they had friends and places to go and things to do; however limited. For those still trying to get to the UK or those waiting to seek asylum elsewhere, Calais was the best option, the best temporary opportunity for stability and comfort. And now for the umpteenth time they are being forced to uproot their homes and families.

The alternatives on offer 

For those whose tents in Calais are being demolished, the French authorities are offering various alternatives.

Alternative container camp on Calais

The French authorities have converted containers into temporary, heated homes, with bunk beds. These have the benefit of providing warmth and a proper bed. On the other hand, they offer no opportunities for cooking or washing, and almost no space for any activities other than sleeping.

Volunteers are not allowed in this section of the camp for unknown reasons, so it is difficult to assess the conditions. Reports from refugees with friends in this part of the camp are that women and men are separated and that no one is allowed out of this section of the camp after 10.30pm. People describe it as a ‘prison’ and by all accounts it seems to offer extremely limited opportunities for activities or social gatherings.

Aside from the restricted lifestyle that would accompany living in these containers, refugees and migrants are very anxious that their finger prints would be taken if they accepted the accommodation. Once the French authorities have a person’s finger prints they can no longer claim asylum elsewhere on the basis of the Dublin agreement. The French authorities would be able to demonstrate to another potential host country that they have in fact been in France before that country.

Another factor to consider in terms of this option is that at the time I was in the camp a week and a half ago, there were less than 250 remaining places available in the containers. This figure is significantly smaller than the thousands that will be affected by the camp’s demolition.

Emergency shelters across France

The French authorities are providing buses to take people to emergency shelters which have been set up across the country. No one appears to know much about what these shelters are or how they work. One of the other volunteers said that they were temporary and only available during the cold winter months; that once it was Spring, this accommodation would no longer be available. It’s difficult to judge the pros and cons of this opportunity given the limited information being given on them. It does, however, seem like yet another temporary option for people who are really desperate to start their lives again; lives complete with education, community and job opportunities.

Asylum in France 

Increasingly, people on the camps are seeking asylum in France. Many of them have been there since the summer, when there was a massive influx. They have spent 5-7 months on the camp, risking their lives most nights to board trains or lorries bound for the UK. A tiny margin of them make it across, and many of them that do, get deported straight back. The UK has invested a lot of money into making the tunnel more secure and effectively eliminating any chances refugees or migrants might have of making it from Calais. As a result, people are giving up – “it’s too dangerous”, “it’s too hard” were common responses to my questions of why they’d given up dreams of reaching the UK.

However, while there has been an uptick in refugees and migrants seeking asylum in France, a majority of people I spoke to are still looking to seek asylum elsewhere in Europe, rather than stay in France. “Why don’t you want asylum in France?” I ask. There are usually several answers to this question. Language is often a big factor; many of them can speak English, whereas a tiny minority can speak French. When it comes to social integration and job seeking, language is an important factor to consider. Family also plays a big part; many of those in the Calais camp have brothers and sisters, parents, cousins, or aunts and uncles in the UK. Some of them even have young children in the UK. Several of them have previously lived in the UK themselves.

On a more emotional level, many of those in the camp feel a lot of anger and resentment towards the French. And it is easy to see why. I’ve spent several days at the camp and I have yet to meet a single French volunteer. Often cars drive past and hoot or shout abuse at the refugees and migrants. One of the refugees told me he waited three hours for a bus and while several passed him, not one of them stopped for him. It’s not even that they haven’t been welcomed; since the moment they arrived on the camp, the French authorities have sought to make life difficult for them and ultimately get rid of them. French police patrol the camps and often use tear gas, intimidating people in full riot gear. And now people’s tents are being demolished despite their protests. They ask me back: “If you were choosing a place to begin your new life and raise your children, would you choose a country whose inhabitants have only shown you hostility and violence?”

** To view some of the photos I took of the camp, including various images of the school, library and theatre, please click here – the images are all public on Facebook **