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 **