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.

 

 

 

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