Under the shadow of an old industrial complex, a few minutes’ drive from the port of Calais, live 6,000 refugees and migrants. From the road, through the high, barbed-wire fences, you can see a wave of colourful tents and wooden huts. Following a systematic demolishment by French authorities in March, the striking, ramshackle church and the library and school tents, stand alone in the expanse of mud and weeds on the now uninhabited south side of the camp.
This is nothing like the formal UN refugee camps currently housing Syrians in countries like Jordan and Lebanon, with their rows of sturdy, matching tents. It has more character; new buildings, new works of graffiti, and new attempts at gardens, appear each day. On the other, darker side, it has fewer resources, fewer rules, and far more rats than any other camp of its size.
This space in Calais, home to Afghans, Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Ethiopians, Sudanese, Eritreans, and several other nationalities, is not a refugee camp. It is an illegal settlement. The French authorities have minimal involvement with the camp, other than to position police at the entrances; police who have developed a tendency to indiscriminately fire tear gas at everyone whenever there is the slightest hint of trouble. (The refugees have taken to making plant pots out of the empty canisters.)
Calais is not a refugee camp and its inhabitants are not all refugees. That said, exactly how we distinguish between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ remains a grey area for me. In some instances, it’s obvious. One man I teach English to in the camp is from Aleppo in Syria; he has lost both his parents and two brothers to the conflict there. Few would question that this man is a ‘refugee’. On the other hand, another man I teach, from Tajikistan, lived happily and prosperously with his family in that country before he decided he’d like to try and live in California – ideally in LA, given the opportunities it could afford to meet his idol Angelina Jolie. This man is not a ‘refugee’, and in my opinion, should not be wasting his time and skills in a place like Calais.
But what about everyone in between? What about my Afghan friends who translated for the English or American armies and are now being hunted by the Taliban, their wives and children in danger? What about the gentle, good-natured Eritreans who are fleeing political persecution and a future of indefinite conscription into the army?
My Tajikistan friend is one of a small handful of people I have met in the camp – and I have met hundreds – who have not fled their country because of imminent danger. Few risk their lives on rickety boats crossing the Mediterranean, a three-month journey on foot with minimal access to food and water, and a future of living alongside rats in Calais, for any reason other than desperation.
So why are they treated with such disdain?
An Afghan man called Aasif keeps me company most days, walking or sitting beside me in a daze, sometimes chatting to volunteers, sometimes having rambling and fantastical conversations with himself. His hand is in bandages after he was shot by a French farmer for trespassing, and whether because of this incident or some other experience, he is now struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Most people in the camp are living with this or some other form of psychological damage – although most of the time they are able to hide it better than Aasif, pulling their sleeves down over cuts on their wrists.
My Eritrean friend David loves music videos and films; in fact, his English is almost fluent as a result of everything he’s watched. Most of our conversations revolve around these topics, recommending films to one another, or talking about our favourite artists. Then sometimes we talk about his 6 months in Libyan prison being beaten and starved and his expression changes. “I try to stay up-beat, but the camp…you know…it’s hard to stay happy here.”
The dirt, the rats, the boredom and constant uncertainty about their future make the camp an extremely difficult place to live for the refugees. My Iranian friend Ali asks me why I come, and I tell him I like the camp and its people. “Maybe it would be nice for a week. Long-term, it’s so depressing.” He has been there nine months, jumping on trucks or trains every night to try and reach the UK.
If the camp could be recognised by the French authorities as an official refugee camp, if basic levels of cleanliness and hygiene could be observed, and if everyone could be housed in clean and warm buildings, at the very least the people there might feel they were being treated as humans. If the police could be there to protect women, children and the vulnerable from thievery and sexual assault, rather than indiscriminately tear-gassing the camp’s inhabitants, some law and order could be introduced. People who have fled colossal violence and stress could have one less thing to worry about.
The inhabitants of Calais may not be French nationals, they may not even be France’s responsibility, but they are there nevertheless, and with just some effort, their lives could be hugely improved by implementing basic, centralised care and hygiene systems. Grass-root NGOs are doing their best to look after everyone in Calais, but they are overwhelmed and don’t have the capacity to achieve everything they’d like to.
As a result, conditions are extremely poor. People can’t sleep for the smell of dead rats and rat droppings underneath their tents, they are mocked for their smell and appearance whenever they venture out of the camp into town, and they continue to turn up each day at the medical caravans with tear gas wounds, broken limbs from falling off trucks, and dog bites from being discovered by sniffer dogs.
If Europe is really a champion of human rights, the Calais camp should not be allowed to exist as it does now. Improving conditions in the camp isn’t the ‘answer’ to the problem in Calais, it isn’t even close, but it would go someway towards easing people’s suffering, restoring their dignity, and improving their physical and mental health.