Calais should be recognised as a refugee camp

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.



An Afghan’s Journey to Europe

A few Afghani men gather around me and gently push books at me. “Teach me, teach me,” they say.

After a while of reading books in the sun, moving my finger from one word to the next as they pronounce them, I begin to ask about their lives, and I ask if I can record it. They’re instantly wary. “Are you a journalist?” they ask me. “Sort of”, I respond, unwilling to lose their trust. They visibly back away from me and I half expect them to get up and leave. The man I’d been reading with has his head down and looks extremely uncomfortable.

“They come and they ask us about our lives, but then they put an angle on it. They don’t give a shit about us. They think we aren’t human, but we are,” interjects one of the other men.

I tell them that I want to publish their stories as they are, that I want people to hear what they have to say, in their own words. Eventually one of them agrees to speak to me, and begins to tell me the story of how he left Afghanistan. The others stay cautious and quiet on the bench with us.

Shah is 31 and has perfectly groomed curly hair, with striking red highlights, no doubt a product of the many expert barber shops in the Calais camp. He tells me that he worked for the US army in Afghanistan, a common story among Afghans in the camp.

I was a driver of a tanker, so I was supplying fuel for the US army bases. So therefore, I put myself in a problem.  

Once I was carrying the fuel and I was with my younger brother. I drive from Jalalabad, the main city, about thirty kilometres, and there were two check points along the way. So when I was leaving Jalalabad, there were some people, and they were blocking the road, holding weapons in their hands. They stopped me, and they had a big box with them. They told me: “You can take this box and our friends are near to the base, you can take this to them”. But there was an Afghan army check post before their friends. So I told them, “I can’t do this, that’s a risk, how can I do this?”

When I refused to do that, they hostaged my younger brother, and they told me: “If you do not do this, we will kill him”. So because of my brother, I did that, I took the box.

When I reached the first check post, they start searching my car. So at last they find the box, they opened the box that was full of ammunition and weapons, so on the spot they arrest me and they beat me – for two months straight. I have scars on my hands and my back.

They told me “because you are doing this work, you want to explode the American bases”. And I said “I am not the one doing this, the men standing on the roads are doing this, and they hostage my brother”.  

I told them the whole story. They beat me, and put me in prison. Then they go and they fight with these people on the check point near the army bases, and some people were killed on the Taliban side, and some people on the Afghan army side. When the Taliban knows that the driver made a problem for them, they call these people who hostage my brother, and they shoot my brother.

Then somebody bring my brother’s body to my home, and my father started searching for me. He found me and he bribed to the police, and they release me. When I come to my home, my brother was lying there and all my family are crying and shouting. And they’re saying “this is because of you, you did that work, and you put us in this shit”.

But that was because of my economic problems, I have to look after my family, I had to do something.

Then I cried for the whole night, and thinking there was nothing I could do.

After some days, they threaten me again. “We’ll do the same as we did to your brother”, they say. Then my father told me, “you have to leave the country”. So we sold some property and I make $10,000 and I pay the people smuggler and he took me from Afghanistan, through Iran, to Turkey, Greece, by foot, by walking, sometimes freezing containers. Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany. It took three months and nine days.

I stayed in Germany five months. But, the German refugee process is very long, it’s 5 years, 6 years, when they are giving you paper to take your family from Afghanistan. So that’s a long time for me. So I decide to go UK. When I came here [Calais], I tried several times to cross the border, but I can’t. Once I was climbing on the containers, and I fell down, and I got wound, injury. I broke my coccyx. So the doctor told me, “don’t try again, it’s too risky for you, you have to stay in France”. So I decided to stay in France, and now I am learning French. I am going to save my life, whether it’s France or UK – it doesn’t matter for me.

He seems determined, but I wonder what he’ll do if France reject his asylum application. “I haven’t applied yet,” he admits. “I’m going to. But I’m scared of the Dublin. I am scared that if I give them my fingerprints, they will send me back to Germany and that’s a long process for me.” Like many of the men I’ve spoken to in Calais, this man doesn’t really know what he will do, where he will go, or what will happen when he gets there.

He quickly changes topic, away from his uncertain plans, and towards social justice.

99 percent in the jungle are the same as you. But the people outside are thinking something else about us, they’re thinking that we are not human, we are something else. They are scared of us, but we are humans, we have the same heart like you, the same dreams, the same hopes.

Who put us in this trouble? I know, all the world know that. 42 countries are involved in our country, they are fighting there. But they do not live there. I am the one suffering there. I am Afghani, I am living there, so I know. Hundreds of people are dying in Afghanistan, and I know that could be me, could be my father, or my mother. So how can I live there? When you walk in the streets, there are explosions in the street. When you are sitting on a bus, you have to check your seat for explosives, you have to check the driver. How can I live there?

And now, the same stresses in the jungle. We are facing stress, stress, stress. We are human. We’re not machines or something else.  

I’m thinking about my finger prints, I’m thinking about how they will send me back. I put myself in a problem, a big problem. In the night, we’re not sleeping, we’re just thinking, thinking, thinking.

When I ask him which family members he will bring over if he is granted asylum, I am surprised to hear him mention a wife and children for the first time. He laughs at my surprise: “Yeah. I have a wife and children. My eldest child is about ten years – he is a boy. I have five children.” This is even more of a shock to me and he laughs again.

“That’s the Afghani tradition,” he explains.

“When you’re 18 or 19, they’re getting you married. So I married early, therefore I have five kids. That’s the way in Afghanistan. I am thinking about them too much; they are uneducated, they are in a part of Afghanistan where there is no electricity, no mobile. Once a week I am calling them. No school. When I’m calling them – there is a hill near to our village – they are coming to this hill for me – there is no signal where they are living.

“I have a daughter – she’s talking with me – she’s saying to me that ‘father, you are lying to us. Nine months you are saying that “I will take you, I will take you, I will send you this”. Papa I am not talking with you, you are lying to me.’ I am just saying to her, ‘please’. She’s a child, she doesn’t know I’m in a problem. She’s six years old.

“My wife knows I’m in trouble. I’m explaining every day, she knows well. She’s a little bit educated.”

I ask how they are surviving, living under Taliban rule, without his financial support.

“So my father is bringing them something, just to survive. But my children are not going to school, there’s no school. They are living in the countryside. There is no electricity, nothing.”

I assume the women are not able to walk around freely to collect food, or earn any money.

“Oh no. They are just in the room. Nobody, a woman especially, can walk alone out of the home. They are restricted by these people. When I call them, a man goes with them. When a man is with them, nobody says anything to them. When they are alone – that’s a problem yeah.”

I ask him about the Taliban and he seems cautious, conscious perhaps that I have a strong opinion on the subject.

“What do you mean by this?”, he asks me, twice.

“Let me tell you something. They are saying ‘we are fighting with these people, because they came to our country. They captured Afghanistan. We want to take control of our country.’ That’s their position.”

So would he want the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan? I ask.

“How can I say something?” he protests in response to such a controversial question. I reassure him that I am not expecting a certain answer, that I’m genuinely interested in his opinion.

He sighs. “I want a peaceful Afghanistan. If it is anybody, I want my country to be re-built, so I can stay in my country safely. Anybody. I want my country.”

“I want my daughter to be a doctor. I promised her, I will make her a doctor. And Insha’Allah I will make her a doctor.”

The men around us have relaxed, and begin to join in on our conversation. We discuss the camp, the physical and psychological difficulties of staying there, their confusion at how they are viewed by so many Europeans. They look tired and weary.

Many of them have been in the camp for six months or more and their hopes of reaching the UK are fading. Now all they want is to settle somewhere, anywhere, where they can be reunited with their families, and somewhere where they can begin a new life, one where they keep promises to their children.


Good Taliban, Bad Taliban

Increasingly in the Calais jungle, people are giving up on their dreams to reach the UK, and going elsewhere. For some, this means back home.

Speaking to one of the men who was working in the newly-established kids restaurant* on Saturday, cooking the kids lunch and playing their favourite films on the large television in the middle of the room, he told me he had a flight back to Afghanistan booked for the next day.

I was shocked. Surely he wasn’t considering returning to a life that he had risked so much to leave? I asked, naively, if he wasn’t in danger in his home country. “Yes, but it’s better than this shit life,” he replied, motioning around the make-shift restaurant, and the mud track outside.

This man had left Afghanistan two years previously and sought asylum in Italy. He’d be granted it but struggled to find work and couldn’t support himself. “Yes, I had a document, but what could I do with it?” he asked me. “Could I eat it? Could I make a pillow out of it?” Instead of sleeping rough in Italy, he’d decided to try and reach the UK where he thought he would be able to find work with his grasp of the language. Since 2014, he has made it across to the UK from Calais on two occasions. The first time, he was detained and spent three months in jail; the second six months. Both times he was sent back to Calais.

What would he do upon his return to Afghanistan, I wondered. “I’ll join the Taliban,” he told me, without ceremony or the expectation of any kind of a reaction.  Feeling increasingly like a naïve child, I protested that the Taliban were helping to destroy his country, and generally coming across as rather evil.

He shrugged. “There are good Taliban, and bad Taliban,” he explained, and for the second time in a few seconds, I had absolutely no idea how to respond, having never considered the possibility that there was anything other than ‘bad Taliban’. This person had met members of the Taliban, had seen them in the skin; for me, they were faceless embodiments of suppression and violence.

“The good Taliban just kill the military and foreigners. The bad Taliban kill the public. I’ll join the good Taliban.”

“I’m a foreigner, would you kill me if I came to Afghanistan?” I asked.

“Yes, I’d kill you. When I try and come to your country, it’s legal this, illegal that, blah blah. But you’re allowed to come to mine?”. He seemed angry, but in a controlled way, in a distant way. He wasn’t accusing me directly; he was coolly explaining that the world was unfair and imperfect.

“What’s the difference between me and you? Because you are white, and I’m not, you have the right to a better life than me? Because I have black hair, and you fair hair?”

I agreed that it was perplexing and unfair, and eventually he relented. “I wouldn’t kill you,” he said, “I was joking”. Still, I persisted, did he really have no other options other than to join the Taliban?

“If I join the military, the Taliban will kill me. If I join the Taliban, the military will kill me. What choices do I have?”

Couldn’t he get a job in the city? “I risk getting bombed every day I work in the city,” he retorted, flashing defiant eyes at me.

It was dawning on me that the Taliban, like ISIS, is not primarily made up of religious zealots, but ordinary people; people happy to help children in refugee camps eat properly, and happy to kill the military and foreigners if that was a way to survive.

I couldn’t think of anything else to say to this man, who seemed so much to dwarf me in terms of worldly experience. I left to make a meeting with some of the medical teams. I thanked him for chatting to me, and wished him luck.

His response was warm. “Goodbye. Thanks for coming here, and for looking after the children,” he said, returning to his cooking, and pouring a cup of Chai tea for one of the teenage boys.

I left, wondering what conversation we’d have had, had we been in Afghanistan and he’d been a member of the Taliban. Probably there wouldn’t have been any conversation at all.

* The kids restaurant where this man was working is not associated with either the Baloo’s Youth Centre or the Women and Children’s Centre on the camp. It is a refugee-run initiative.










People make the jungle beautiful

One of the most familiar faces in the jungle for me is an Afghan man named Mohammad, who seems to be perennially striding through the camp with his backpack  and mobile in hand. Mohammad is the problem solver of the camp, and a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to all things jungle. I first asked months ago to interview him, eager to acquire his extensive knowledge of the camp and its inner workings. He refused time and again. “Journalists don’t care about the jungle, I’ve spoken to too many of them already,” he protested. I protested in my turn that I wasn’t a real journalist…

Then, after months of knowing one another, stopping to chat when we crossed paths, and him occasionally soliciting my help with the children’s activities, I asked him one day if he’d do me a favour. “Of course,” he said, “anything for you”. “Will you let me interview you?” I asked sweetly. Having unwittingly already agreed, he narrowed his eyes. “I hate you,” he said. “I really hate you”. Nevertheless, he agreed to let me follow him around for a while until he had some spare moments to chat. I dutifully accompanied him to the new restaurant for the kids, sorted through donations, and sat patiently as he chatted to the other men in the restaurant, until eventually he said “right, let’s go”.

Having waited so long to pick this man’s brain, I wasn’t sure where to start. I knew he was keen to discuss the positive aspects of the jungle, and having written so regularly on its many drawbacks, I was happy to do the same. In this vein, I asked him what his favourite thing about the jungle was. “The best thing about the jungle,” he replied, “is the people, the beauty of the humans here. The refugees and the volunteers have made it such an amazing place with their different contributions, their different tasks. They have made it beautiful with their shelters, restaurants, community centres….

“People have started little business, but I don’t call them businesses. I call them community hubs. I mean people have opened shops or restaurants for business, to run their daily lives, to get money, but they are also offering very cheap services, very cheap food. For example, you can have a cup of tea for 50p, you can have a meal for three quid. These places are where people come to charge their phones, chill, talk, watch a movie. So they’re really interesting places.” Indeed, when we aren’t working, these restaurants are where everyone comes to discuss their days, share stories, smoke cigarettes or play cards. It’s a space where refugees and volunteers can relax and socialise, especially  in the evenings, when the jungle really comes alive.

Most of the restaurants are run by Afghans, who seem especially resourceful, but refugees of many different nationalities sit against their walls, charging their phones or playing games. Indeed, on the whole, most of the refugees seem to get along relatively peacefully, despite differences in culture and religion. “Since the southern part of the camp has been knocked out, demolished, everyone has moved to the North,” explains Mohammed. “In the North everyone is now living mixed up, and people are making new friends. Mostly we have good relationships with one another. There are around ten or eleven different nationalities on the camp, and we do have problems like every other city. But apart from a few small issues, we have a really great atmosphere here – people are really living in brotherhood.”

I wonder who decides where people live on the camp. “Well when new people arrive, they try and find places on their own. But people are very helpful on the camp; if there is a new arrival, people love to help them. For example, this morning I was walking and the owner of a restaurant called me over and he said: ‘Do you know if we can help a family find a home?’ and I said ‘yes, we can’. And he said to me ‘early this morning a family arrived and they didn’t have anywhere so I made them sleep in my restaurant’. So, I mean, how great is that?!”

On the whole, then, the camp regulates itself. But, Mohammed explains, things are changing. “Now, we have really good community representation within the camp. There are ten of us now. It’s not really controlling, but we are trying to meet the challenge of the jungle, in terms of bringing more peace and stability, and providing better services…we’re trying to build something out of nothing.”

“There are no rules in the jungle, but we are trying to create a neighbourhood watch so we can bring more security into the camp. The camp is a really peaceful place, you can walk around any time of the day or night and there wouldn’t be any problems. But, as in every other city, we do have tiny little problems sometimes, and we’re trying to overcome these problems.”

One of the major challenges Mohammed is working to address at the moment is providing adequate support and care for the many children on the camp. Indeed, we’re chatting on the new sofas in the kids restaurant which Mohammed has set up in the last couple of weeks.

“Unluckily at the moment, we are aware that 129 minors are currently missing from the camp, because the southern part was demolished. ‘Missing’ means they are somewhere, but we don’t know where. I’ve heard rumours that new camps have been built up and they could be there, but honestly, we just don’t know. We had about 400 plus minors in the camp in February, but now we are missing 129.

“The job the government should be doing in terms of taking care of them, the volunteers are doing. We have got a woman and children’s centre here, we’ve got a youth centre here, and we have got this restaurant where we are sitting right now.

“We are looking after these minors.”

I ask if the minors accept the help they are offered. “Yeah, they do, they need help, because some of them are really vulnerable – anyone under 12, 13, I call vulnerable. And there are many kids under that age here, and they are really worried, and these are really difficult conditions for them to live in. We’re trying to improve the situation as much as we can. The women’s centre are doing their level best, and so is the youth centre. We’ve recently built this restaurant here, where we are offering them free meals, and we’re trying to provide social activities and a community space where they can come and chat, and be busy.”

I ask why so many of them are alone on the camp. “Well, out of the original 429, some of them are with their families on the camp, but most of them are without. These kids have left their countries because of the state of war, because of danger to their lives. It’s costly to come as a family; the families often can’t afford to get themselves all out, so they have to choose someone – you choose your kids rather than yourselves to be in a safe place, you choose to give them a better life. They think, ‘we have lived our lives, so now let’s let our kids live their lives in peace and safety’.”

Families remain close though, and Mohammed explains that the community leaders and volunteers try and make sure that the children always have phone credit to call their families with. Most of these kids are waiting in the jungle, trying most nights to get across to the UK and begin the lives their parents are desperate for them to have. However, “many of them are just staying in the camp,” Mohammed explains. “They’re all trying to get to the UK, but sometimes they get really tired, and fed up of trying every day, and the legal procedure is very slow as well, it takes around 4 to 6 months. It’s too much for a minor who is unaccompanied…many of them end up just staying here.”

This is the same as many other occupants in the camp, some of whom have given up trying on a regular basis to reach the UK on trucks or boats crossing the channel. “Nobody would like to live here. But people have no option sometimes – what can they do?” People die regularly attempting the crossing. “To be honest, last week two people died. On average, between two to five a month die,” Mohammed says.

Other factors also cause casualties on the camp, especially fires. Mohammed is defensive on this point. “Well, as they were demolishing the south part of the camp, the refugees were really angry. The court decision was that the police should respect the people that are living in their shelters, and they should demolish them peacefully; if somebody was living in their shelters, they shouldn’t destroy it. But the police like how powerful they are, and they were really forcing people to leave their shelters, so people were really frustrated and many of them thought ‘I would rather burn my shelter than them destroying it for me’. So, yeah, there were fires at that time on the south part. But otherwise, no, people don’t put fires in the jungle – that’s completely untrue.”

Police brutality on the camp is well documented. “The police are always trying to show how powerful they are. We’re trying to spread the message to be calm to the police, because we can’t do anything. They are powerful, and we are powerless.”

In many ways, the occupants of the Calais camp are in the hands of others; the police, the French authorities, the volunteers, the media. And this last factor is something both Mohammed and I are trying to change. Mohammed keeps a Facebook page documenting positive milestones made in the jungle, as well as reporting on some of the brutalities that are overlooked by the mainstream media.

“Individuals are working really hard to get the message out. I know whoever is supporting the refugees, they will portray the jungle truly and accurately. But I also know that The Daily Mail, and probably The Times….they will go against us, they will try and really push the negative side. I believe everything has a positive and a negative side, but they will really try and push the negative side.”

The jungle has numerous problems and it would be naive to portray its living conditions as anything other than desperate. On the other hand, sitting on these sofas with Mohammed, and listening to him tell me about the improvements being implemented, watching the kids eat their meals around us, and witnessing the everyday resourcefulness of the camp’s inhabitants, I also feel a lot of affection for this place and its people. It does have positives, and they characterise the camp just as much as its troubles and downfalls.



15 years old and alone in Europe

On Sunday morning, I go looking for my friend Sadiq who I promised to visit that day. I go to one of the huts where I think he might be, and one of the men invites me in. ‘Come in, come in’, he says as he begins to make tea on a giant kettle in the middle of the hut. I stand awkwardly at the door for a while, not wanting to intrude and equally not wanting to reject their offer of hospitality. Two of the boys in the tent, both aged 15, are still in their sleeping bags. As I step in, they get up and roll the sleeping bags into neat bundles, pushing them to the side of the walls to make seats. I begin to chat to one of them, Jamshed, interested to know how he made it to Calais and how he plans to get to the UK. When my friend Sadiq arrives, he helps translate and we work to patch together a brief conversation.

Jamshed is polite and smiley, and doesn’t seem to mind my questioning. I begin by asking where his parents are, and he tells me that they’re still in Afghanistan but that his uncle is in the UK. He arrived by himself to the camp and has been there now for 4 months…

Why did you leave Afghanistan?

There is a fight going on, there is no education, nothing. So my parents told me, ‘go’.

Were you in danger in Afghanistan?


Were you at school?

Because there is a fight going on, schools have become closed.

Specifically, who is the fight between in your area of Afghanistan?

Taliban, Daesh (ISIS), and the Afghanistan government…

Do you miss home?

Yes, how could I not? Every night I am talking with my parents. I miss them, all of them.

Do you have brothers and sisters back in Afghanistan?

Yes, four brothers and five sisters.

Why didn’t they come across with you?

My brothers and sisters they’re all so small. My sisters that are bigger, they’re married. Because I’m quite old, my parents allowed me to go: ‘Go, make a life there’, they said, so I’ve come here for a better life.

Do you want to come to the UK, or just Europe generally?

No, just the UK. I don’t have anyone in France or Germany, just the UK. When I reach England, I’ll stay with my uncle.

Where does your uncle live in the UK?

I’m not sure, Manchester I think.

Because you’re under 18, will the UK government take you to the country legally?

Actually I’ve already applied for a legal application, but I’m not sure if it worked. Nobody’s telling me what’s going on. I’m waiting for them but I don’t know how long that’ll be.

I’m not sure if I can get across legally. But I jump on trucks to try and make it across most nights.

If you do get to the UK, what would you do when you arrive?

When I reach the UK, obviously, first I will go to the police, second call my parents, and say ‘yes I’m here’.

What would the police do with you?

I don’t know. When I reach there, then I’ll know. I don’t know, seriously.

What would happen if you get to the UK and you don’t like it?

Actually, you’re going to the UK to be with your parents or family. That’s why we’re going to there. And, um, one thing more: English is very easy, whereas when you stay in here, French is very difficult for us, and education is difficult. But when we reach the UK, we know English little bit, and it’ll become better, and that’ll solve our problem. That’s why we’re going to the UK.

What would you want to study in the UK?

I really enjoy IT. I’d like to be an IT manager.

What else do you hope for from the UK?

I’m really interested in my education. First, I want to complete my education and then I want to help the people. I want to help Afghani people to become educated; especially Afghani people, my people.

What were your hobbies in Afghanistan?

I really love playing cricket. Today is the England v West Indies final!

After this, the conversation in the tent turns to cricket and everyone begins to join in. When I leave to get back to the medical caravans, Jamshed gives me a hug and smiles shyly. I find myself wishing really hard that he’ll make it to the UK, that he’ll get an education and one day be able to return to the country that it’s clear he loves so much.


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 **


Calais and Dunkirk refugee camps – December 2015

NB: This post was written in December 2015. The camp described at Dunkirk was demolished in March 2016, and its inhabitants were moved to a new camp down the road.

Last weekend, a team of five of us visited the refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk. Here are a few of our reflections/observations.

There are two large refugee camps in France at the moment. One, nick-named ‘the Jungle’, has been in Calais for roughly ten years. Whereas it used to be home to a few hundred refugees, around 6 or 7 thousands refugees are camped there at the moment. Refugees in the Jungle are from all over – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and elsewhere. A huge majority of the refugees there are men, usually between the ages of 15 and 50. Women do live in the camp as well, but walking through the main roads in the camp you see very few. This is partly to do with the fact that there is a women’s area of the camp which has much higher security than the rest of the camp, set up by charities in an attempt to keep women safe. Even aid workers have to have permission to access this area of the camp. Another reason is that women are often intimidated by the number of men walking around. As a white British aid worker I was rarely harassed but it’s unlikely that female refugees would receive quite the same treatment.

The other main camp in France is located in Dunkirk, around a half an hour drive from Calais. This is home to far more families, women and children than the Calais camp. Roughly 90% of the refugees in Dunkirk seemed to be from Iraq, although we did meet refugees from Iran and even Vietnam while we were there.  It is also much smaller than Calais – probably home to around 2,000 refugees but considering how many people arrive and leave in a single day, it is difficult to keep track of exact figures at either camp.


When we arrived in Calais on Sunday morning we were all set to begin operations out of a caravan there. We’d been given the code to the caravan by other aid workers, and it contained a few basic medical supplies. We had also bought some supplies with us. Instead when we got there, dentists operating out of one of the other caravans suggested we would be more help at the camp in Dunkirk. ‘It’s a mess down there’, one of them commented.

And Dunkirk was much ‘messier’ than Calais. Whereas in Calais there had been make-shift shelters made from wood and metal sheets, shops, cafes, bins and even churches and mosques, Dunkirk was a mud bath with next to no sturdy shelter. Little brightly coloured 2 or 3 man tents were everywhere dotted around in the mud. As soon as we arrived we could tell that this camp was even less organised than the last. There were no police and no one who had been given any authority over the camp. We arrived with our rucksacks and supplies and were asked very few questions. We were directed to a girl called Maddie who told us we could do what we liked, but would be most help in the medical tent. We had a nurse and a medical student with us, but Maddie didn’t check these credentials. Apparently the week before a paramedic had arrived and treated people, before it was revealed that he was in fact not medically trained in any way. There was no one in charge to have called him out on this, or to direct the way aid was distributed in the camp.

Un-targeted aid

With ad hoc volunteer teams and no one obviously in charge, cars would turn up with random supplies which were then handed out by well-meaning volunteers to anyone they saw. Invariably this aid was not targeted and much of it was then thrown away. People took what they needed or wanted and left the rest in the mud. There were piles of trash everywhere in the camp – food left half-eaten, caked in mud, ski boots half submerged, children’s toys, underwear, everything covered in mud and essentially useless. When we arrived we were confronted with a patch of ground covered in around 100 loaves of Warburtons bread, also now caked in mud. Whereas in Calais there was somewhat of a food shortage, in Dunkirk it was clear that ‘things’ were aplenty. Although there were two containers in the camp, they couldn’t possibly have contained all the rubbish that was building up from rejected food, clothes and other items, even if anyone had been trying to bag it and put it somewhere. Piles of open waste just lay around. This has bought the camp a huge rat problem. The night before we arrived, there had been a fire, and one of the aid workers described how, as tents were pulled away from the fire, you could see hundreds of rats fleeing the flames.

Sanitary conditions

As well as the litter problem at the Dunkirk camp, there also seemed to be a problem with sewage. The French authorities had installed twelve toilet and shower facilities. Nine of these had padlocks on them. Apparently these nine facilities had not been connected to sewage systems, and no one had arrived over the past few weeks/months to solve the issue. Furthermore, the facilities that were supposedly connected to the sewage system had clearly not been done properly – there were inches of stagnant water and human faeces under the make-shift buildings.

The showers had no warm water. One of the men I spoke to on the camp said he hadn’t showered for sixteen days because the cold water made you freeze and there was no way to get warm on the camp. ‘We get lots of dandruff, you know’, he remarked wryly.

Below are some photos from the camps, with descriptions on each. The article continues below.

Women and children

Comparative to the camp at Calais, there were many more women and children walking around the camp at Dunkirk. The atmosphere was generally much friendlier. Speaking to aid workers who had been at both camps, the general opinion was that where the Calais camp was a ‘survival of the fittest’ situation, with men frequently stealing from one another and fights often breaking out, in Dunkirk families were much more willing to help one another. Having said this, the underlying political situations in the camp seemed to determine which women and children felt safe walking around. Gavin, a 50-year old Brit who had been working on the camp for a few months, said that one day he investigated a tiny 2 man tent which he’d seen no movement in or out of for weeks. He assumed the tent was empty and could be used to house people. Inside, he found two women and four young children. For one reason or another they had been too anxious to leave their tents, either to collect food or seek medical attention at the medical tent.

This is one of the main problems with aid on the camps. Most of those able to stand in queues for food or make their way to the medical or supply tent are those in relatively good condition. They are also the most confident, who have probably been able to collect provisions throughout their stay and already wear good clothes and shoes. This is why donating money or supplies is often less helpful than man power. What these camps need are people who are willing to give up their time and energy to cleaning up the camp, looking after the vulnerable, and helping to build a clean, healthy community there.


Another benefit of having aid workers on the camps is the lessened influence of smugglers, who effectively control the sites, especially at night. Speaking to Keivan, a 24 Kurdish computer-science student from Iran, he refers to the smugglers as ‘those fucking dudes’. He explains that a month ago refugees had to pay smugglers ‘taxes’ for things like phone charging. So far, he has not been approached for such taxes and it would seem that the practice is waning, at least in the Dunkirk camp. One reason for this might be an increased volunteer presence. Having said this, most aid workers leave the camps at night, and this is when the camps are most dangerous. There are rumours of knives and guns on the camp. Some aid workers confirm these reports, some don’t. But in Keivan’s experience, the smugglers are certainly in charge. In Dunkirk there are no police, and volunteers come and go. The smugglers are the only established authority. Recently the French authorities closed down a smaller camp in Dunkirk which led to an influx of refugees into the main one. The incoming refugees installed themselves at the very front of the camp. The entrance of the camp is directly opposite a nice housing estate, just 5 or so metres away. The unpleasant sight of families living in squalor so close to their comfortable houses somewhat upset the local residents. Sensing tensions, and anxious about the possible involvement of police if complaints were made, those ‘in charge’ of the camp forced the most recent residents to move their tents into the forest on the other side of the camp. Keivan was threatened by these smugglers and had no choice but to move, along with everyone else living at the front of the camp.

Getting to the UK

99% of refugees in both Calais and Dunkirk are hoping to get to the UK. The smugglers based on the camps help them to try and achieve this goal. For around ten minutes on Sunday I stood chatting to Justin, a British aid worker from Birmingham, manning the ‘gate’ into the Dunkirk camp. In those minutes we saw a family milling around the entrance with bags in their hands. Justin said we were unlikely to see them again, and indeed, five minutes later they had disappeared. In all likelihood they had raised the money to bribe smugglers to help them leave. A few minutes later a middle-aged women arrived in a small car, picked up two refugees and left. She was a smuggler, though I would have never have guessed it. At the same time, groups of young men wondered out with brand new sleeping bags on their back, clearly planning to try and make it on their own without the aid of smugglers. Smugglers charge a lot to help refugees get from France to the UK – between 2,000 and 3,000 euros per person. For this, they show them the best places to try and jump onto or into lorries which will supposedly take them to the UK.

The majority of refugees are middle-class, educated people. They are lawyers, accountants, teachers, students. They have no experience of jumping onto lorries and have to rely on crooked smugglers to advise them. Attaching oneself to lorries is extremely dangerous, risky and unlikely to succeed. In some cases, the French authorities clearly turn a blind eye. Stories of police opening lorries to find Syrian or Iraqi families and waving the lorries on are common. The refugee crisis is a problem the French authorities would rather not burden – if they can pass it onto the UK often they will. Making it through the French authorities doesn’t mean that families or individuals are safe. There have been horrifying stories of people suffocating in the back of lorries. Furthermore, having made it to the UK if they are then discovered they are usually deported or sent back. One man I spoke to had escaped the camp a total of seven times. Once he had been detained by French authorities at Calais; six times he had been sent back having reached Dover.

‘The UK is a good country’

Several of the refugees trying to make it to the UK have family there. One man I spoke to owns a shop and a house in the UK, which his brother now looks after. He lived in Swansea from 2005 to 2013, but went back to Iraq to see his mother before she died. Since then he has not been able to get back. This is a common story; many refugees have lived in London or other areas of the UK previously.

Others have never been to England. Keivan has never seen the UK, but says ‘for me, I love England. I dream of living in London’. Another man, a Syrian English literature student, says he wants to study in England. He has written to Oxford and Cambridge universities but not yet received any response.

When I ask Keivan, who speaks impeccable English with a perfect accent, what he would say to the British government, he says ‘I know you don’t give a shit about us’. When I ask what he’d say to ordinary people like myself, he says the thing he needs most is for me to tell him how to get to the UK. He also said that he’d rather pay me money or the UK government money to help him, rather than give it to the smugglers. A mother whose child was ill and seeing my nurse friend at the medical clinic, begged my friend to take her child to the UK.

Another woman I spoke to with a young baby said she wanted to make it to the UK to give her baby a ‘good life’. ‘Not for me, for my baby’.

The sad fact is that while people do leave the camps every day, a tiny fraction of them are likely to make it to the UK without getting deported. They all seem to have hope though, and treat the camps as transitory. A well-educated Syrian man at the Calais camp, who worked in Turkey as an English translator for several years, tells me confidently that ‘sooner or later, everyone here will make it to the UK’. A doctor working at Calais told me sadly that ‘these guys are here to stay. We need to help empower them to do things for themselves’.

The problem with this is that many of the refugees don’t want to invest in the camp communities/sites, because they don’t want to accept them as permanent homes in any way. Improving the camps, or clearing litter would be accepting defeat in some way. This doesn’t mean that refugees aren’t keen to help aid workers – many work as translators. Even two nine year old girls I spoke to in Dunkirk could speak fluent English. This is partly because a majority of the refugees who make it to France in the first place are relatively well-off and well-educated. The average cost of getting to France from their home countries is well over 10,000 euros – the poorest citizens of the war-torn countries couldn’t possibly afford to make it even to France, never mind the UK.

The French authorities

It is difficult to work on the camps and not be frustrated with the attitude of the majority of French people and the French authorities. At Calais, the government pay for three meals a day for 1,000 people. But there are between 6,000 and 7,000 refugees on that camp. In Dunkirk, they’re doing nothing to install bins, hot running water for showers, or effective sewage systems. At Calais, riot police often surround the entrance to the camp, raising tensions throughout the camp. In September at Calais there was an especially rainy few days. In response, some refugees camped under a bridge near the entrance to the camp. Unbeknownst to them, the French authorities had not wanted the tents to extend this far. Instead of asking the refugees to move, the police were instructed to bulldoze the tents, and use tear gas to evict the refugees inside them. A British aid worker had asked the police to give her charity five minutes to help the refugees to move before they went in – they refused her request.

Towards the end of the day on Sunday, when we had wanted to leave the Calais camp to catch a ferry home, a line of riot police had not allowed us to leave the camp. There had been a fight at the camp earlier in the day – in one of our caravans a man was having his head stitched up following this fight – and the police didn’t want anyone leaving. As we approached them they put shields up and brought their guns around to their front. We managed to leave by a side exit, but we could see as we left that tensions in the camp were rising.

These are horror stories, and I am not in a place to judge either the French government or the police. I am merely narrating my own observations and reports passed on to me. One of the worst I heard was a story from Belgium aid workers in the Dunkirk camp. Apparently they had discovered a 9 month old baby suffering from severe hypothermia. Understanding the severity of the situations, aid workers had driven to the baby to hospital. Having explained the situations, doctors at the hospital refused to help the baby because he was a refugee. ‘It’s a fucking baby man, do the doctors not have an oath?’, the aid worker I spoke to said. The money was raised to shelter this child and his family in a hotel temporarily. The child quickly recovered – all he had needed was warmth and proper shelter.

The Belgium charity had sponsored a number of families to stay in hotels, but as children recovered, they had to be sent back to the damp conditions of the camps. Even in several layers and warm North Face jackets, I spent the whole day feeling cold and damp. I could go back home, shower and get warm. For months on end, refugees on the camp stayed feeling damp and coldy.

In response, people light fires inside their tents at night. Understandably this leads to fires, and severe burns, which often go untreated for several days, or are not treated at all.

In November, a French court ordered the country’s authorities to improve conditions at Calais after NGOs, led by Doctors of the World and the Catholic Relief Services, highlighted to the court the ‘serious human rights violations’ at the camp.

French citizens

I was in Dunkirk for most of Sunday. At no point did I see a single one of the residents living in the housing estate opposite enter the camp. I spoke to Justin at the gate about this, perplexed. Justin said that French citizens rarely came and none of them stayed. ‘If this was my fucking doorstep, Anna, I’d be here every day’. I had to agree. None of the aid workers I met at Dunkirk were French either – and I met aid workers from all over.

On that day, an anti-refugee march was scheduled to take place near the Calais camp. I don’t think, in the end, this march actually took place. But that doesn’t mean it won’t, or that there isn’t a proportion of the population who would rather none of the refugees encamped on French territory existed. Cars driving past the Dunkirk camp would often beep their horns for extended periods of time, and two men even jeered as they went past.

Speaking to a young man from Ethiopia at Calais, he said that the refugees weren’t treated as human. ‘I don’t mind for me, but babies, pregnant women….and we call this government good?’

Other French citizens are simply ignorant of the true situation in the camps on their doorstep. A fifth year French medical student was volunteering at Calais on the same day as us. She said this was the first time she’d come, and she’d lived in Calais all her life. She was shocked by the conditions, and we knew from experience that Dunkirk, which she hadn’t yet visited, was in a much worse state than Calais.    

Having said all this, there were two French charities I came across at Calais – L’Auberge des Migrants and Secours Catholique Pas-de-Calais and I’m sure there are others. L’Auberge has been at Calais helping refugees since 2008, and tries to make sure that refugees are given the food and clothes they need which the government are failing to provide. However, since September, the number of refugees in Calais have doubled and their work has become exponentially harder.

What can be done

Long-term solutions to the refugee crisis are largely in the hands of politicians and the UN. But visiting the camps it is clear that there are also smaller things that can be done to make the conditions of camps much, much better. What these camps most need is proper shelter, a sorting out of litter, and more aid workers to map where the vulnerable tents are, so they can go to women and children with supplies, food, and medical care.

We visited Calais and Dunkirk for the weekend, bringing just ourselves and a few supplies. It cost virtually nothing. Anyone who wants to go, can. I met several volunteers who had come by themselves, were not members of any charity, and just went from tent to tent, checking people had what they needed, trying to clear walk ways, and rescue things from the mud.

The more people that go to help, the better off refugees living there will be. The more awareness we raise of the situation, the more pressure institutions and governments will be under to do something really meaningful for these people; install running hot water, connect toilet facilities to a sewage system, provide bins and waste disposal services, and build proper shelter that will protect families from the cold, mud and rain.