This blog was first published in September 2015, following Nazek Ramadan's first visit to Calais.
Entering the Calais migrant camp is like stepping out of Europe and into another time and space. I spent the day there earlier this month and at times it felt more like some of the poorest parts of the world rather than France.
An EU flag overlooking the ‘slum of Calais’ provoked me into asking many questions including: why is this happening in Europe, why are we treating people clearly fleeing wars, conflicts and human right abuses like this, and is this the Europe we want to live in?
I was lucky to travel on a warm dry day, but I could easily imagine the state of the camp and the tents in the heavy rain, cold and mud. As we head towards winter the conditions there are only going to get worse.
There are around 3000 people at the camp divided into clusters of different nationalities. Walking through the camp you can clearly see the Afghani, The Sudanese (mainly from South Sudan), the Eritrean and the Syrian communities.
A Syrian group told me there are around 250 Syrians in Calais. They were disappointed at the way France is treating them and at the UK’s lack of willingness to help. I asked why they hadn't applied for asylum in France and some said they had but were waiting for a decision or the first interview. Others mentioned having family members in the UK or their knowledge of the English language as the reason why they wanted to come to the UK.
Almost all the Syrians I spoke with were highly qualified and told me that all they wanted is a safe place where they are treated with dignity. They said to me that if they are to apply for asylum in one of the countries they have travelled through; it will take them up to two years to learn the language and they were worried how to survive for this long without work. It was very clear to me after my long conversation with them that they were not aware of the benefit system and that many lacked knowledge of the asylum processes in Europe and needed a lot of information and advice.
I was told there are more than 60 women and children at the camp and was surprised to see how many young children there are there, including a baby and one woman who was heavily pregnant.
I met three-year-old Maria inside the camp’s makeshift wooden church where a religious ceremony to celebrate the Ethiopian New Year was taking place. She had been there for a month and was unwell and had a high temperature. Her mother from Eritrea told me they wanted to join her husband in the UK.
Maria threw back at me a packet of chocolate I gave her and lashed out at me. The miserable look on her face said it all. Maria was not part of making the decision about her movement.
Whatever the reasons for her current situation, now she is in the heart of Europe I believe we are all responsible for her welfare. The fact that a little child has to endure such appalling conditions should shame us all.
All the Syrians I spoke to were shocked by the conditions at the camp and how refugees are treated. There are three French charities in Calais providing lifesaving support to the unfortunate residents of the camp. However, only one meal a day is provided. For those who want to take a shower, they need to get a ticket and queue for a chance to spend six minutes under running water. A number of toilets and cold shower cubicles have been built but these are not in any way sufficient. There are also a number of rubbish collection points but for many they are too far to carry refuse to. Many of the tents are surrounded by piles of rubbish.
One of the French charity workers said: “We (the French) are not a welcoming country, and this is the message our government wants to get out there if you are seeking asylum in our country."
One of the French charities offers legal advice and representation, but it looks like it may not be able to cope with the number of people there and the different languages spoken. I saw at the camp information posted on tents and fences in a number of languages. It looked like this information might have been written by migrants themselves. One of the posters written in Arabic and also in English, explained what to do when you arrive to the UK and gives the telephone number and the address of the Home Office in Croydon. Another poster uses images to warn migrants of the dangers of jumping on a train.
Among the people I spoke with was an Eritrean man who accompanied me the whole day with my companion on the trip to Calais, Father Steven Saxby from London Walthamstow. Petros (not his real name) from Eritrea, has been at the camp for a year. He has made numerous attempts to cross over to the UK. A few times he was caught on board freight trains by the French police and was sent back to the camp.
One of Petros' friends, a man called David also from Eritrea, explained to me that security is much stricter now with the new company in charge of the security at Calais. David has been at the camp for six months. He told me that in the past the French security use to open the gate to people from time to time to get on the trains on way to UK, but they no longer do this now. Showing me the new security fence built around the camp to stop people getting on Lorries, David wondered: “instead of spending money on security, why don’t you help the people? They must open legal routes for people to go where they feel safe”, he added.
I asked Petros why did you leave your country, and he told me: “I spent 15 years in the military service; the only way for me to get out of the military was to get out of the country”. Like many of the people I spoke to at the camp, he made the perilous journey across Sudan, Libya, the Mediterranean and through the rest of Europe.
Everyone was still traumatised by their experience of crossing the Mediterranean, and many spoke of the hours and sometimes days lost at sea. Petros looked tired, lost and it was clear he had almost given up. He is stuck in Limbo: he cannot and will not go back to Eritrea, and he is unable to move on and make any progress with his life. He has a sister who lives in London which has influenced his destination. Petros also said that “in France they do not support you.”
A Yemeni man I met outside the makeshift language school told me he has applied for asylum in France and had no intention to go to the UK. He was in Calais because he is not entitled to any support and is not allowed to work. He is waiting for his first interview, which could take a few months. He was clearly anxious about the length of the asylum process while trying to survive in these conditions. The French authorities have given him a key to a small letter box in town for him to check for letters from them about his application.
David kept referring to the camp as the ‘Jungle’ which led me to challenge him and tell him that these are people, human beings who live here, stop calling the place a jungle. However David was very clear on why they all call it the jungle here. He told me that this is not a safe place and that the big ‘animal’ (the strong person) will eat the small or the weak one. There is no law in here, he explained. He told me that two nights ago there has been a big fight between people from two countries. “The police helicopters flew over the place and police cars surrounded the area, but no one came inside. They just wanted to make sure that the fight does not spill outside the camp and disturb the French people. If anything happen to you no one will protect you, and in that sense it is a jungle.” People here are very stressed and desperate and the living conditions here make them depressed and drive them mad, explained David. “Some end up drinking and taking drugs in order to cope with the situation. We are affected emotionally, physically, economically and psychologically.”
David also described to me the situation at the Calais camp and said that they live in tents, they put wood on the ground to protect them from water and mud when it rains. A charity gives them blankets, clothing and shoes to protect them from the cold, and they get one meal a day between 5-7pm only. Sometimes there are big fights around food distribution and this is the only area where French police intervenes and monitors the queues.
There is little respect for women and children. Although there is a special place to accommodate women and children, this place is not big enough and some women, including children, stay outside the accommodation for 2-3 weeks until there is a room for them. All women living in the accommodation have to sign in every 24 hours or they will lose their accommodation, as they will be presumed as having moved on from the camp even if they did not.
David, Petros and another friend of theirs told me how they try every night to get on a train or a ferry. They said that they cut the fence or jump over it. Many people break their legs jumping over the fence or running from the police. “The wires cut your legs; women do the same” they explained to me. The place they try to get on a train or a ferry from is about 3 kilometres from the camp. Those who are trying to get to the UK spend a couple of days there with no food or water most of the time. Sometime they take a couple of days break from trying as they get very tired.
I was pleased to see for myself that ‘Doctors of the World’ has a clinic in Calais. A Sudanese young man told me about the medical facility at the camp but said that there was not enough medical support. He said to me that the clinic opens 5 days a week from 9-6. The charity does a lot but there is not enough staff for the 3000 inhabitants at the camp. He also explained that there isn’t enough medicine to go round, but the clinic is good if you have serious health conditions requiring hospital treatment as they can take you to hospital.
When I asked him why do people want to go to the UK and not apply in France, he told me that France does not process applications quickly, otherwise people would not risk their lives and try to jump on trains. He said that many of his friends are badly injured. “Every day there are 3-5 people who injure themselves trying to get on a train”, he added.
I was struck by the number of volunteers who were helping at the camp. They came from different parts of France, Belgium, Germany and the UK and they're helping to create a different welcoming environment in this difficult situation. There were many vans from a number of countries and a good number of them from the UK. I approached some of them and found out that they are not charity workers, but groups of friends who saw the situation in Calais on the news and wanted to do something to help.
The school is completely run by volunteers the majority of whom are French. Two languages are taught at the camp’ school; French for those staying in France and English for those hoping to make it to the UK.
Although the help, food and goods donated are hugely valuable and needed, they do create some chaos at the camp. The French charity workers request that people wishing to help should contact them and coordinate the distribution in a more organised manner.
I went to Calais to talk to people living at the camp and to hear their stories from them, and so I did. But seeing how hard the French charity workers and volunteers were working to support the migrants there, I asked one of them: what can we do to help you guys over here? You are doing a great job. The volunteer said to me: “the migrants here don’t just need food and blankets, they need someone to talk to, and if possible in their own language. When you speak with them they exist, as human beings, as people.
I have returned from Calais with mixed feelings. Seeing all the volunteers from many countries, restored my trust in humanity. It is a clear indication that many citizens do not agree with their politicians and are able to see the situation as a humanitarian one.
Compared to the scale of the current crisis in Europe and the surrounding countries, Calais is not a big challenge and it is manageable. The number of migrants in Calais is not huge and can be easily absorbed by both countries.
What is lacking is the will to resolve the situation from both the French and the British politicians. Focusing on security measures is never the answer when dealing with people like those living in the camp.
It seems to me that Calais is a convenient inconvenience created to get across the message that ‘you are not welcome here’. The asylum reception in France is also partly to blame for the Calais phenomenon. The French cannot blame the UK for a situation on its own sovereign territory. Many of the migrants in Calais would have applied and stayed in France if they were given basic support. Many of the people I spoke to have indeed applied in France. A tent and a meal a day is not considered a basic support.
Equally, the UK cannot leave other Europeans to deal with migrants in Europe and close its borders through different measures. Europe needs to have a unified asylum reception and a common asylum process. Most importantly it must have humanity at the heart of it.
My big fear is that as the news cycle changes those people camping out in Calais and across Europe will be forgotten. As the weather worsens and the conditions become even more desperate we must make sure this doesn't happen.
An edited version is also published on http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2015/09/24/the-forgotten-faces-of-the-calais-migrant-crisis
Nazek Ramadan visited Calais again in November 2015 and was interviewed by ITV News about the trip. Read more here: http://www.migrantvoice.org/home/headlines/migrant-voice-director-speaks-out.html