This is the personal recollection of the Calais No Border Camp by one member of our group, others will follow soon.
I am surrounded by faces, all beaming at me, eyes glittering with interest, with expectation. The floor is beautifully carpeted and a Turkish man has motioned me towards a space towards the back of the structure opposite the door, carefully dragging a cushion from the wall in a manner imbued with all the gentle goodness and grace that the Muslim character engenders.
The shelter is poorly lit and stuffy inside, but though bare, it is clean. Blue tarpaulin sheets are stretched taught over a robust wooden frame, wooden pallets provide the base for a perfectly flat floor and the roof rise’s each side to an apex.
“The Wind?” I ask, “No problem.” “The rain?” I get the same reply.
Two miles away and two hours previously it was still stiflingly hot when I had turned the corner of the Boulevard des Allies to see, set against the maritime train station in Calais a sight starkly reminiscent of 1940’s Europe – literally a rank hoard of displaced, dishevelled and dirty women, men and children, lined up against a disused platform.
A listless, feeble murmur of exhaustion and discontent spread across the street as a stench may diffuse from a pile of uncollected garbage – something that when you can smell it, tortures you with its repugnancy, but when you can only see it, merely disgusts you with its unsightliness, and makes it all too easy to turn away.
It was hard to believe they were the same men.
Eight Hundred Afghans now live in what is practically a new suburb of Calais close to the district of Langevin in what used to be a patch of disused land made up of trees, bush and sand dune, but is now no less than a village.
It has a mosque, a shop and constructions that make you feel like you’ve just walked into the dusty backstreets of Nepal, rather than off rue de Gravelines in a major European port.
Most of les sans papiers that had gathered at Salam’s food collection point – a local volunteer organisation that feeds up to 1000 illegal immigrants stuck in Calais – that evening, were from this village that they call ‘The Jungle.’
At the food distribution point I spoke to Philippe who works voluntarily handing out food for Salaam. He told me The Jungle used to be just a wreckage of abandoned and poorly constructed shelters but because it has become so difficult to cross “in the last 2 months it has developed a social life, an organisation and stability,” as yet un-seen at this border.
“Control is very hard,” a Kurdish man confirms in another part of The Jungle away from the uneasy relationship they have with the Afghans. “ I have been here for 5 months and everybody knows me, the last time a dog found me and border patrol said, you again, not today mate!” He laughs. “But seriously, no one is getting across, people are here for 4, 5, 6, 10 months and with new people coming all the time it’s getting to be too much. We already don’t have enough space to sleep.”
Since the Red Cross shut their humanitarian camp at Sangatte in 2002 because they were trying to look after 2000 immigrants in a camp built for 800, the situation for les sans papiers has become increasingly desperate.
French Immigration Minister, Eric Besson, stated in January that “there is no room for illegal immigration in our country” while the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, has announced that it’s her intention to make the port an immigrant free zone. “I’ve told the Prefect and I’ve asked him to look at a measure to wipe out this organised village. It needs an intervention by the Army.” she’s said.
What is more the French government under Nicolas Sarkozy has pronounced it illegal, in article L622-1 of the French penal code, to ‘aid or facilitate either directly or indirectly the arrival, circulation or residence of illegal immigrants in France’. This makes the work of humanitarian organisations like Salaam technically illegal – the penalty up to five years in prison and a £25,000 fine.
“We are scared,” another Kurdish man tells me. “Even to try to get some food we have to walk for 45 minutes. Even if we go to get water the police catch you, this is normal for us, so I cannot get shower, I cannot get water, I cannot get food.”
“Migrants even have to take risks to wash themselves,” confirmed Celine Dallery, a nurse at the health service office of Calais.
The Afghani men stay up all night, every night, waiting in the bushes or alongside roads, as silently and fearfully as a British soldier would on the watch for The Taliban in their homeland, for the right time to throw themselves underneath a moving truck. Their wives and mothers, if they still have them, send them all the money the family can earn to get them to their final destination – England.
Their aspiration is best summed up in a letter one eighteen year old wrote in my notepad. “My name is Aahmadshah,” he wrote, “I am eighteen years old and I am from Afghanistan. I want to go to England, because England good country. All Afghans want to go to England, so this is my letter, thank you.”
There isn’t a more developed understanding among these people. Not a whisper of the benefits system or the slightest grasp that more than 80 percent of them will be deported or left destitute in the UK after their asylum applications fail. All they know, like any eighteen year old, is the glory of Manchester United, that they need to learn English to get a good job, and that they have seen the British army doing what many describe as ‘good’ in their country. “England is king of the world,” one of them says, “not America, England.”
All travelled great distances, made tremendous sacrifices and many have suffered huge personal tragedy to get to this point.
Sixteen year old Mohammad Eisa says the mafia brought him and twenty six others blindfolded on a boat from Turkey to Greece. Before that both his parents had been killed by smugglers on a death train because they didn’t have enough money to pay. “8 months I sleep in The Jungle,” he says. “It’s very cold. Every night I try for England, police check, but it’s not impossible.”
The boy that invited me to his house in the jungle, Karif Khan, is just twenty. He’s the last of ten friends to get across the border. As a second round of Afghan tea, thick with sugar, is handed out, he tells me that from Turkey he rowed a boat with eighteen others for seven hours across the Mediterranean before it capsized. A friend drowned beside him as they struggled for more than an hour in the water. “Maybe a fish take him, then finish.” He said. A Greek police boat picked them up and after 3 months in jail “I am free,” he concluded.
Karif’s younger brother got to England alone when he was 13 years old. Now 17, he sent Karif the money to get from Greece to Paris. Of the border “Last night, no chance,” he said. “Tonight, maybe chance.”
Lukmm Raga has already been to England and worked ‘on the black’ while trying to claim asylum in Manchester. He says his mother was killed by an American bomb and his sister already lives in the UK, but he was deported back to Afghanistan in 2003. He told me it cost him $1000 alone to make the journey again from Iraq to Turkey, and he’s been in Calais for 10 days. “It’s difficult but I’ll get across,” he said.
Personal hardship combined with the hopelessness of building a life in other European countries – “In Italy there is no work, no papers, no black. I sleep on cardboard in the street,” says one Eritrean. “Here I have this,” he gestures towards his squat, “then England better.”– combined with the old colonial image of England makes this country truly the Land of Hope and Glory. They won’t listen to accounts to the contrary. They can’t. It’s their dream. It is all they have.
By day les sans papiers cue for food, where the banging of bodies on the stations aluminium front and the wearied but agitated shuffling of feet, is grimly reminiscent of that one unendurable crime – the Holocaust – another time when a group of people were deemed illegal in Europe and others had to break the law to help them.
Yet in these cue’s it’s not the helplessness, or the indignity, but the sheer willingness to respond to the command to ‘line up,’ and to herd like animals at the food distribution points, that makes you want to wretch. Proud young men now cowed into a grotesque servility for the want of a piece of bread.
At such a moment it’s your place in the pecking order of humanity, at the front of the cue, that crowds you out with shame. Your stomach turned all the more when you realise that on that street, the Boulevard des Allies, with these people treated as the enemy, you can be but allied to the devil alone.
Many undocumented migrants are former mechanics, miners, and school children.
“It’s not possible with the Taliban to get an education,” says Awalyam, “when I can, I want to go back to Afghanistan to re-make our life”
“I want to have a good life, a good car, a good job and a good wife as well,” says 17 year old Ajmao, who arrived here only 3 days ago after travelling for more than a year and a half from Afghanistan. He’s made friends with another boy with cuts on his hands and face and a twisted foot whose waiting for medical treatment at PAS – a disused guard hut at the entrance to Calais hospital.
Run over by a truck last night when he tried to make it to England for the 25th time the boy crowds in the corridors with other immigrants all suffering from, at the very least, Scabies and Impetigo – skin diseases caused by poor hygiene and close contact – the very worst broken limbs and heads. Despite the conditions there is no room, no privacy at PAS, and only one French lady volunteer to treat thousands – illegal immigrants aren’t permitted in France to be treated just up the road at the hospital.
“We’re not coming here for work,” touts another, “some people have political and other problems.”
It’s getting dark in The Jungle but as I leave this place that has become home for so many, I am greeted by fresh grins and more hopeful faces. They still ask me to open the border, or at least to come and see their house.
Past the mosque boys are playing volleyball and crowding round an electricity point they’ve managed to rig up to charge their mobile phones. Without any legal status and unable to involve the police for fear of deportation, are there many problems I ask? “There is not too much fighting.” I’m told, “We’re all brothers.”
Further on the boy that wrote the letter in my notepad entitled “Applicant from the Jungle” stops me by the arm.
As I was leaving his world to return to my own, his words transcended our very different lives. “Please don’t leave these people,” he said. “Yesterday I say to policeman Bonjour and he say Fuck Off. Animals live in the jungle, but we are people like you.”