in Calais, France
Saturday, 17th of October 2015, 15:17 CET. The drizzle of rain is laying a veil of greyness over the horizon, separating me from the surroundings and keeping me in this bleak landscape. An angry woman’s voice can be heard over a megaphone, manly voices shouting in unison are filling the air. I look to the left and see a white high fence with barbed wire at the top. As I turn around, I get to see the same sight. In front of me, several police cars and police men in riot gear are blocking the street. In between, a crowd of people has gathered, chanting, waving flags, holding up signs, sitting on the ground, staring into nothingness. What has gathered them here today is the wish for a better and safe life, the pursuit of happiness. And solidarity. Solidarity for fellow humans.
We are in Calais, France; a city famous for its geographical location in Northern France, overlooking the Strait of Dover, its ferry port and the Channel Tunnel (although the tunnel is actually located in the nearby commune of Coquelles). A city famous for directly connecting the continent with Great Britain, bringing Europe closer together. However, lately also famous for being one of the hotspots of Europe's refugee crisis.
Since the refugee crisis became a focus of the public, the media has repeatedly reported about the situation in Calais. Refugees and migrants trying to get on ferries, lorries, and trains going through the Channel Tunnel, aiming to get to the United Kingdom, as well as the makeshift camps in and around Calais, known as “jungles” and a home to thousands of refugees and migrants, have all been pictured in the media. This whole situation also led to tensions between the governments of the UK and France, showing the lack of cooperation and solidarity between European countries during the refugee crisis. One of the most visible changes due to the crisis is the newly erected set of fences around the ferry port and Channel Tunnel terminals, making those important links between the continent and the UK appear like a high-security prison, surrounded and subsequently separating the UK and France with a modern version of the infamous Iron Curtain and keeping the refugees and migrants on the French side of the Channel, where they have to carve out a miserable existence in the makeshift camps.
After having to spend weeks and even months in one of the jungles, it is only a matter of time until one starts to be despondent and frustrated.
Back to the present, this Iron Curtain is the setting of a demonstration against the basically closed off border for the refugees and migrants and for their right to seek a better future and safety. Around 2.000 people have gathered here, the majority from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. However, there is also support from the locals and visible support from the other side, from the UK. Together they are trying to show their solidarity with fellow humans and criticising the inefficient, inhumane and uncoordinated way of dealing with the refugee crisis by the European governments.
It is a peaceful demonstration. Slogans such as “Say it loud, say it clear: Refugees are welcome here!” are filling the air and groups of refugees and migrants are sitting on the ground in front of the police. However, despite the energetic support from the locals and the Brits, frustration and depression among the majority of the demonstrators is sensible and visible. After having to spend weeks and even several months in one of the jungles, it is only a matter of time until one starts to be despondent and frustrated.
Frustration can easily turn into anger and anger into violence. And this is exactly what happens. Suddenly, several men are getting upset and start shouting at the police. Some are throwing traffic cones, wooden signs, and pebbles at the police cars. Every time the police make a small move to keep a safe distance between the demonstrators and the police line, demonstrators are running away. However, other refugees and migrants are trying to calm them down and stop the violence, criticising and showing them that this kind of behaviour is neither productive nor acceptable.
Their effort shows to bear fruit. The upheaval comes to an end, but with it also their will and motivation to continue demonstrating. More and more people are slowly leaving the scene, walking along the street, between two high fences. Their destination: the Jungle.
Upon entering the camp, I forget that this is still Europe. Wherever I look, I see tents and makeshift huts in between litter.
After walking roughly two kilometres, passing factories and industrial facilities and inhaling the smell of rubber, we arrive at the Jungle. A motorway bridge is acting as the gate to the camp; damp clothes, cardboards, and bottles are littering the entrance to the gate. The jungle itself is located in a former landfill site. According to recent media reports, this is the only jungle left, also called “New Jungle”, and is home to over 6.000 refugees and migrants.
Upon entering the camp, I forget that this is still Europe. Wherever I look, I see tents and makeshift huts, in between litter, covering a huge area. The only road leading to the camp turns into a muddy trail. The drizzling rain worsens the road conditions. It is a slum.
As I walk along the main trail, I discover several shops, mostly selling food and hygiene products, food distribution places, shisha bars and tea houses. Here, the pleasant smell of spices is filling the air, quite different from the smell of litter and humidity between the tents. Despite the inhumane living conditions in the tents and huts, people still managed to create some sort of infrastructure here. Flowers and artwork are decorating the stores. Here and there, refugees and migrants are constructing new huts, using the method of timber framing. The two main trails themselves are busy, with people carrying bags with clothes and some refugees cycling through the mud while carrying food. Every now and then, a lorry or van belonging to an aid organisation or activists arrives, lots of them with a UK number plate, in order to deliver food, clothes and medicine. While the main trails seem to be more or less organised and humanity and solidarity is visible, once I leave the main trail and walk among the tents and huts, the societal failure of Europe becomes more apparent. Mud, litter and clothes, supposedly hanging in order to get dry, are lining the pathways between the tents.
British border police stop us at the passport control section and not only ask for our passports, but also for the reasons we came to Calais, where we are from, if we are part of any organisation, who the owner of the van is and since when he owns the van.
The tents and huts themselves have just enough space for two to three people. Some refugees and migrants are sitting in their tents, wearing several layers of clothes, taking shelter from the rain while looking at the sky or just staring into the horizon, due to the lack of work and perspective. After exploring the area and getting stuck in the mud several times, I get to meet an older man. He invites us into his self-made hut, despite us having totally dirty footwear and obviously dirtying his hut. We learn that he is from Eritrea and that he wants to go to the UK in order to reunite with his wife, who is already there. Outside his hut, I meet another young Eritrean man. Upon asking for how long he has already been in Calais and why he specifically wants to go to the UK, he tells me that he has been living in the Jungle for six months and that the language is one of the main reasons why he wants to start a new life in the UK: English is the only foreign language he knows. Instead of continuing a conversation about his experience in the refugee crisis, we start talking about popular culture and movies. It turns out that his favourite director is James Cameron; Titanic and Avatar his favourite films. After exchanging our knowledge and love for cinema, our conversation slowly comes to an end. I have to go back home.
We bid farewell and wish good luck to each other and I make my way back to the entrance of the Jungle as the rain intensifies, the wind starts to get stronger and the air gets colder. Refugees are slowly moving back into their tents and huts, while I slowly move back to the van I used to come to Calais.
The night has covered the landscape with its blanket. We are driving between the high fences, which are separating the Channel Tunnel from the rest of France. British border police stop us at the passport control section and not only ask for our passports, but also for the reasons we came to Calais, where we are from, if we are part of any organisation, who the owner of the van is and since when he owns the van. After checking the van for any refugees and then passing through the border control, we pass more border fences, which are illuminated by powerful lights. The Eurotunnel train comes into sight. We load the van onto the train and as the train starts moving, only darkness begins to surround us.
Fences; barbed wire; vast no man’s land along the border. I feel like I experience something my parents grew up with. An iron curtain has definitely descended across the continent. TMM
Gallery: The Jungle
all photos by Aaron Zitnik