‘Nothing is as stark as the determination of those I met in Calais.’ A look into the place, and the people, that government immigration policy seeks to hit the hardest, and at the hope that draws them through.
I arrived in Calais with my flatmate, at midday on the 14 June 2023. It took a 5 hour bus journey from London Victoria, with a 20 minute stop at Folkestone before crossing the channel. Our last round of “yes mum we’ll call every evening” and “no I’m not worried about being unsafe” had happened two days previously, when we left from Edinburgh. Two nights in London later and there we were. For the next two weeks we became part of the ever-changing group of Care4Calais volunteers, working with the refugees in Calais and the surrounding area.
There has been refugee presence in Calais since the early 1990s, when the ‘externalisation and heavy securitisation’ of the British border began. To give a concise account of the day to day situation in Calais for the past 30 years while doing justice to the experiences of the many thousands of refugees who have spent time there, would be near impossible, but the very simplified picture looks somewhat like this; until 2015, the steady stream of refugees into Calais was met by eviction after eviction from the French authorities. The number of refugees reached 3,000 at its peak in 2002, and climbed, haphazardly, back to 2,500 by December of 2014. After an eviction of around 1,200 people in March 2015, the space and community that would soon become known as ‘the Jungle’ began to form. By September of the following year, the site dubbed ‘Europe’s biggest slum’ had reached a population of over 10,000 residents. The Jungle was officially disbanded by the French Government in October 2016, leaving many refugees sleeping in parks and on street corners, or finding shelter under bridges.
Of all the things I took away from Calais, the most incredible might be the overwhelming feeling of hope amongst the refugees. Hope for safety, hope for support… hope that there is a good and stable life waiting for them on the other side of the channel. Their ability to make it to the UK relies on it. Hope becomes vital to survival in the face of constant evictions by the French police which did, and continue to do, nothing but displace displaced people one more time. Nothing is as stark as the determination of those I met in Calais, and when those who find homes in these camps have persevered so much already, being moved 30 kilometres or more does nothing to deter them from their dream of reaching British soil. The hope persists.
So, like so many times before, by January 2017 the number of refugees in Calais had reached 1,000 again.
And now, perhaps only other than the changes in UK law, the situation in Calais and Dunkirk is much like it was six years ago. Funnily enough, neither the French nor British governments’ efforts to stop the settlement of refugees in Northern France has done anything to rectify the reasons for the displacement of these people; civil war is ongoing in Sudan, Taliban control is stronger than ever in Afghanistan, and the Iranian government continue to persecute those who speak out against it. So, as one may expect, the displacement continues.
I’ve found that one of the most common reactions to telling people you volunteered in Calais is for them to tell you how rewarding it must have been. It seems the right thing to say, I suppose; humanitarian aid work is often deemed “rewarding” or “fulfilling” by those observing it. And it’s true, by the end of my two weeks in Calais I felt the most fulfilled that I maybe ever have; I’d met some incredible people, and had worked hard for an incredibly worthy cause. I knew the value and vitality of the work Care4Calais does, providing basic services and kindness to combat the absence of any government support. I felt I’d done good, and it’s undeniable that I had. But it is not lost on me how unrewarding the whole experience was too.
You know there’s that idiom about being a cog in a machine; playing a role in a movement or organisation, that is absolutely necessary but simultaneously so small it feels irrelevant? Never more so than I did when I was in Calais, have I felt like a smaller cog in a bigger machine.
We were working for the refugees, before anything else. They are right at the very heart of it. But no matter how many cups of tea with three tablespoons of sugar I handed out, games of Connect4 I played (and lost), or second hand t-shirts I gave from the back of the van, the feeling of helplessness caught me at the back of my throat.
Shared tales of escaping war-torn Sudan, or of fleeing Taliban control in Afghanistan, the impending worry that the Illegal Migration Bill might pass, the French Police taking their tents, or slashing their boats, stories of persecution and abuse in Libya, pictures from laden boats bound for Greece, or the request of a sim card so they could try and contact their mother who they haven’t heard from in 3 months… and another game of Connect4.
Three weeks after I left Calais, the Conservative government in Westminster passed the Illegal Migration Bill. It struck me, again, how much bigger the issue is than me, or even than Calais. When this bill comes into practice, it will make it almost impossible to seek asylum in the United Kingdom. ‘There are no visa routes to enable people to claim asylum in the UK from overseas’ and efficient, safe, legal routes to asylum in the UK are unique only to those fleeing Ukraine. Following the Bill, those who arrive by illegal routes are eligible for deportation, indefinite detention in a centre or on a floating barge, or to be sent to a “safe, third country”, such as the previously proposed Rwanda.
Their identification as someone who has arrived illegally will mean their asylum claim is “declared inadmissible”, and will not be considered. The bill includes no exceptions for victims of people trafficking or modern slavery, and states that anyone who has passed through another safe country before reaching the UK is subject to being removed from UK soil. This means everyone in Calais.
That hope I was talking about earlier is at risk of being extinguished. Seeking asylum in the UK is nearing complete impossibility and a feeling of desperation is growing. The bill is unlikely to deter refugees from attempting to cross when there are no alternative options, and actions by the UK and other governments are making it harder and harder for refugees to find safety, security and liberty. Trapping them in a stateless limbo, never under the protection of any government. Can’t go forwards, can’t go back.
I met guys in Calais the same age as me, my sister, my cousins, even my dad. Never will I wrap my head around the idea that I deserve a better life than them. Never will I understand why it takes 20 minutes from Folkestone for me to do what these guys are risking their lives for, sometimes nine or ten times over. And never will I understand why my little blue passport allows me so much, and yet the government that grants it to me gives these people so little.
The passport privilege staggered me, as did my obvious win of the birth lottery. There’s no difference between them and I, only that I was lucky and born in the UK, and they were born in Sudan, or Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Vietnam. I was staying in an Airbnb in town, wearing a Care4Calais bib, and there – by choice – for two weeks. They were staying in tents in the undergrowth of Calais’ outskirts, wearing a second hand jacket, and there by necessity until they managed to cross. And, after all that, what is promised to them in the UK? Being locked on a floating prison, a complete and continuous lack of state protection, or not even being allowed to stay in the UK at all.
I left Calais by bus on 29 June 2023, eyes full of tears and new perspective. Fuelled by a new anger, a new motivation and, seemingly contagiously, a new hope. Hope inspired by people. I am determined now, more than I have ever been before, and I have made friends with determined people. The machine is badly malfunctioning, but the tiniest cogs keep it running. They give me hope.
Care4Calais is a volunteer-based charity working with refugees in the UK and Northern France. They rely on physical and monetary donations to provide clothing, food and shelter to the refugees living in the settlements in Calais and Dunkirk. To make a donation or enquire about volunteering please visit: https://care4calais.org