Calais, France – Until late May, the first thing that would hit you on walking out of the ferry port was the smell of several hundred unwashed bodies. The odour of skin, sweat and urine came from a makeshift tent camp beside the main road; one of several dotted around Calais. The camp’s inhabitants travelled here from many different countries – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Eritrea, Sudan and more – all with the intention of making the 50-mile crossing over the English Channel to Britain, hidden from the watchful eyes of border guards.
The local authorities, in an attempt to dissuade them, have pursued a policy of “non-encouragement”, preventing aid agencies from setting up inside the town itself, and periodically demolishing the fragile shelters that migrants put up to protect themselves from the elements.
Shops and restaurants in the nearby town centre won’t let the migrants use their toilets; a minibus run by charity workers ferries a lucky few each day to washing facilities outside of town – otherwise the only way to keep clean is a bottle of water over the head, or if it’s warm enough, a dip in the stream that runs through the dunes near the port.
Rubbish – the sort of rubbish anyone living in these conditions would produce: rain-sodden blankets, food packaging, dirty clothes – is cleaned away every few weeks, by which time it has piled high. Council employees sometimes wear white protective body suits when they do this, as if they were handling toxic waste.
‘Out of control’
A few hundred metres away from the camp by the port, everyday life continues as normal in the town centre. But not all residents of Calais are indifferent to what’s happening on their doorstep. “I like helping people and I don’t like to see this destitution,” says Jeanne Pauwels, an 88-year-old retired teacher. She is one of a handful of volunteers who work tirelessly to provide a daily hot meal to the migrants.
In an old garage, in a back street across town from the port, Pauwels and her colleagues are busy chopping vegetables and filling yoghurt pots with fruit salad. Pinned to the wall above their work surface is a recent front page from a British tabloid newspaper that reads: MIGRANT NUMBERS ‘OUT OF CONTROL’.
Their organisation, Salam, was founded in 2002, the year the French government announced the closure of a Red Cross camp for refugees at Sangatte, just outside Calais. The camp, which had originally been set up to accommodate people fleeing the 1999 war in Kosovo, had become the focus of press attention in the UK, at a time when negative media reports about asylum-seekers were rife. French and British ministers agreed to close the camp, hoping to defuse the issue – but this didn’t stop the migrants coming, with anywhere between 300 and 1,000 sleeping in the town at any one time.
For the past 12 years, Salam has been there to feed them – making do with donations from local farmers, supermarkets and a food bank. Four paid staff are helped by a dozen regular volunteers, with scores of others helping out when they can.
In the past year, as migrant numbers have risen because of wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, the organisation’s resources have been stretched ever more thinly. “My family wants to protect me and think I should rest, but they know better than to try and stop me,” Pauwels said.
People have different motivations for pitching in. A mosque in the nearby town of Roubaix sends a group of volunteers once a week. Two unemployed young people are working as cooks on an apprenticeship scheme. Yves, a 79-year-old former customs broker, remembers being a refugee himself, when he fled Calais with his mother in 1940, as the Nazis invaded. “I can’t bear injustice,” he said.
‘We’ll stay until we get in’
Once the meals are ready, they are loaded into army-style metal tins and driven to an empty lot beside the ferry port. There, the migrants – a few women, but nearly all men – line up to have their food doled out in trays one by one. Many are refugees from war or political persecution; others are fleeing poverty. Others still have been deported from the UK once already and want to get back there to resume their interrupted lives. For nearly all of them, Britain represents a last hope, when their attempts to settle elsewhere in Europe have been frustrated.
If they were Western explorers, some of the journeys they’ve taken might be regarded as heroic. Twenty-four year-old Ali Hassan spent 12 days crossing the Sahara desert to Libya from his home in Sudan. He took a boat to Greece, where he was granted refugee status, but after five years with no work, he decided to try and reach his cousins in Cardiff, UK. “I want to train as a film director,” Hassan said. “I’ve got my own YouTube channel.”
I hate the Taliban. They messed up my home - and now America comes and drops bombs there.
Hayder, a 28 year-old Pakistani, who speaks English with an East Midlands accent, studied communication technology at the University of Leicester, before returning to his birthplace in Pakistan’s Swat valley to set up a business. When the Taliban occupied the area, he fled, paying 8,000 euros ($10,900) for safe passage to Italy, and another 5,000 ($6,800) to hide in the back of a lorry all the way to Calais. “Nowhere in Europe has work right now,” said Hayder, “but we’ve heard that in Britain there are jobs on the black market”.
“I hate the Taliban,” says Mumtaz Khan Safeh, a 24 year-old Pakistani from the country’s volatile border region with Afghanistan. “They messed up my home – and now America comes and drops bombs there.” He lifts the purple beanie he is wearing to show a deep scar across his left temple. “This is where the Taliban beat me. They said I was in league with the Americans.” Safeh’s friend, Muhammad Farhan, rolls up his trouser leg to show a more recent wound. He got it the night before last, trying to hang on to the undercarriage of a lorry entering the port.
This is how most migrants here try and sneak into Britain. It’s a dangerous pursuit, and many are injured or killed trying. One young Sudanese man was crushed to death as he hung on to the axle of a lorry just a few days before.
Others drown trying to swim out to ferries leaving the harbour. Even if they hang on safely to the lorries, an increasingly tough security regime is there to catch them. “We get through the x-ray scanners fine, but it’s the dogs that sniff us out,” says Farhan. Some migrants stay in Calais for only a few days; others have been living rough here for six months or more.
Farhan and his friends ate their hot meal – lamb, carrots and couscous – after speaking with Al Jazeera on a Saturday in late May. They stood only a few hundred metres away from the ferry port fence; a tight mesh bristling with barbed wire and CCTV cameras.
They knew that within a few days, their camp would be demolished: The local authorities had detected an outbreak of scabies and claimed an eviction was necessary to deal with the “deplorable hygiene” conditions. On the morning of May 28, French riot police bulldozed the camps, prompting complaints from aid agencies that the refugees had nowhere else to go. But Farhan and his friend were not put off by the prospect of losing their shelter.
“We’ll stay here until we get in,” Farhan said, looking out across the water to Britain.
Follow Daniel Trilling on Twitter: @trillingual