Calais, France – Badessa* pushes through the trees and into a grubby forest clearing.
“My home,” mutters the 17-year-old from Ethiopia’s Oromia region, pointing to a set of crumbling steps leading to a darkened hole in the ground. He coughs a little and wipes his nose with the back of his hand.
“I don’t know how many stay here. Maybe 19, maybe more,” he says crouching in the pitch-black space barely a metre-and-a-half long. The floor is strewn with muddied blankets, damp clothes and food wrappers. The stench of rotting rice, tomatoes and cumin leaks from a pile of half-empty plastic containers. On the step sits a laminated sign ripped from the side of a lorry. It reads: “Our trucks don’t go to Great Britain.”
Badessa exits the hole and two more Oromo – brothers Negasu* and Feyissa*, aged 18 and 19 – appear from the treeline.
After French authorities cleared Calais’ “Jungle” refugee camp – home to thousands of people – in October last year, an estimated 400 refugees have remained in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais area, according to NGOs Utopia56 and Care4Calais.
The only way to guess the numbers is by the amount of daily meals distributed via vans operated by the NGO Refugee Community Kitchen. The NGO tracks the number of meals they distribute then passes this information on to Care4Calais and Utopia56.
Most refugees remain in hiding during the day with on-the-spot arrests, detentions and police brutality rising exponentially since the closure of the Jungle, according to Utopia56. Some live rough in parks around town. Some, like Badessa, in damp, grimy scraps of forest.
As the last of the sun spikes through the trees, the boys – hollow-eyed and exhausted – make their way towards two rusting vans parked at the edge of a distant field to eat.
“Everyone thinks Calais is over,” says 19-year-old Klaartje Smulders, a volunteer with Utopia56. She estimates that 70 refugees have come to eat today. The day before it was 140.
“It’s really different now,” she continues. “We have a lot of underage people. We think there’s about 150 in the Calais town area. About 80 percent are minors.
“The [UK] Home Office were supposed to work with the French government on familial reunification to send minors in Calais back to their families in England but it was handled very badly,” Smulders says.
She is referring to the Dubs amendment that was passed in parliament in May 2016. Prior to its passing, campaigners had asked MPs and local authorities to provide housing for 3,000 children from refugee camps across Europe. Government ministers were careful not to put an exact figure on the degree of their commitment. So far, only 200 have been taken in – a further 150 are to come – and now, the scheme is going to be scrapped.
“With many they just gave no answer as to why they were rejected. Just a total blank. So a lot of the first people to come back were minors from the centres in France.”
The 1,500 refugees still inhabiting the camps at Dunkirk are almost exclusively Afghan. Those in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, are largely from sub-Saharan Africa: Eritrea, Sudan, with a steadily increasing Oromo Ethiopian presence.
“I was put in prison for protesting against the government,” says Badessa as he squats on the rocky ground guzzling rice and chickpeas.
“The first time for one year in the desert. The second for nine months. The government took our lands and they just told us that that was the way it was. That it belonged to them now. So, here I am.”
Oromo are the largest of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups – making up more than 35 percent of the country’s population of 100 million, but they have long been politically marginalised.
In August 2016, protests at the government’s decision to expropriate Oromo land in the towns and villages south of the capital Addis Ababa brought long-simmering ethnic tensions to a head.
When the Oromo marched throughout 200 towns across Ethiopia, the government responded with brutality. Security forces killed nearly 100 protesters. This action sparked immediate outrage and further demonstrations, the situation devolving into what Amnesty International branded “a vicious cycle of protests and totally avoidable bloodshed”.
After government troops fired live ammunition on a gathering of more than two million during the Oromo cultural festival of Irreecha on October 2, 2016, further protests erupted and a state of emergency was declared. Today, imprisonment, surveillance and widespread human rights violations define what Human Rights Watch calls “a brutal crackdown” on a people who feel increasingly marginalised within Ethiopian society.
“They are a racist government,” says Badessa as he tosses his food container. “And the world doesn’t know because they block the internet … My father is a soldier. He fought for Oromo freedom. Like me, too.”
After his father’s exile to Eritrea, where he still resides, Badessa fled the country, arriving in Calais three months ago after a year-long journey.
“I [want to] go to London to school. I’m not like my father. I want to fight with my mind, not a gun. One day I’ll fix everything. Not like now. I’ll give freedom [to] all the people in Ethiopia. Oromo, Tigrigna, everyone.”
‘Running like an animal every night’
A sharp wind blows in from the coast. The sky darkens and two police vans pull up on to the gravel verge opposite.
“We have a lot of really hard violence now,” says Smulders. “People under 18 get beaten every night – with pepper spray, with nightsticks, with Tasers in the back of vans … [the police] go into the smaller camps, take everyone’s sleeping bags, rip everything up. And nobody sees it because the refugees are so afraid and so hidden.”
“Police, problem,” says Negasu, the older of the two brothers, adjusting a tattered headband across his forehead in the colours of the Ethiopian flag.
“They ask if we want problems? Why we’re here? Then they go like this …” he says making the shape of a stick and beating the air.
“Me, I would rather be in my home than running like an animal every night.”
Moments later police surround the field, where the teenagers had settled to eat, ordering the refugees to leave.
The boys filter briskly back into the forest through a series of overgrown tracts. It’s 7.30pm but – for them – the day is just beginning.
“No sleep,” says Badessa as the group hikes towards a truck stop an hour’s walk away. A thick fog begins to settle. As they walk along a cycling path, two cars on the road parallel blast their horns and jeer. A teenager on a scooter pulls a wheelie, revs its tiny engine, then thrusts out his middle finger.
“Calais no like black people,” mutters Negasu. “Europeans think refugees come to England because they want money. If you work, every country has money!”
At a truck stop
Through the fog, the blue strobe of a police van throbs in the distance, coming closer. Another approaches from a motorway off-ramp.
“Problem,” barks Badessa as the group starts to run. They mount the embankment of an overpass, crouching low before shuffling on their stomachs towards a grass verge level with the motorway. The blue lights pass by in silence and evaporate into the fog, the low swush of articulated lorries dissipating the tension.
Another police van appears, circling slowly then vanishing. The boys join a group of seven young Eritreans hunkered down alongside the motorway. Below in the near-distance the truck stop swarms with more police. The boys look on in silence.
“Please, no camera,” begs a 14-year-old Eritrean. “My mother will be angry, she does not know I smoke,” he says, waving his cigarette.
They approach the truck stop in turns and without strategy. Some army-crawl down the embankment. Some strut casually. Some cling nervously to the shadows. Voices erupt, a group of lorry drivers chasing them away like seagulls.
Inside the forecourt, the fog glows yellow under the streetlights. A Romanian truck driver watches the boys and shakes his head, pouring tea from a pot and gas stove on the edge of his trailer.
“These trucks don’t even go to the UK,” he says in amazement as the boys gingerly try to force a trailer door in full view. “No one going to England would stop here. Why take the chance? It’s a 6,000 euro [$6,352] fine at the border if refugees sneak in. It’ll bankrupt you.”
The next second, a canine unit screeches into the forecourt and the boys vanish. A sloshing from the reedbank opposite breaks the silence, a small figure lumbering back up the hill alone, his clothes sopping wet.
‘No chance tonight’
New boys appear on the hill. Two police vans circle and stop, flashlights sweeping the banks. They pull away and park at opposite ends of the truck stop’s perimeter. In the forecourt; a police Alsatian darts from truck to truck, energetically sniffing tyres and trailers.
It’s dark and cold, and Badessa and the boys have disappeared. There’s more shouting below as another group dash from the shadows. Another police van appears and parks, making five.
“No chance tonight,” says the Eritrean with the cigarette, wrapping his coat tighter. “No chance ever.”
He turns to look at the trucks flashing by on the motorway just a few feet behind him, then down towards the forecourt and the blue-suited figures moving in wide arcs of torchlight through the fog.
“Always it’s like this,” he says rubbing his eyes and trying to stay awake. “But no sleep. Just try … every night. When we reach UK, then I sleep.”