Yasin pulls out his iPhone to show me a video. There are about twenty people packed into a small dinghy as it races across the water. As he raises the phone’s camera, the people in the boat punch the sky and cheer. It could be a group of mates at a water park, but this was his illegal crossing from Turkey to Greece. His phone is the same model as mine – a battered 4s – but while we both use Facebook, WhatsApp and share videos we’ve shot with friends, Yasin has used his smartphone to help navigate a three-thousand mile journey from civil war in southern Iraq to the shores of the English Channel. We share a lot more in common, but at 22 he’s already lived through things I’ll never be able to comprehend.
We’re sitting on top of a dune in the middle of Calais’ notorious “Jungle” – a makeshift camp built by refugees on the outskirts of the French port town. Beneath us, there are around eighty Brits milling around, who have cycled from London with Critical Mass: Bikes Beyond Borders to donate bicycles, tents and other supplies for the roughly three-thousand people living in the camp. It’s just one of an outpouring of grassroots initiatives launched across Europe to help refugees as governments sit idly by. Groups of Sudanese, Eritreans and Afghans look on and some begin to make conversation with the surprise new arrivals, as a ten-year old Sudanese boy called Suleyman with red wellington boots and a kids’ bicycle makes his way between the groups, introducing himself and joking with the newcomers in brilliant English.
When you leave the channel ferry port, you can choose to turn right into Calais town centre or on to holidays in the idyllic French countryside. But if you turn left, follow the disused railway tracks for a few kilometres, past a chemical plant, scattered industrial buildings and under a motorway bridge, you’ll arrive at the Jungle. Since the Red Cross’ Sangatte camp closed in 2002 there has been little-to-no official provision for refugees here. Over the last few years, various incarnations of the Jungle have appeared around the Calais outskirts, only to be razed by police. The council opened the small Jules Ferry camp for women and children earlier this year, but everyone else is left to make do with flimsy tents and rag-tag wooden shelters in the sand dunes.
As I talk with Yasin and his friend from Kuwait, I show them a copy of Huck and explain that I’m a journalist who wants to hear their stories. Their English is limited, but they flick through the mag, looking at the pictures before both seizing on a photo of artist and train-hopper Bill Daniel scaling a barbed wire fence. They pull up their sleeves to show me the scars across their hands and wrists from the razor wire around the Eurotunnel terminal, ten kilometres away on the other side of town, where thousands have attempted to stow away on trains bound for the UK this summer.
For all the media coverage the Jungle has attracted, the three-thousand people here represent a tiny fraction of the global refugee crisis. Most come from countries wracked by war, whose nationals are mostly considered to qualify for refugee status. A majority in the Jungle are aiming for Britain, but growing numbers are applying for asylum in France as security at the port and Eurotunnel terminal are beefed up. There are 13 million refugees worldwide, according to the latest figures from the UNHCR, of which countries in the developing world have absorbed 86 percent. Two-hundred thousand people are believed to have entered Europe so far in 2015, however, the UK is only the sixth-greatest recipient of asylum applications, which falls to 19th when judged on per-capita terms. In 2014, the UK received 31,945 asylum applications while the biggest recipient, Germany received 202,815 – six times as many. Angela Merkel recently pledged Germany would accept 800,000 Syrians this year.
Later, I’m sitting with sixteen-year-old Aamir from Afghanistan, his older brother and three Iranians. They all have the same razor wire scars on their hands and tell stories of being beaten and pepper-sprayed by the French CRS riot police. While the British government hides from its moral and legal obligations to protect refugees behind the English Channel, the CRS maintains border security on its behalf, dishing out beatings on a daily basis. Since the beginning of June there have been at least 11 deaths at the terminal or on nearby roads. If they’re worried by the risks, none of Aamir’s group let it show – they’re heading out for the Eurotunnel terminal again at nightfall.
Everyone is happy to talk – and joke. People are sitting in small circles around the camp, sharing stories with their British guests. Some produce pictures on their smartphones, like Haider who shows me the queue of hundreds waiting for the one daily meal at the camp distributed by Salam. It’s sobering to think that access to smartphones seems near universal, but life in peace and security is denied to so many. The refugees we speak to are globally connected: in communication with friends and family all over the world, yet stuck in the most precarious physical conditions. While they’re glad to share, there’s fear too. Nobody wants to be photographed in case it might put their families at risk or authorities could use the evidence against them. Often, people are deliberately vague about the journeys they’ve made or exactly where they’ve come from.
After dropping our camera gear in Calais, we’re cycling back to the Jungle to pitch our tent and spend the night in the camp. As the last light is slipping away, in the distance we can see police vans on the move, blue and red flashing lights appearing now and again, as they position themselves for the nightly game of cat and mouse. Passing the long, floodlit fencing around the ferry terminal, flashes of lightning illuminate the fumes from the chemical plant, hanging ghostly over the port. It’s a desolate picture. As we pick up the railway tracks, we pass groups of threes and fives, sometimes groups of ten, walking the other way, heading towards the Eurotunnel terminal or to find parked trucks to stowaway inside. Eventually we spot Aamir and his friends, who wave. We wish them good luck. Will they make it to the UK? Will they get picked up by the police, killed by a train or by a lorry? We don’t see them the following day, so we’ll never know.
As we make our way into the camp, the heavens open and a full-blown thunderstorm erupts. A group of Afghans usher us into a half-finished wooden shelter and we wait out the storm with them, shouting to be heard over the rain beating against the roof. Hafiz left a farm near Jalalabad in Afghanistan when he was 19. Like many others he was put in an impossible position, between the Taliban and the Americans. “What can you do?” he asks. “You talk to one side and the other will kill you. I had to leave, there was no choice.”
Hafiz has been in Europe for eight years, of which he worked for five in Greece. In 2013 Greek fascists Golden Dawn burned down houses belonging to Afghan and Pakistani immigrants and forced him to leave. When I explain that most British people believe migrants to the UK are seeking benefits, he looks baffled. “We just want to work, be legal and have a good life,” he says. Yet the current system forces ordinary law-abiding people like Hafiz to break the law: climbing into the backs of lorries, over barbed-wire fences and running in fear from the CRS.
Loads of tents were washed away in the storm. After hearing and seeing for ourselves how miserable life in the Jungle can be – even in mid-summer – we were lucky to have a hostel as a back-up plan. But it weighs that thousands that night didn’t share the same privilege.
The next morning we head to the bike project on Calais’ southern outskirts, five kilometres from the Jungle. Without transport, it’s difficult to access the over-stretched support services, which are intentionally distributed around town. Tim, an Englishman, set up the bike project eight months ago to fix up old bikes for Jungle-dwellers. He also trained a group of mainly Sudanese mechanics to do the same for other refugees and pass on their skills.
The makeshift workshop is housed in the backyard of an asylum support centre run by French NGO Secours Catholique. When the driving rain begins again, everyone drags their battered bicycles into a leaking shed to carry on working. After dropping off a load of donated tools and parts, and helping repair some bikes, we make to leave but the rain is still too strong. While we’re sheltering from the downpour and talking with Ahmed, a car mechanic from Sudan who’s applying for asylum in France, the centre begins to flood. Water seeps through from the open back door and begins filling the main room, where about fifteen guys are sitting around a long bench table, charging their phones. Eight guys work like crazy with squeegees and brooms to beat back the water, but it keeps coming. All they can do is speed it on its way through the centre, in through the back and straight out the open front door into the street.
Meanwhile, French prime minister Manuel Valls is being shown around the Jungle and pledges an EU-funded £3.6m humanitarian camp that will be ready next year. There’s a standoff at the camp’s entrance as the CRS attempt to hold people back during the politician’s visit. Promises for the TV cameras, riot police for the refugees.
After hundreds of people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, the image of a young Syrian boy named Aylan lying lifeless on a Turkish beach seems finally to have broken through the indifference across the continent. Governments and media outlets that had previously dismissed the thousands seeking sanctuary in Europe as economic migrants (or “cockroaches“), have been forced to acknowledge that they’re actually fleeing war and despotic regimes. But so far, the British government’s only response to the humanitarian crisis in the Jungle has been sending Home Secretary Theresa May on a steely walkabout for camera crews in front of newly erected security fences.
It’s time to catch our ferry home. An earlier blockade of the port by striking workers means each sailing is delayed. At the end of the bank holiday weekend, homeward-bound British holidaymakers are sitting in their cars, moaning amongst themselves or complaining to port staff. Just a few kilometres away, there are people who would be more than happy to wait two hours to make the channel crossing. But as it stands, they’re stuck on the other side of the barbed wire fences, with no idea how long they’ll be there and no guarantee they’ll ever see their home countries again.
Names have been changed to protect identities. Additional reporting by Ricardo Miguel Vieira.