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Social Justice

‘My dream is to be a photographer’: A day in Calais and Dunkirk with people waiting to cross the Channel

The Big Issue travelled to the camps in northern France to meet migrants who believe a brighter future is waiting in Britain

The migrant crisis is in the headlines. Again. But the stories of those fleeing conflict, environmental threat, persecution or poverty are not.

Days before a far-right terror attack at a Kent immigration centre, and before the home secretary referred to an “invasion on our southern coast”, The Big Issue travelled to camps in northern France to meet those who believe a a better life is possible in the UK. This is what happened one day in Calais.

Welcome to the Jungle

On the outskirts of Calais, there’s a dead-end road with 24 portable toilets and a large vat of water, representing the entire sum of state-provided provision for hundreds of people sleeping rough in the area.

Portable toilets and a water tank are the only government provisions here
Portable toilets and a water tank are the only government provisions here. Image: Steven MacKenzie

For decades, men, women and children seeking a better life in the UK have passed through this part of France. Until 2016, migrants gathered in what became known as the Calais Jungle. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions brought about its demolition in 2016. But the migrant crisis wasn’t solved, just dispersed. Spread around town are hidden camps in wasteland. Migrants from the same countries tend to congregate together. This area around the Portaloos is the Afghan Jungle. 

Early in the morning, half-a-dozen volunteers from Care4Calais meet nearby. The UK-based charity was founded in 2016 and today they are preparing to hand out food parcels. Each black bag contains rice, tinned tomatoes and pulses, onions, garlic, spices, salt, sugar, canned fish and vegetable oil. 

Care4Calais coordinator Lucy Halliday, 26, leads me into the undergrowth around a maze of flooded ditches, temporarily home to who knows how many, to spread the word that food is available. 

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“The camps are spread across the city, basically because the police have created a hostile environment,” Lucy says. “Until recently there was a food ban – meaning no organisation was allowed to distribute even a cup of water within the town boundaries.”

A recently vacated camp. Photo: Steven MacKenzie
A recently vacated camp in Calais. Image: Steven MacKenzie

We come across a recently vacated camp sheltered by a clump of trees, a blue tarpaulin groundsheet still in place and clothes left hanging on tree branches used as washing lines. 

“Some people are only here a couple of days. Some people have been here for a couple of years,” Lucy says. “On average, if they’re trying to cross by lorry, they’re going to be here six months. If they’re crossing by boat, they move a bit quicker.”

A partly hidden tent with shoes lined up in a neat row. Photo: Steven Mackenzie
A partly hidden tent with shoes lined up in a neat row. Image: Steven MacKenzie

Deeper into the undergrowth is another camp, two tents half-hidden in chest-high grass. On approach, Lucy calls out “food”. Morning visitors, she explains, are more likely to be the French police who come around regularly to move people along and confiscate their belongings. Our wake-up call is unlikely to be confused with a raid. “The police won’t be as friendly or as English,” Lucy says. 

The campers are still asleep. They’ve been up most of the night, like every night, walking far out of town to try and stow themselves on a lorry. The motorway is only a few hundred metres away, the sound of the vehicles a constant drone and drivers know not to slow down here. The turn-off towards the port is just ahead. There’s a single dining room chair positioned for a sitter to watch the passing traffic.

The lookout chair. Image: Steven Mackenzie

The chair is a bizarre, fractured glimpse of domesticity in the wilderness. There are many. Homer Simpson salivating over donuts on a mug on a black laminate TV stand. Shoes carefully placed at the tent entrance. Small containers hanging from a rusted frame with a toothbrush and toothpaste neatly stowed.

Toothbrushes and toothpaste in the Jungle. Image: Steven MacKenzie

By a pond with a single swan, we come across three Afghans. They’ve just arrived in Calais. One is limping. He lifts his trouser leg to show a large, blood-wet bandage taped to his ankle. Via Google Translate, Pashto to English, he asks if we know where he can find a doctor. The police told him he couldn’t see one without having a passport. Lucy carries information cards in various languages detailing where treatment can be accessed. 

“We see lots of injuries, all the time,” Lucy tells me later. “The most severe ones are broken legs either from falling off a lorry or being crushed between the cab and the trailer.” 

Minor injuries can become serious too. Burns are unavoidable when cooking with fire or using it for warmth and living in the undergrowth means insect bites and rashes that become septic. Recently there has been a lot of rain. Muddy conditions may not be as bad as the imminent freezing winter, or worse, the roasting heatwaves of summer, but with no way to dry shoes or socks, in this region dotted by Commonwealth memorials, trench foot is a common condition. 

Back by the Afghan Jungle’s hub, migrants are collecting food parcels. There’s a young, charming and chatty man, Hamid. I’m changing names and took no pictures of people I spoke to – evidence anyone has passed through a safe country could jeopardise claims for asylum. Officially that’s not the case, but nobody wants to risk it. Anyway, Hamid is from Afghanistan. Though that’s not quite true either. 

“All my life Istanbul. I never see my country Afghanistan,” he says, switching between English and French. “In 2015 I go to Sweden, Stockholm. I was there much too cold. And then Paris. But in Paris all persons dans la rue. 

“I want to go to England. I can speak English. Good life for me.” Hamid demonstrates a couple of jabs and a hook, saying he’s been boxing since he was a kid. “Me in London be champion, inshallah.”

Even false hope is hope

From the Afghan Jungle north of town, the Care4Calais crew drive their minibus south towards Sangatte, site of the old Jungle and where their warehouse is located. On the way we pass the outdoor sports shop Decathlon.

“That’s the only Decathlon in the world that doesn’t sell boats or canoes,” says Simon, a teacher who volunteers during every school holiday.

The warehouse relies on a constant supply of donated camping gear and clothing
The warehouse relies on a constant supply of donated camping gear and clothing. Image: Steven Mackenzie

The warehouse is stacked with tents, sleeping bags, shoes, underwear, jackets and pallets of food. Supplies don’t last long given the number of people – and much is confiscated by authorities. 

As volunteers reload the van for the afternoon, the hypocrisy of the UK asylum process comes up. Sarah, who works for her local council, sees what happens to migrants in her area. 

“If they’re 18 or below they get picked up by education, 19- to 25-year-olds, they can’t work, they’re stuck in hotels bored out of their brains, they’re ripe for exploitation. If they were Ukrainian, I’ve got thousands to spend on them,” she says, adding that quite rightly, but also quite unfairly, no Ukrainian has had to pass through Calais and take their chances on the back of a lorry or in a boat. 

Simon shares the story of an Afghan he met yesterday who spoke with a Brummie accent. “He was fostered as a child and had spent 17 years in the UK. He was two years into college when his application for settled status was turned down for the third time. This was before last year when Kabul was ‘safe’ to go back to. 

“So he came to France to apply for asylum but was rejected. He’s stuck. Now that the situation in Afghanistan has worsened, he thinks his chances of being granted asylum back in Britain have increased.” 

They’ve already spent months or years travelling this far. To take that hope away at the last hurdle seems beyond cruel

Lucy Halliday, Care4Calais

Talk turns to Hamid. The volunteers know that because he’d already started an asylum application in Sweden, the UK is likely to reject him. He worried about joining the ranks of rough sleepers “dans la rue” in Paris, but we know the situation isn’t any better across the Channel. 

A couple of volunteers wonder if they should be encouraging the assumption many have that Britain will be a welcoming place. Isn’t it better to be honest about the multitude of challenges? 

“That’s a really difficult one to answer,” Lucy says. “The way I see it, by the time they get to Calais it’s too late. They’ve already spent months or years travelling this far. To take that hope away from them at the last hurdle seems beyond cruel.” 

While there are migrants being trafficked by nefarious forces, for example Albanian gangs, the majority –
70 per cent of people crossing the Channel – meet the criteria to be granted asylum. There is no option for most asylum seekers other than showing up on our shores. The government keeps attacking illegal immigrants, aware that there are no legal alternatives. 

Make sure to check your boxers. Photo: Steven MacKenzie
Make sure to check your boxers. Image: Steven MacKenzie

The Ukrainian situation showed how refugees could be processed without making their way to the British border. Extending that policy is better than trying to put people off by trying to ship them to Rwanda. 

“People are legally and morally allowed to claim asylum in the UK,” Lucy says. “Obviously the point of the Rwanda policy was to deter people. That hasn’t happened in Calais, they’re still coming. 

“When the Rwanda policy was first announced, information about it trickled down into the camp. The mood plummeted, the hope had been stripped away. We saw suicides. Because even if it’s a false hope that life in the UK will be good, it’s the only thing keeping people going.” 

Back in the minibus, heading for another camp, I sit next to Matt. Unlike every other volunteer, he is from Calais. Matt is using his school holidays to volunteer as well, but he’s just 17. He tells me that Calaisiens detest migrants. A minority have broken into homes and shops, and acted disrespectfully towards women, and the rest are tarred with the same brush. They resent the amount of tax they believe is going to them, though besides the Portaloos it only pays for police rather than addressing underlying issues. 

How much do people in Calais see the migrant problem as being Britain’s fault? “To be honest, it is all your fault,” he says.

Three men in a boat

Grande-Synthe camp near Dunkirk is the largest migrant settlement in western Europe. It’s bustling. The turnover of migrants is high. We’re close to the coast where most boats leave.

The refugee camp in Grande-Synthe lies next to a railway junction. Photo: Steven MacKenzie
The refugee camp in Grande-Synthe lies next to a railway junction. Image: Steven MacKenzie

At a railway junction next to a cement works, which thickens the air with fine dust, is Grande-Synthe’s meeting place. No Portaloos here, only a mound of ripped open bin bags as the central landmark. Care4Calais visits one afternoon a week bringing essentials. Not just food, but a charging station for mobile phones, hair trimmers and a tea and coffee table. 

Three men are comparing their journeys. Mané (not his real name) is from Senegal. “I flew to Turkey, I was in Greece for almost two years, on the island of Samos. Then Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and now I am here.” 

Another is from Zanzibar. Like Freddie Mercury? I ask. He grins in recognition. Farrokh flew to Germany then came here. The third man, Afran, is Kurdish, like the majority of people in Grande-Synthe, and says he’s walked for four or five years to this point “through Armenia, Turkey, Albania… everywhere”. 

They were all in the same boat, last night. “We were 30 minutes from England when the boat started to take on water,” Mané says. They debate how big it was. “Here to the pile of rubbish,” Mané thinks, Afran says smaller, just eight or nine metres. For how many people? “55-60.” 

“You know, the police don’t follow you inside the water. You enter the water,” Mané points to the top of his shoe to show how far in the sea you have to be, “they leave you. Yesterday we run inside the water and they stand at the beach saying: ‘Come back, come back!’” 

Anyone who survives an attempted crossing is lucky. Last November, 27 migrants drowned when their overcrowded boat capsized. The truth is nobody knows how many lives are lost. Those bodies, with two survivors, were found by a fisherman by accident. But there is no fear here. People have come too far already. The last hop across the Channel is a relative breeze compared to where they’ve been.

I think the UK is the best thing for me

Mané

Mané and Afran agree the most difficult part is crossing from Greece to Bulgaria. “You have to walk for five days,” Afran remembers. “And sometimes they take you back to where you started,” adds Mané. 

They will try again tonight. No refunds for failed trips but they are sure the traffickers will rearrange soon. The traffickers, like budget airlines, don’t want their passengers talking to each other. Everyone pays a different price. Farrokh paid €2,500 (£2,190) for his place in the boat and is disappointed to discover Afran only paid €2,000. 

The mood should be desperate but instead it’s hopeful. 

Farrokh: “My dream is to be a photographer and videographer. I like it since I was a kid. It is my passion.” 

Mané: “I think the UK is the best thing for me. I can play football. They will help me make footballer.” 

If this sounds naive, it’s allowed. This kid who’s travelled for several years across the world by himself is only 15. Besides, he has a back-up plan. “I can do sewing machine.” 

Afran doesn’t have an idealised view of life in the UK. He’s already lived here for years. He has a place to stay and family and friends, just no passport. Tonight he’ll be trying for the 13th time to successfully get back to where he considers home.

Child’s play

There’s almost a party atmosphere in the camp. A constant queue at the tea table, with a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon dunked in the sugar because the clientele like their chai sweet. The charging station is a mesh of cables, people with their phones keeping in touch with loved ones or checking wave heights. It also powers a sound system and hip-hop beats blend with the beeping of reversing cement mixers across the road.

Refugees charge the phones powered by a generator from the refugee crisis charity Care4Calais on November 02, 2022 in Dunkerque, France. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Refugees charge the phones powered by a generator from the refugee crisis charity Care4Calais on November 02, 2022 in Dunkerque, France. Image: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Men lie across the tracks, using one rail as a headrest. A circle of youngsters plays keepie uppie, stray balls threatening to topple nearby Jenga towers and chess games. 

Focus is intense at the pop-up salon. There is more hair needing cut than there are hairdressers. I’m asked if I know how to use clippers. I shave my own head, I say, so am happy to shear anyone similarly. There are no takers. People take turns styling each other. A man in a midnight-blue satin shirt keeps returning to borrow scissors to perfect his eyebrow trimming as if preparing for an important date. 

The best corner of Care4Calais’ mobile community centre is the English school, three or four blankets laid on the dirt. Simon draws in keen students with a map. They trace their journey and Simon asks them to write their name on a whiteboard. Rohullah, 12 years old from Afghanistan is powering through a book beyond his reading age. 

A woman and her child are also in class. “Where are you from?” Dilva looks to the map for help, but Kurdistan isn’t there. That’s part of the reason she and her son are here.

Donated toys for the kids of Grande-Synthe Photo: Steven Mackenzie
Donated toys for the kids of Grande-Synthe. Image: Steven Mackenzie

Her son’s name is Muhammad. While others in the camp at least seem pretty carefree, Muhammad looks like he’s carrying the weight of the world. He’s four or five but this child, the same age as my nephew, does not have a childhood. He seems dazed, numb to his surroundings. I empty out a toybox and he barely glances at the cars and picture books that fall out. I open a packet of superhero collector cards. He pulls out Green Lantern, Zatanna and Black Lightning. We’re both unimpressed but he takes them with him when he wanders away.

Dilva and Muhammad’s space on the mats are taken by Anya and Neev, also Kurds. Anya was a vet until she stopped working three years ago to have Neev who’s now adorable, curly haired and chubby cheeked. Old enough to make it clear that she doesn’t like dolls and if you try and take her toy monster truck away she’ll shout the Kurdish word for “MINE!”. Too young to know that crossing continents and sleeping next to a railway line is not normal. Anya draws a smiley face and hearts on a whiteboard for her daughter.

Smiles and hearts at Grande-Synthe. Photo: Steven MacKenzie
Smiles and hearts at Grande-Synthe. Image: Steven MacKenzie

On the beach

That evening as the sun is setting, I walk back to town from the Care4Calais warehouse along the pristine sandy beach. The wind is picking up but not enough for the father and child attempting to fly a kite. In the dunes, black slits of old Nazi gun positions stare out to sea and colossal concrete batteries are slumped in shadow, built to prevent us arriving on these shores. 

Reaching the freshly renovated town waterfront, a large sign lists the distance of a range of locations. Many were on the routes of people I met today: Zanzibar 7,291km, Kabul 5,586km, Dakar 4,392km, Baghdad 3,948km, Istanbul 2,352km, Sarajevo 1,470km. Many may be destinations in their future: Oxford 233km, Bournemouth 263km, Birmingham 309km, Edinburgh 648km.

Calais La Plage Photo: Steven Mackenzie
Calais La Plage. Image: Steven Mackenzie

An Irish ferry passes by, close enough to shore that you can hear the lilting accent of the safety announcement. Beyond, the lights of Dover are switching on – 42 kilometres away. The destination is close, the is journey far from over.

What happened next

Imagine how pleased I was to find the ‘Calais La Plage’ sign that tied a few threads together. But that could never be the ending. 

I visited Calais on Friday October 28. On Saturday, 990 migrants made it across the Channel. It explains the popularity of the hairdressing station, many people would have been preparing for the journey. 

Almost reaching that 1,000 figure in one day gave elements of the press and maniacs on social media an excuse to attack asylum seekers. On Sunday, an inevitable escalation as a man threw homemade petrol bombs at the immigration centre in Dover.

Suddenly migrants crossing from France were top of the news agenda. The home secretary had to respond. She decided to parrot and legitimise the hate speech by calling the crisis an “invasion”. An invasion, I thought, of wannabe footballers, photographers, Brummies and kids carrying C-list superhero collector cards.

Find out more or donate at care4calais.org

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