The desolate car park of the BP gas station on the outskirts of Calais is almost unrecognisable. What once was a place for refugees to gather to avail of the NGO services operating in the area has, overnight and thanks to the latest police eviction, become a new refugee settlement; yet another fragmented spin-off of the notorious Calais jungle.
As we unload phone charging units and urns of hot water from our volunteer van, we estimate that roughly 100 men must be sleeping here, out in the open and unprotected from the elements on patches of tarmac, parched grass and soil cracked from the summer heat. Sleeping bags or blankets are a luxury; tents are non-existent.
The luckiest among them hang tarps from the chain-linked fence, creating an improvised tunnel of shelter on the kerb that is no more than a metre in length. These are little more than awnings, with both ends exposed and open to the torrential rain and gale force winds that have lambasted Northern France in the past weeks.
Washing hangs from the top of the fence.
The scene is depressing, desperate but unremarkable for anyone acquainted with the grim landscape of Calais. It is the reality – visceral and worsening – of the 1,200-1,500 refugees estimated to be living on the margins of industrial estates, in the hedgerows of dual carriageways, and underneath railway bridges.
Five kilometres away, the rest of the men evicted have congregated in copses near the hospital, turning what was a small settlement of approximately 80 Afghans into a volatile melting pot of 500 people.
These numbers are, of course, estimates. It is impossible to know just how many people pass through this strange holiday town on France’s Northern Coast: some are here for a matter of weeks before making it to the UK; some have been here for years.
The coronavirus pandemic, while it has miraculously spared the clusters of refugee settlements spread throughout the towns of Calais and Dunkirk, has impacted these people in other ways, shutting off the support from charities and aid organisations who were forced to suspend or reduce their operations due to COVID-19. Many organisations I reached out to to volunteer my time had either closed or were operating with a skeleton staff. Which, of course, means only one thing: reduced support, access to food, water, health services and basic human interaction for those left to exist on the edges of motorways and the hostile barrenness of Calais’ industrial parks.
It has been two months since I began volunteering with UK-based charity Care4Calais, an organisation established to deliver essential services and advocate for the safe arrival and welcoming of refugees to the UK. I spend my mornings preparing group food packs filled with rice, tinned tomatoes, onions. We distribute these packs in the afternoon, asking weary men and women to queue in the hot sun for items sometimes met with hostility and frustration:
“Why do you bring this when we have nothing to cook with?” One man asks me after losing all his belongings in an evacuation.
“What good is this to me when I cannot cook?”
I watch a man, fish out a tin of chicken from the pack. Without even a fork to eat with, I look away as he sits, hunched, trying to use the can lid as cutlery.
Requests for shoes, reading glasses, and underwear, for the children who all speak half a dozen European languages; for the heavily pregnant women living in bushes; for new fathers whose wives have just given birth and have nothing to clothe their newborn with, are the unrelenting soundtrack of these distributions. They echo around the walls of my AirBnB each evening.
Since my arrival, I have witnessed a consistent increase in evacuations by France’s riot police, the CRS, here in Calais and Dunkirk, turning our work into an almost constant emergency response. Every 48 hours, CRS descend on communities armed with tear gas, batons and buses that bundle men, young families and unaccompanied minors off to centres dispersed throughout France.
As volunteers, we jump into emergency mode. We sort through donations to compile several hundred blankets, jackets, trousers, hygiene packs, tarps, t-shirts, emergency food packs that we will then spend our afternoons distributing at the main refugee settlements dotted around Calais and Dunkirk. These distributions are not always easy in this new wave of evictions, as we arrive to find the sites flooded with groups of men and families who have lost everything in the evacuations and have often gone days without real access to food or water. Tensions are high, frustration is palpable while exhaustion is blatant and exacerbated by the scarcity of supplies, the scorching sun, and the shadow of the CRS officers, the French riot police dispatched to deal with the crisis, that darkens all of our distributions.
Every week, we give out one clothing item, distributing a blanket, a pair of jeans, a jumper or t-shirt. Watching hundreds of men – many of them far older than my twenty-seven years but many more of them at least a decade younger than I am – line up and queue for two hours to receive a second-hand pair of jeans that are too small, too big, too ugly, too quintessentially not them, is heartrending. I find it difficult to watch.
Attempts to reach the UK by boat have risen in tandem with these evictions, with numbers crossing thus far in 2020 already exceeding the whole of 2019. On surfboards, in inflatable boats and ill-equipped dinghies, and using paddles or even shovels as oars, people are taking to the world’s busiest seaway with the reckless desperation of the choiceless. Colleagues of mine, on a trip to Decathlon to buy bike supplies for the refugee bike repair service we offer on afternoons, saw refugees emerging with kayak oars under their arms. It remains highly unlikely those oars were bought for recreational use. The name Abdulfatah Hamdallah is the only reference needed to know how too many of these odysseys end.
According to the prefecture, “the aim of these operations is to put an end to illegal occupations and to avoid the reconstitution of lawless areas and unhealthy camps.” In truth, these evacuations seem designed not to eradicate lawlessness but to further eradicate any trace of the lives international law has abandoned and to extinguish, down to the last tent pole, any remaining shred of hope.
I often hear of the psychological warfare of these operations: a friend living in a Dunkirk camp tells me of police taking only one shoe from men to augment their indignity; another speaks of boats circling refugee dinghies with floodlights to disorient the drivers so that they no longer know where they’re going and sail blindly in circles, until they run out of fuel and are forced to call for help.
Hamada, a 19-year-old Eritrean who lived in the Calais jungle as a teenager before safely making it to the UK, is proof that this psychological abuse leaves an indelible scar. Walking with friends one night in London, safe and far from the trauma of Calais, a police car slowed down beside them. Without thinking, he began sprinting, believing himself back in France and once more at the mercy of police brutality.
Today, Sunday, in this deserted car park nobody should ever call home, we are welcomed with a frenzy that goes beyond friendliness: it is akin to desperation. We have not put our phone charging unit down before it is already full with cables connecting these men to home; I cannot open biscuit packets fast enough for the steady stream of customers.
I meet nothing but smiles and thank yous muttered deferentially in French, English, Arabic, Italian, a few elbow taps (coronavirus, after all) from some of the men who have come to recognise me.
As I pour tea and coffee, I am asked often where I am from. Or rather, I am greeted with an assumption: “UK?” “No,” I adamantly and somewhat indignantly correct. “I am from Ireland.” Typically, this is a sentence I utter with pride when abroad. Here, my pride fades with the following response to my assertion. “Ahh, Ireland…is it good there? Can I go there?”
I pause. Think of the risks involved in simply trying to get to my country, think of the long years lying in wait in a direct provision centre and, to add to this suffering, the million examples of overt racism that await a refugee and that we have seen so many examples of in recent months. I have no answer, no hope to give.
All I can give is an extra chocolate biscuit and a smile I pray he knows is genuine from behind my facemask.
I remember Hamada’s parting words to me and remember that it is not just a hot drink I am providing but human interaction, PPE’d proof that people still care. “You need to talk to them. They need words. They don’t need tea and coffee.”
Hamada, a beacon of hope and joyful antidote to every argument for securitisation, has returned to Calais as a volunteer. To the refugees who feel “empty, like dead bodies walking”, his presence here, his story, renew their fortitude: he made it, he is happy, he is due to start university this month.
To me, he is a reminder of the humanity, generosity, and boundless warmth of the kaleidoscopic people whose ebullient ‘thank you’s for the tea and coffee I serve show our shared belief that manners matter. Who, despite being lost to reductive headlines or political hyperbole that seek to only vilify or victimise, are individuals exactly like you and I, with decided preferences on how much sugar they like in their coffee (a lot) and exactly how skinny they want their jeans (the answer is almost always VERY skinny). All that separates us is circumstance…and the peril of an inflatable boat.
The problem with media coverage of this crisis is that it is at once inflammatory and reductive. “Refugees”, “migrants”, “displaced people” are described in terms that seek to incite only outrage or pity. The result is a complete lack of humanity as a kaleidoscopic host of people from different countries, backgrounds, and experiences are all lumped together as one: our unknowable “other.” I too have been guilty of feeding this journalistic trope. Perhaps it is for this reason that one of the most common refrains heard amongst new volunteers at our warehouse is this: « the refugees are so “NICE, KIND, LOVELY”, “their English is soooo good!” In all of the discourse, we have forgotten that their are people behind the headlines, the blurred out faces in boats, the terrifying statistics. The irony: in promoting humanitarian action, the impulse is often to neglect humanity.
As a spectator and witness to the suffering of so many here in Calais, it thus feels like my duty to share this reality – one we are all complicit in with our silence and inaction. A reality of grown men frantically flattening plastic bottles into plates as they squat on a roadside to eat a donated meal of chicken and couscous. To even witness this at the time, standing there in my volunteer vest and PPE, felt like a violation; to write it now feels like a betrayal. However, if I don’t, who will donate, advocate, petition and fundraise?
So, while this is the side of Calais crisis we must all face – that of men, of families, of pregnant women living in ditches, outside train stations and unsure when or where their next meal may come from, let me also share the indefatigable resilience, the incorrigible humour and generosity of spirit that is my only experience of working here.
Of that of one man, who found us giving out fruit and water on a particularly scorching day after an eviction. He took an orange from our stall (read: boot of our car). As he peeled away the flesh to reveal the pulp beneath he threw his eyes and hands up to heaven in celebration.
“Hallelujah!” he exclaimed.
I gave him a cup of water. I didn’t mean to, but I watched as he gulped it down with eyes closed and smiling in pure, ecstatic, mindful joy. As he smacked his lips together in delight, he surveyed the world with arms outsretched and a gratitude that was blistering in its simplicity. I am not sure what kind of person can withstand so much pain, humiliation, uncertainty and still celebrate a glass of water after a long thirst. All I know is that person is exceptional.
These are the men, the women, the children on the roundabouts, under the bridges, outside the supermarkets of Calais. Exceptional and human.