Calais is a bleak place, an old grey industrial town with a large unemployment rate (16 per cent, 5.5 points higher than the national average). Its streets are often barren, shops and bars closed. As soon as you arrive, the urgency of the migrant situation is abundantly clear.
Various sources say there are somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 of them in Calais alone. Despite efforts by groups to keep the peace between locals and migrants, Calais has recently seen a huge rise in young Front National affiliates.
“As soon as you arrive, the urgency of the migrant situation is abundantly clear.”
The migrants come from all over the Middle East and Africa, and they all have incredible stories to tell. They’ve braved unbelievable hardship only to end up kettled in a place where they suffer horrific levels of discrimination on a regular basis.
Regularly they attempt the dangerous feat of mounting the backs of moving trucks boarding the ferries. The risk of falling or getting caught in the mechanics is huge. When they do fall they’re often assaulted by the police, or the truck drivers themselves.
The police unions recently protested in the same ranks as a far-right fascist group formed through the Facebook group Sauvons Calais. The French police are often cited for being notably hard-lined in their dealings and views on immigrants.
As for the truckers, they risk immense fines, if not their jobs, for transporting migrants, whether they’re aware of it or not. It’s painfully understandable. Corner a man and he’ll always bite.
In my quest to understand exactly what’s going on in Calais, I decided to speak to some locals. I park up on what I later come to know as Place de Norvège. On one side of the square is a French bistro, Les Deux Moineaux. Amongst the most affected by the economic crisis are local businesses like these.
Only metres away, separated from the bar only by a narrow road, is a shelter where people have set up camp. Mattresses, clothes, chairs and various other meagre objects are packed into a space hardly bigger than my bedroom.
I enter the bistro, order two coffees and assess the situation. The woman behind the bar is talking about something in a heated manner. I turn to her only customer, a rugged old man who looks withered by hard labour, and ask him if people are living in the building next door.
“‘They pay for coffee with 500 euro notes!’ She points her finger out of the window to the makeshift shelter across the road. ‘They’re not poor, I’m telling you that.'”
The barwoman butts in. “They don’t live inside. No, the door is locked. They sleep out there.”
It doesn’t take much of a push to induce a monologue describing how strongly she feels about the migrants. She tells me about the incidents occurring in Calais: theft, assaults, but mostly just presence en masse.
“We’re all just fed up with it. They’re everywhere. We live in constant fear.”
She tells me about how she read in the newspaper that the migrants had started a riot at a feeding station because they thought their food wasn’t salty enough. “If they were hungry, they would eat, salt or no salt. I don’t think they’re that needful at all.”
“They pay for coffee with 500 euro notes!” She points her finger out of the window to the makeshift shelter across the road. “They’re not poor, I’m telling you that.”
I ask her if she’s had any problems with the migrants. “Well no, not personally. I know people who have though. I’m lucky my dog hates them. He keeps them away.”
I thank her for the coffees and go on my way. I struggle to justify her attitude to myself, but in some sense I understand it. The migrants live right outside her shop. They’re everywhere. She’s never spoken to any of them. To her, they’re an anonymous body of people.
I decide it’s a good idea to buy some cigarettes before the visit to the provisional shelter across the road. Superfluous goods such as cigarettes serve the purpose of offering without patronising. You don’t bring loo roll to a dinner party.
I approach the young men, not without apprehension, expecting them to be wary of me, concerned they may take offence at the sight of my cameras and dictaphone. But as I approach their home I’m greeted with. They pull out a chair and urge me to sit. Only one of them speaks, the others grin nervously.
“I’ve been in France for three months, and in those three months nobody has come to ask me what is happening here, where I am sleeping, if I need anything. I’m going to England to see what will happen there.”
Amin, 24, was born in Darfur, Sudan. He spent ten years of his life in refugee camps before crossing the border to Libya. From there, he travelled to the coast in the hope of getting to Europe.
This was a horrific experience. He was locked in the hold of a boat for three days, without water or food. He arrived in Italy, but came to the realisation that the living conditions for asylum seekers there weren’t much better than the conditions at home. He slept under bridges and received no aid.
Amin’s been living in Calais for the past three months. When I ask him why he wants to go to England, why he doesn’t want to seek asylum in France, he smiles. “I’ve been in France for three months, and in those three months nobody has come to ask me what is happening here, where I am sleeping, if I need anything. I’m going to England to see what will happen there.”
It’s a common understanding that migrants come to the UK hoping for a better life. England is known as a sort of ‘El Dorado’, a promised land. To be fair to them, I can’t imagine it being much worse for them than here, and their strive for something better may be what’s keeping them in such good spirits.
Amin tells me that there’s food distribution for the migrants on a car park just down the road, every day at six. That’s where I head next.
Upon arrival, I’m shocked at the immensity of the crowd that stands before me. Rows and rows of people, all stood in a one-man line, curved across the square, waiting for food. The uniformity of the queue is astounding. In London, I’ve seen people lose their patience over much less.
I’m approached by a young man from Syria who says his name is Majnoun. “I need a tent, and a blanket, can you help me?” he questions. My first thought is that he’s mistaken me for an aid worker. I tell him I’m here to help, but the gruesome reality of my powerlessness hits me at the sight of the crowd.
I approach a French couple standing nearby. They look like they’re in their sixties. The man has a deep voice and his use of words is elaborate, like that of a professor. His wife speaks in a high-pitched, gentle tone.
They introduce themselves as Andre and Marguerite “Patate” (potato). They’re known amongst the migrants, aid workers and activists because they regularly come to the food distributions with dozens of kilos of homegrown potatoes.
Their real names are Mr and Mrs Vahé. Mr Vahé used to work for the National Department of Education and the Youth Judicial Protection service.
As well as food, they bring as much medicine and as many blankets, mattresses, tents and clothes as they can fit into their car. They collect them from friends and buy them in charity shops.
They describe themselves as communists, and although they’re obviously political, what strikes me most is how devoted they are.
They speak of the dire situation in which the migrants have consistently been for the past ten years. In May, when the authorities evacuated the main camps by the port, all of the exiled came to the feeding station and put their shelters up as best they could. The riot police had expected this, and had been waiting in a nearby hangar.
More than 600 people were deported, some of whom were sent to immigration centres, but most were driven to Rennes, Paris, Lille, and let back out onto the streets. Of course, they returned to Calais within days, “with even more cuts and bruises than before”.
The migrant camps are never around for long – they’re routinely taken down. Marguerite tells me that in their local town, Norrent-Fontes, the riot police have threatened to cut down the woods where the settlements are to stop people from going there.
In the winter things are worse. “Calais is just awful in the winter. When the temperature goes below freezing, they open the auditorium over there for the migrants. But as soon as the temperature rises above, they evacuate it.
“Last year, when this happened, migrants came in the hope of sleeping there, but of course, it was closed. There was a thick sheet of ice outside where it hadn’t gotten warm enough to melt, and the wind was howling. It was surreal. Médecins du Monde brought them tents, but we had to explain to them that they couldn’t put them up just anywhere, because the police could and would take them down.”
Marguerite casts a wistful gaze at the immense queue of migrants standing waiting for their food. “There are people for whom this sight brings back very, very bad memories. We’re ashamed that in this day and age these things can still happen in France.”
In Italy, migrants are apprehended and forced to give their fingerprints to the authorities. When they’re denied asylum abroad, they can then be traced and sent back there, where their basic human rights are denied. “It’s like they’re passing on the problem from one country to another,” says Marguerite.
I mention the agreement between the French and the British government to spend fifteen million euros in the next three years to reinforce the border in Calais. Mr Vahé tells me that the local police have just received a loan for 50,000 euros (£39,100) to buy tasers and flashballs (the guns that fire rubber bullets). “Their only answer to this problem is repression.”
We speak of how the migrants are perceived by locals and the press. “We fully understand that the situation can seem cumbersome for the people of Calais. The migrants are stuck here and it’s for the locals to deal with the consequences of that.”
“There have been fights between migrants, and that’s good for the press. You know the headline, ‘fifty people caught up in brawl, several injured…’ when actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. These people are blocked here, which is hard in itself. Some of them have been here for six months, and more arrive every day. Desperation leads to these dog-eat-dog situations.”
“Abuba! Abuba!” I hear some of the refugees shout out. “Abuuuba!” they cheer. A little old lady, practically curling over herself with arthritis, hobbles towards us. “It means grandma.” She chuckles. “It’s good to be playful, it helps keep them patient while they queue for food.”
She tells me that it isn’t always so tame. “Yesterday was going fine, until a point and all of a sudden it was chaos. They were all jumping in front of each other, so we had to pack up. There are only ten of us, and hundreds of them. It’s usually fine, you know, these things do happen. A few of them were complaining that their food wasn’t salty enough. They caused a stir, and everyone started to get restless. We had to stop the meal. We couldn’t let it get out of hand.”
Nonetheless, Abuba is very forgiving. “People make generalisations when these things happen. But this is a community of its own,” she explains. “There is no such thing as a perfect society. Of course they’re not all angels.”
The food station where the volunteers work is dishing out grub. A flustered and slightly angry woman asks me what publication I’m from. I tell her I’m a student, to which she gives me a thumbs up and carries on slapping rice onto plates at an increased pace.
I ask another man if everything is going to plan. He tells me today is calm, because the weather is good and they have plenty of food. I ask him about the incident that occurred the previous day. I mention what I heard, about it kicking off because they ran out of salt. He laughs.
“That’s what the Figaro article says, yes. What actually happened is that someone cut the line and it got a bit out of hand. Everyone got involved. We had been serving food for about an hour at this point, everyone was hungry. They were throwing themselves onto the table. That’s why I’m highly strung. I don’t want the same thing to happen today.”
“In the Jungle there is a wall separating us from the road. We climb that wall, and jump onto the trucks.”
He points to my left, where migrants stand, staring at us. They’ve already eaten. “All of these people want something. And I won’t lie to you, they want young ladies like yourself, too. They’re very happy to see girls. Next time, come back in baggy jeans and a jumper. I mean you’re taking risks here. It’s broad daylight now, the police station is just there, it’s fine. But there are a thousand of them, all between 18 and 25 years of age, and they haven’t been near a woman for ages.”
A group of Syrian men in their early twenties come over. They gather around me and all start talking at once. “Each one will give you 1000 euros.” “Take me please!” They speak humorously, but it’s clear they aren’t joking. They tell me that like many others, they live in “The Jungle”, currently the main migrant camp in Calais, near the old Tioxide factory.
Despite multiple attempts, it’s dark by the time I find anyone who can take me there, and I decide against it. Night time is when the exiles attempt to smuggle themselves across the border. A different atmosphere settles in and suddenly things become more tense.
Back at the car I wait for Tom, a representative of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais anti-fascist militant group. There’s a loud knock on the passenger-side window. I jump. It’s one of the Syrian men I met at the feeding station.
“I am about to do something very dangerous,” he tells me, a wide grin spread across his face. “In the Jungle there’s a wall separating us from the road. We climb that wall, and jump onto the trucks. We have GPS. If the truck turns right, it means it’s going to Russia or Germany. If it turns left, it’s going to England. If it goes right, I bang the sides of the truck for the driver to let me out. If it goes left, I stay quiet.”
He bids me farewell and jogs off to join his friends. I’m knocked back by his high spirits: he’s going off to risk his life, and yet he has the allure of a man without a worry in the world.
Tom joins me in the car park and I follow him in the car to the centre of Calais. We find a bar where we can sit and talk. The militant has a very distinctive look. His hands and face are adorned with small tattoos, all symbols I don’t recognise.
Tom is a former football hooligan turned activist. He describes the organisation to which he belongs, the “anti-fas” as a very large family. “This is an advantage for us, because sometimes things get heated. We’re well organised, we know how to deal with things.”
Although they work closely with the various aid groups, the struggle led by the anti-fas seems more political than humanitarian. Their aim is to help change peoples’ views on migrants and try to stop the growing influence of neo-fascist groups, or “fafs”. Indirectly, they want to contribute to migrant safety by helping community cohesion.
Tom is the only member of the group to live in Calais. The “extremely determined group of fascists” on the other hand, is based here.
“The media doesn’t talk about the violence against exiles enough. They focus a lot of attention on the incidents affecting the people of Calais, but not the other way around.”
Their self-acclaimed leader, Kevin Reche, is only 19 years old. He’s often labelled a neo-nazi, a fascist, a racist and a xenophobe but prefers to be known as a ‘nationalist’. He founded the Sauvons Calais (SC) Facebook group, a cross between Nigel Farage’s UKIP and Tommy Robinson’s former EDL.
It’s very important to the anti-fascist militants that they discredit SC and Reche, and they’ve already dented his reputation. “People know they’re fascists, and that’s partly thanks to us.” He takes a sip of water and smiles.
On their list of achievements, the anti-fas have the widespread publication of a picture of Reche showing off a swastika tattoo on his chest, and another of him with Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front. He publicly denied allegations of being a racist and refuted any kind of affiliation with the right-wing party.
Despite efforts by anti-fa militants to bring ignominy upon Reche, his political influence is growing. SC receives growing support amongst established far-right groups, such as France Fasciste and Jeunesses Nationalistes.
Although many locals still don’t support fascist groups, SC is starting to broaden its range of action. Tom blames mainstream news channels and publications for taking sides and fuelling the fire.
I ask Tom what the anti-fascists think of the press, thinking of an incident I’d heard about through another journalist where BBC reporters were chased out of a camp by a hoard of migrants. From what I heard, the activists told them that they weren’t to be trusted, and the migrants kicked off.
When I ask Tom about this, he laughs. “I don’t know about that. We’ve chased BFMTV (France’s most watched 24 hour news channel) away a few times, damaged their car a bit too. They’re just awful, they’re like vultures. They just want a quick sensational story and they’ll go to any lengths to get it.”
Tom feels that the media doesn’t talk about the violence against exiles enough. “They focus a lot of attention on the incidents affecting the people of Calais, but not the other way around.”
We discuss local efforts made to appease the situation. Natacha Bouchart, centre-right Mayor of Calais, recently spoke up against migrant squats set up by activist groups. According to her, they’re part of the cause for the amassing of exiles throughout Calais.
Despite this, she recently agreed to an idea put forward by French president François Hollande to set up day centres for the migrants.
The anti-fa militant is sceptical about Bouchart’s intentions. “If you ask me, I think they’re trying to play the humanist card because they’ve been really harsh lately, and they’ve been getting bad press.”
He tells me of a recent event in which the council banned them from using a field where they’d been hosting football matches every Sunday for two years, bringing various migrant communities and locals together. On the same day, a fascist protest was authorised by the mayor and the demonstrators were offered police protection.
Despite their dividing opinions, Bouchart and Tom see eye-to-eye on one thing. They both agree that the British government’s recent decision to use the 60km-long fence from the G8 summit in Wales to further reinforce the border is pointless.
“These people [the migrants] have travelled 5,000 km (3,100 miles), crossed a dozen borders, and they think a fence is going to scare them?” Tom scoffs. Natasha Bouchart reportedly told the British government that people don’t take fences seriously and she fears locals won’t see this as a valuable step towards reducing the migrant presence.
As we walk back to the car we discuss the view of people on the other side of the Channel. I tell Tom about Cameron’s recent speech on immigration, and his will to control borders more strictly. I tell him that UKIP is on the rise, as are far-right groups such as Britain First and that in the UK, like in France, there’s a growing divide between those who support immigration and those fervently against it.
It’s clear that with winter approaching, durable solutions need to be found to provide shelter for the migrants to combat the risk of an even bigger humanitarian crisis than Calais already has on its hands.
Unless both the French and the British government start offering new solutions, the migrants desperation will undoubtedly lead to an increase in crime – unleashing a new wave of political rhetoric and violence, not to mention further loss of already withering local support.
Calais is the exemplification of a worldwide issue, a microcosm for Europe’s immigration problem.
As we board the Eurotunnel, I think of the Syrian man we met and question whether he made it across to England. I wonder if he’s still alive.
Photography and research by Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox and Ted Lamb