CALAIS, France – “It became just like a jail. Like a prison. Wherever you look you can find just defense, just police. Maybe they – the French people in Calais – have the right to hate refugees here. They made their town a prison,” said Khaled, speaking from the French port, home to the refugee camps that have existed at different population capacities since 1999.
More than 6,000 people seeking refuge in Europe are still living – barely existing – in the unofficial camps in Calais. As news that the French police may completely dismantle the premises by September circulated this week, the camp’s residents grew even more worried for their futures. They have lived in a constant state of anxiety about what will happen to them – suspended in perpetual limbo. Most are single, unaccompanied men.
The word “hell” was used by nearly everyone I interviewed over the past few months.
When I embarked on my radio documentary, my greatest concern was to hear the stories without prejudice and to allow people to speak unfiltered and to get a sense of who they are as individuals.
I asked Caoimhe Butterly, a longtime solidarity activist and the producer of the now well-known film “The Border,” for some advice.
“Just be mindful, really put yourself as much as you can conceptually in other people’s shoes,” she said.
Mindfulness is a state of being that is is achievable when we succeed in deconstructing our privilege and how we use language. This can be a lifetime’s work. For instance, she suggested that instead of referring to the people as “the refugees,” we might say “those seeking refuge” or “the women, men and children on the move.”
Even if long-winded, this avoids reductive labels. Such an approach makes reference to people’s experiences of displacement, rather then conferring the status of refugee as their sole identity.
The gap between these two positions is quite big, and an important one.
There have been many news reports about the people living in the Calais camps, but much of this coverage has been superficial. Even this is not intended, it dehumanizes people in the camps even more and does little to relay the nuances of each individual’s background, culture, journey and future hopes.
“As Syrians, we used to receive thousands of refugees. We didn’t think that someday we were going to come out and we were going to be refugees. I knew, as a Syrian, that we should not call them refugees. We should call them a human being,” Mahmoud, living in Calais, said to me.
“If Europeans think that we are [just] refugees, we are going to show them that we are first human beings. We have names, and we have a great history and sense of humanity. We could make our lives – yours and ours – better,” he added.
The title of my documentary “The Hungry Road,” which collects more than four months of interviews in Calais, is a reference to the Great Irish Famine when millions of people were forced by an aggressive colonial system to become economic migrants. Military oppression, land theft, starvation, war and coffin ships – the events are still being described by subsequent generations. But it is if we have learned nothing from history.
Some of the language, policy and ideas around the time of the 1845 famine bear dismaying similarities to how those seeking refuge are treated in the current context – especially in the expectation that they, the refugees, must prove their worth as economically viable communities and suffer great obstacles before they are given sanctuary.
“Every system of poor relief must contain a penal and repulsive element, in order to prevent its leading to the disorganization of society,” said Sir Charles Trevelyan, the British civil servant who administered the famine relief.
Trevelyan would be proud of the way Europe has focused on strengthening borders rather than allowing safe passage. And how the demeaning and disenfranchising language around this process has been normalized. People are consistently punished for fleeing war and persecution, stigmatized for wanting a better life for their families and put through an unforgiving machine of bureaucracy before they are allowed shelter.
The only ones who prosper in this situation are the smugglers who are making a tidy sum from desperate people, the far-right politicians who are manipulating voters with unfounded fears and the media who show up for the riots, the photo ops and only the most lurid of events that can make headlines.
Most people I spoke to in the camp place little faith in the media, as nothing has changed despite months of media visits from across the globe.
“Before, there were a lot of correspondents, hundreds of them, they were here every day, but it’s not working, this media thing. They just take their money based on working here, show it on TV, making it an interesting story for the people, and that is it,” said Mohammad, another man living in the Calais camps.
Everyone I spoke to described how they feel they have been abandoned by Europe. The sadness that comes with realizing that the great philosophy of European human rights is a facade, a front that covers reluctance to help, was reiterated.
“Is this Europe? Really?” I was repeatedly asked.
And among all this sadness, exhaustion and anxiety, among all the flimsy tents, especially since a recent fire destroyed more than 250 shelters, plus the 50-plus new people arriving every day, there is a strong current of community spirit, sharing and love. People here, without much support, look out for each other.
I witnessed the generosity and relentlessness a thousand times over. But it was not something I could possibly encapsulate in a documentary.
Flood shared her radio documentary “The Hungry Road,” produced with the support of the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund, with Refugees Deeply:
Excerpts from Flood’s interviews with the asylum seekers at Calais follow.
“When we came here, we were thinking that soon we’ll be in U.K., but for the last eight months I have been living here, I’ve been trying every night except on weekends and I’ve never succeeded. And I have seen many bad things, like people who died in front of my eyes. People hit by trucks. People hit by trains … I can’t remind [sic] those stories. If I remind those stories, I will cry then.
“So I’m trying to go to the U.K. There was a threat to my life. My dad was killed by ISIS in Afghanistan, and I was also about to be killed by them so I left Afghanistan to come here … to be alive. And I don’t have a contact with my family for the last five, six months. I don’t know if they are alive or if they are dead.
“I thought when we got to France, things will get better. Then we came here and saw the reactions of the CRS and even some of the French civilians. They are bad. Too much bad than even Hungarian people, Hungarian police. Because they are beating people, the CRS. They beat us, they beat my friend … Ten days ago, an Afghan man was killed. There’s a reason he was killed. He was running from the police and when he crossed one motorway, the truck hit him and he died. There was another guy from Sudan or Eritrea who also running from the security in the Eurotunnel. They were letting dogs after them. And when he was crossing the train tracks he was hit by the train coming from England. At the same day another black guy also died by the train. There were three deaths on that day.”
“My hair has become white in here. Too much thinking, too much thinking, believe me. We don’t have a proper place to sleep, we don’t have proper food, clothes. We don’t have nothing. We don’t have any facilities in here. This is not a life, believe me.
“They don’t like refugees actually. Look, we are all the same. You, me, all the same. But the problems in here are different. You are from Europe, I am from Asia. This is a big difference between you and me. I was born in war. I grew up in war. So they think I am a terrorist. If I am terrorist, why leave my country? I just come here for a safe life.
“England is 45 minutes away from us? Sometimes I am going to the beach, I am standing for a while and looking to that side. And I say, wow, look, there is only water between France and England, just water. My dream is on that side.
“I was beaten by police many times in the train station, they spray in my face many times … I want to say to all those countries, time to wake up. Everyone is asleep now. French people, everyone. They are at home now, they have electricity, they have a good life, everything. They really don’t know what’s going on in here. They don’t understand me, they don’t understand my feeling. When they would come here, talk with us, then they’d know exactly what’s going on in here.
“Look, 10 months, this place is like a prison. I was a computer mechanic in my country. I love to repair, I love to create something new, but in here, nothing. Just all day thinking, ‘What to do? What to do?’ They think that we are like zombies, like we are animals. We are not. We are all the same.
“Do you know the police sometimes shoot rubber bullets? Rubber bullets, tear gas, water. I’m thinking if I claim asylum in here, I will completely go crazy. In this cold, in this windy, no money, nothing.
“We crossed 10 countries by feet. No food. Prison, oh my God, long journey. Desert, jungle, oh my God, we face many difficulties in the way, many many difficulties in the way …
“So it’s OK, it’s life. Life is going, life is passing, but we don’t have to give up.”
“If we could change something [it would be] how we could make the people listen to us, how we could send them a message and tell them: Hey, we are here, we have great experience, we are not going to be a problem for you. Let’s make our lives better, you and us. We could help each other … We are not looking after food, or water, we are not animals. We lost our … everything, we’re just looking to start again.
“The media is related to the power. They are controlled by politics also. So we used to turn on the TV and watch the news, read the newspaper daily. And you read and you watch what they exactly want you to see and read and watch. As we are Syrian before, we have this experience. We used to watch the news and create our ideas exactly from the media.
“The French and English authorities don’t want to listen. They don’t want to show the reality of the people here. They keep showing the people that our case is nothing, and we don’t deserve to have a choice. They want us to be like animals and die there. So simply if we are not welcome here in Europe, don’t send your air force to bomb our countries. Leave me alone. Politics destroy our countries, politics destroy our future, politics keep destroying everything.”
“People are saying about human rights and they are helping in the Middle East. We are in the middle of Europe, nobody helps us here. How come they come miles and miles away to go to help there? It’s obviously not help. If they want to really help us, we are here. Help us here.
“I heard from 2009 up to now, they [England] have paid £900 million for security, for fences. It’s such a waste of money. If they spent even 10 percent of that on refugees everyone would have a better life, not suffer like you can see.
“I didn’t expect this situation, but it’s life, I’m still struggling. I will stay in France, it’s not my choice, but I have to. My future? I will see. I cannot say anything at the moment because anytime I make a plan it doesn’t go right, you know.”