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This is a diary put together during some days spent in Calais in March/April, 2015.
I was an ‘Odyssey artist-in-residence’ at La Chartreuse, a former monastery some 3 kms from Montreuil-sur-Mer and about 50 minutes from Calais. (http://www.lachartreusedeneuville.org)
The Odyssey programme invites artists to tender proposals for a residence at any one of a range of retreats all over France. I asked to be based at La Chartreuse because it is so near Calais and I had long wanted to write a play about the situation in this port city, with its shanty town created by the desire of some 2000 migrants to stowaway on lorries to Dover. This is the shortest distance between France and England – 21 miles. The crossing is only 90 minutes. A young man can hang onto the axle of a lorry for that long and come out on English soil and claim asylum in Kent. And the volume of the traffic is staggering – ferries go every half-an-hour and customs cannot keep up with every lorry.
Rodin’s statue, The Burghers of Calais, outside the Hotel de Ville
In the light of this residence, the Unicorn Theatre in London has commissioned me to write a play on Calais and my objective is to find a way into this fluid and changing community. I need an introduction, someone to break the ice.
The place where I am staying, La Chartreuse, is a fabulous building, with 24 ‘hermitages’ for the Carthusian monks who used to live there, and much more space for the younger apprentices. The team of six who have been renovating the building for the last six years are led by Alexia Noyon, and I am the very first artist-in-residence there. Accommodation is extremely plain and simple, and, on March 23rd, I am the only human sleeping on this enormous historical site. The wind is strong and there is a power cut at 10.30 pm when I plug my kettle into the mains. I decide to just go to sleep and deal with it in the morning. Over the next four weeks, I sleep better here than anywhere and the beauty and calm of this site impact on me in a surprisingly positive and restful way.
The deal for me is that I get a few weeks to live in La Chartreuse, 1200 euros to cover expenses, and the use of a car to go to Calais.
I want to thank the director, Alexia Noyon, for welcoming me so warmly and also her excellent team; Celine Giton looked after myself and the two further artists-in-residence, the novelist Florence Noiville and the performance poet Patrick Dubost, who came to join me in April.
It was Alexia who introduced me to Renaud, a French activist who works, in his spare time, on the behalf of those migrants in ‘The Jungle’…
I know how to drive to Calais but nothing about Calais. I got there at 3 and walked around.
It’s quite depressed. Public clocks don’t work, units are shut in the commercial centre, the limbs of the muses are broken on the vast 19th century Opera House and its walls sprout weeds – but it’s the central building and it’s still open for public performances – one side of it makes the main bus stop. On the main street, there are an incredible number of opticians which I don’t really understand. Parking is very cheap. The Hotel du Ville is still exceptional and grand with Rodin’s statue, ‘The Burghers of Calais’, outside. But I am looking for refugees and I expect to see them everywhere, robbing and running down the streets, their black faces in hoods. But they are nowhere to be seen, just locals going about their business.
Rodin’s monument is such a powerful grouping of bronze figures (and is so central to the city) that I find out the story behind it. Edward 3rd of England laid siege to Calais in the 14th century. The citizens were starving. King Edward said that if six of the most eminent citizens of Calais came in their undergarments to him, bearing the keys of the city, he would release the starving people. Six of the most eminent men came (after much agonized debate) and the siege was lifted. As they were about to be executed, the Queen, who was pregnant with her first child, intervened and spared the noblemen. She felt that such a cruel punishment might place a curse on her first child.
I meet Renaud at 6.45 in the Bar Timbale in rue Royale, one of the few lively streets, a little bit alternative and almost at the sea front. He is very tall and with a border collie only a year old called ‘Jungle’. Renaud is introduced to me by Alexia, the directrice of La Chartreuse – her husband is Renaud’s boss. Renaud spends quite a bit of his free time helping ‘les migrants’ by collecting clothes for them and organizing food that is ‘juval’ – past its sell-by date. He is a cheerful alternative guy who enjoys two beers and then suggests we get out of his car and walk around when we arrive at a place where the refugees are milling around. He is a good guy to walk around with, relaxed and imposing and alternative.
He shows me a group of Syrians who live on the old van-loading area of a warehouse, about twelve of them. Around a corner are a group of Africans who occupy another corner. We stare at each other and wave as we go past to show we are friends, not foes. He drives on to Le Jungle. ‘Tu veux sortir et voir le Jungle?’ Of course, and I nervously follow him through the fence. Boys are playing football and it’s getting dark quickly. A Belgian aid worker in his 50’s comes up and chats, very smooth and on top of everything, he makes a paedo joke when I say I write for young people which actually relaxes the meeting. He says he will introduce me to people to talk to. Then we meet two Afghan men, one encased in a hood to his anorak that he has not taken off in a long time and big guy in a cap – their faces have lived outdoors for quite a time – I think they are quite young but they are very weathered. Their adrenalin is high, as Renaud points out – they are smiling all the time – because, he thinks, they are always trying to get out of Calais, every single night they attempt to escape – my mind goes back to watching the Colditz films and the crazy intensity with which the prisoners tunnelled underground.
Renaud and I walk deeper into Le Jungle and as it goes dark I see rats running across the path. Then I see that all the trash, whole piles and small dunes of trash, is moving with rats. No wonder the municipality of Calais has to raze these camps to the ground every year or so – they provide no sanitation for the refugees and only a few taps and nothing else, no electricity or refuse disposal or any service for all the men, women and children gathered here. Of course, they make an incredible mess over a couple of years. Wouldn’t we all?
These people are from Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places and they are non-persons – ‘sans-papiers’. ‘Ne personne est illegal’, says the graffiti on the walls. But they are – the Schenken Agreement says that a person fleeing a country because their life is at stake due to a fundamental injustice must apply for asylum in the first EU country in which they arrive – they must give their fingerprints there. But because they want to go to England, they don’t do this, they go all the way from Tripoli or Kabul or Darfur to Calais without claiming asylum – so they have no status at all, they are illegal.
Britain has not signed up to the Schenken agreement. If they can ‘break into’ England as illegal immigrants, they can then immediately go to a police station on arrival and ask for asylum. But they cannot live in Britain unless they first get there illegally. Then they can make a legal application for asylum – and 80% of them are successful. And whereas France takes months to deliberate over an asylum application, in Britain it is much quicker.
I drive Alexia to Boulogne because I have, in effect, stolen her car. On the way she says how ashamed she feels when she sees the migrants in Calais. And how her and her mother don’t really talk about this. Renaud says the same about his family – he doesn’t talk about what he does for these people. There is shame – the liberal bourgeois feel bad about the fact that a third world refugee camp is allowed to exist so visibly in France of all places – that children and their mothers go unprotected on the streets for 24 hours a day and that this most civilized of countries provides no shelter and no care for these genuine refugees, people who cannot return to their countries. Many who live in the Jungle testify to how much better it is than the daily fear of being tortured or killed and that they would never go back. All this makes it easy for Marine Le Pen, a far more sophisticated politician than Nigel Farage, to say that France is far too indulgent and respectful of people from far-off countries and conflicts – we can respect their values but how about defending our values – the right to work, to have a house, to get payment when you are out of work, to live in a house even if you have lost your job – how many millions of Euros is the government wasting on people who have nothing to give France except their dependency?
There is a kind of political vacuum into which these migrants fall – they are too explosive a subject for the left, an easy target for the right. They polarize debate. When I took a workshop yesterday with 70 pupils from a school in Hazebrouck, the teacher said that they are all afraid to talk about ‘actualite’ – what is in the news, now, concerning immigration. The local election posters are up everywhere and I see Le Front National with very solid looking citizens representing the party. In Calais, on first glance, I would expect them to get a large number of votes.
Later I drive to Le Touquet with its Hackett of London outlet and its Aston Martin agency – it’s all boutiques and cafes and huge houses in the pines, well-off couples spending a few days away. Berck-Plage (where they filmed Diving Bell and Butterfly) is even nearer to Le Chartreuse but I doubt I will return – it’s an incredibly bleak resort, all white box-like apartments overlooking the sea, with their shutters closed.
Watched Ross Kemp Extreme World series this morning on Calais.
Extremely helpful, very clear and well explained by him, thoroughly researched, it really helped me to get the picture. His last line, as he gets the ferry back to Dover is, ‘I realize now how lucky I am’.
Met Renaud at 2.15 by Calais Gare. We went to Fort Gallio, a gigantic squat where many Eritreans were based. It is a vast area of open tarmac surrounded by a 20 foot high wall – thus providing shelter from the wind, if not the rain. There are only a few guys wandering around, getting water and clearing up – the site is quite orderly after the Jungle. But over a 1000 lived here and inside the old usine that is by the entrance. The graffiti and the giant drawings on the wall are a thing of beauty. The walls are brown with rust and they have painted a gigantic tree of life here – the local Musee d’Art Moderne (around the corner) should be cutting it out before it is destroyed. Graffiti in huge letters is everywhere – ‘bad things happen because good people do nothing’.
It’s interesting that the angriest and most active people are the retired middle-class – teachers and doctors and librarians who spend much of their time collecting clothes and trying to help the migrants – one angry retired teacher tells Ross Kemp he never thought he’d see mothers and children be unprotected and that his country could allow people to suffer so greatly without respect, care or due attention to their genuine plight. The angriest people are over 60.
Another wall saying is:
‘Stop violence against women. Women are human beings and the mothers of all our children’.
We were just leaving and a white van from SALAM drew up at the gates. From absolutely nowhere a queue of about 70 men formed. SALAM is a charity for migrants and a guy called Jules Giles was handing out boxes of fresh veg and fruit to the heaving, pushing, just-orderly line of men. Renaud and I went back in and talked to an Eritrean from Paris called Ahmed. He has French papers but wants to look after the people here – he promises to introduce me next week to some young Eritreans. We exchange numbers. A woman from Birmingham is doing her photography project due to a connection to Salam but the minute she raises her lens to shoot, a young man says No to her very firmly. The men all hang out around the fruit and veg boxes and eat apples and chat and relax and look happy. Then someone says something, something they are waiting for, and there is an almighty scrabble for the boxes, a real push-and-pull and in less than a minute all the boxes and all of the men have disappeared into a vast empty hangar, the entrance to which Renaud and I have hardly noticed until then.
We drive onto an open camp behind a big furniture store on the edge of town , bordering the auto-route and the railway line. A perfect position for would-be stowaways. As ever, Renaud just strolls in as Jungle, his border collie, barks at all the birds overhead. ‘Border collie est cool’, says Renaud.
We sit down around a fire with 5 young Sudanese men. One of them speaks very good English and we chat. I am a bit overwhelmed with the sudden human presence of the evidence and feel my questions are pushy but I was watching the Extreme World of Ross Kemp 3 hours ago and I have a head-full of images and certainties. It’s difficult in reality to think of anything else to talk about than the sheer fact that they are living outdoors in very tough conditions with the sole purpose of getting to the place that you have just come from, on a ferry. It gets to you — you share the warmth of his fire where he is cooking a big pot of onions for five. I ask him if I can come tomorrow and interview him with a tape-recorder and he says yes and I think he means it. The five faces are all so welcoming and full of smiles and so weathered, so young and so deep black – these people have the power of black. Big strong open manly faces, no one, I think, over 26 or 27. All of them have been there for several months. In two days, their camp, so handy for escape, will be razed by the gendarmes and they will have to move out to the dune wilderness by Le Centre Jules Ferry, far out of town.
They must so wish that they escape TONIGHT.
Onto Le Jungle for the second time, so that I can meet a nurse that Renaud knows called Marie Jeanne and I can go on the medical rounds with her next week. She visits the Jungle, alone, every night, and fixes hurts, illnesses and injuries. She has an office job in the day.
Renaud and I get there and the place is like a vast rubbish tip. At the front everyone brings their pallettes, their branches, their wood to be transported to the New Jungle – this is all happening now, all the wood being strapped onto shopping trolleys, the migrants migrate to another section of the Calais wilderness, this time even further out of town. I will miss the clash between the gendarmes and the migrants at the weekend. Or maybe that won’t happen, the gendarmes certainly know by now to keep a lower profile. Opposite the entrance to the Jungle is a convention of middle-aged motor-cyclists and they are scornfully amused by the activities of the wood-carrying migrants and some of their local helpers.
When we sat outside with the Sudanese earlier in the afternoon, the fire was essential – it is an extremely cold and windy day today and fire is as necessary to the migrants as water.
We go into the Jungle then and as we walk around the hangar in which there are hundreds of tents in the most squalid conditions imaginable, we come out to a raised field – and there is a cricket match going on. Eleven men are in whites fielding and what must be …English ?! are batting – in helmets. I am speechless with surprise. ‘C’est baseball?’ asks Renaud. ‘NO, c’est CRIK-ET, Renaud – c’est notre sport national!!!’. I see some English types at the side of the makeshift field and I talk to David Charles who organized the 11 men to come out and play a game ‘very early, even in the French sporting calendar’. They have brought whites as gifts to the Afghans, and the stumps and the playing track. The Sunday Mirror is there and also Vice News in the person of three charming young English who are alternative and intrigued and have taken a day trip from London to see the match. It’s as if the Bright Young Things of Waugh or Huxley have become purposeful without losing their playfulness and humour. It is amazing to see these English types here – the ageing cricketers, the youthful journos, just their fearlessness and good humour and openness – these are qualities that would never allow a camp like this to exist because these Londoners see these migrants as people not un-people – it’s as natural to them to do so as to breathe. They look completely at home here on this freezing afternoon of cricket in a refugee camp that is about to be bull-dozed in France. Just so un-phased. They ask me why I am here and I say I am writing a play for teenagers about these people and they are very interested and give me their e mails and expect me to inform them and then they will send me the links to this group that has staged this event today – they have a spoof website called UKHIP…
Renaud then takes me to the ‘New Jungle’. A lot of houses face this area and they have put up huge fences so that the migrants cannot enter their territory. I see the migration of the migrants happening, all moved to the sand dunes by the out-of-town-by-7-miles Centre Jules Ferry that has shelter for women and children and loos for all – that shut at 8pm. And 3 taps. The gendarmes are out in force, doing nothing. A huge queue for food forms. When they have eaten, the young men re-join the queue and go round for a second time. I talk to Jules Giles of SALAM, and he explains that they can do this when there are 300 but not next week when there are a 1000. ‘Do you have an office?’, I ask as we arrange to meet. ‘We did,’ he says, ‘but the municipality burnt it down.’ I will find out more when I meet him next week.
Renaud and I have a beer together in rue Royale and I thank him deeply for taking me to so many places. Tomorrow I will be on my own.
I met Ahmed for five minutes when I visited Fort Gallio 2 weeks ago. I rang him and he said, ‘Hello, John’, which was disarming. We met at the station at 1pm and I did not know what he would want to do – I offered him a coffee and he said yes, and then said he would like a beer. Ahmed is an Eritrean who has lived most of his adult life in Sudan – he is clever with languages (Tisringa, Arabic, French, English) and paid for his university by being an assistant pharmacist. He is 42. He married in 2005. He has children of 9 and 7 and they live with their mother in Sudan. On the phone they exclaim, ‘Daddy, you are not in London!’ To get to Calais, which he did some 14 months ago and lived in a camp here for 2 months, he took the 8 hour crossing from Libya to Italy ($600, now $1000) with 80 others in the boat. It was rammed full but sometimes they take half as many more. He said he was very lucky. The water was calm and they all survived – they were picked up by the Italian Navy. He lost 5 friends the following week on the same crossing. He crossed into France at Nice and did not claim asylum in either Italy or France – where they first take your fingerprints is where you will always be returned to. After the two months of living outdoors, he claimed asylum in France and went to Paris for a year. He couldn’t work, so he studied French all the time and he now speaks great French – unusual for an Eritrean. His originality is to move back to Calais (of all places) to live, in a hostel. He has got papers for 10 years – this is a major scoop. He has handled himself very well. In 6 months’ time, he will get E500 a month and he hopes to become a translator. His is the long route – learn a new language, don’t get into trouble, be helpful and you get a passport. I am sure he will visit Oxford one day.
I go to the NO BORDERS demo but I can’t find it. No Borders are the radical people who got in there and opened up the original Jungle (there was no water, so they opened the fire hydrants, there was nowhere for the women to sleep, so they ripped the locks off an old hangar and opened it up). No Borders demonstrate to show that there are better locations than where the migrants are now – an abandoned rubbish dump by the motorway. No Borders has been active here for years – their leader recently super-glued himself to the doors of the Town Hall in protest at the treatment of the migrants and it took the medics and the police hours to prise him off. They have been responsible for bettering the conditions of the migrants for years and they continually high-light injustice.
Francois and Maya of L’AUBERGE DES MIGRANTS are a retired couple who work 7 days a week for very long hours outdoors as, amongst many other tasks, they find and buy and borrow thick plastic sheeting from a wide variety of supermarkets and garden stores. If you drive past on the Auto-route, you will see the new Jungle very clearly –the sheeting reflects the sun and it forms the core building material for the new encampment. As Maya says, ‘they have taken away these hidden people and put them where everyone can see them – I want to put up a huge sign that say WE ARE REFUGEES and we will become a sight for the whole world.’ The camp is very near the ferry port and there are 10 million people driving through Calais every year. Francois says he wants a huge giant up there but Maya cuts in to say that he must have a wife (like the Carnival Giants in Flanders I drove past last week) and he says, ‘Oh yes – perhaps a French wife?’ — and then I see that actually, two HUGE Angel of the North-type giants would transform the landscape and make this blighted scrubland, already with over a 1000 residents under plastic, into a world cultural sight – who to get there to build these giants? There is no shortage of labour.
The most famous cultural presence in Calais is Rodin’s statue The Burghers of Calais. Would not The Migrants of Calais be a fitting installation in 2015?
Ahmed spent the whole day with me and we got lost on the motorway trying to find the Jungle. At one point I drove him directly towards the check-out barriers for the Channel Tunnel and we turned right at the last moment onto a slip road and back into Calais. How weird for him. Ahmed says, ‘London is so near and so far, it is paradise, no, not really, but that is what everyone believes.’ A group of Eritreans from London had recently come over from London to talk to some of the young Eritreans in Calais to say that it is not as nice there as they believe. ‘But it does not make any difference — they still want to get there’, says Ahmed.
Ahmed spent an hour talking to some Afghans in the sun – there were various French people around – Secours Catholique (‘Brilliant people’, says Maya) and then Dum-Dum (Dominic), a retired Eurotunnel engineer, who works with his wife Nana to provide a generator so that the migrants can power up their phones, get the internet – ie vital Facebook and Skype – and listen to music. They are also there every day.
My feelings about Calais are changing as I get to know it better.
I like Calais Nord, where the 13th century watchtower is, where there are long terraces of small houses and low-rise grey apartment blocks with balconies and open stairwells – this is the area in which the fishermen lived before it was blown apart in 1940’s and where they still are. As you walk around, you come abruptly to a vast dockside, with fishing nets piled high and a neat row of permanent fisherman’s stalls – a couple are open on this beautiful evening and old guys are buying their supper. Look up to your right and there are the vast P&O ferries with cranes and huge signs saying Calais 6, Calais 7 – and there is a stream of big lorries emerging and making their way to every city in Europe. It is magnificent sight because the scale of this dockside easily embraces this giant operation and it simply part of the uncluttered panorama – beyond the dock and the harbour and P & O is the English Channel and, 21 miles further on is Dover, another, even bigger, operation – but with little in the way of strolling space around it.
The dock here is simply a street, rue Jean Pierre Avron, with, on one side, a row of bleached cafes and brasseries, on the other, the sea. It faces due west. At 7 pm the sun pours on to this scene and local people drink on the tatty outdoor chairs. I sit on a bench here in the sun for an hour until at 8 the temperature drops and I remember it is mid-April.
Just around the corner from here, 100 metres away, under the loading bay roof of a disused warehouse, live twelve Syrians. They have a row of little tents and they are very tidy – they sit out together on old chairs and an older man cooks rice on a gas ring for them all. He has some salvaged kitchen shelves and utensils and everything is kept in these and in cardboard boxes. He is the only one who admits to speaking English – the others come and have a look at me. The old man sees the tape recorder in my pocket and I have to show him it isn’t on – note to self – don’t get caught again. He is quite peeved to talk and I just don’t go away and am content to stand there in the road and to say nothing. He talks intermittently and I find him really hard to understand – but what he is saying is that people leave a lot of mess behind them and they don’t care. And I infer that people come here from the BBC and ITV and want to hear their stories and then just move on and leave ‘all this mess’ behind them because they don’t care. I think that he is commenting on how visible they are here and how anyone can just come along and ask them whatever they want.
Around the corner, is the 2nd group of Syrians; they are in the doorway of the L’Eglise St Pierre and they pretty well occupy a stage with signs all over it saying things like, ‘We want to live in peace’. There are about a dozen here and they all have their back to the church doors and thus look out onto the street – in effect, it is like twelve men in a giant bed. They are younger and more flamboyant than the other group – but you would have to be to live somewhere so visible. In the evening, people come to talk to them – a French woman is now joking with them – and they are feeding the pigeons.
These two groups of Syrians are unique in being allowed to remain where they are. Every other group has been pushed to the new Jungle. Perhaps they are allowed to remain there because they are so tidy, clean, well-organised – they are no problem to anyone. Francois believes they will not be moved. I am not so sure. I am going back to talk to them tomorrow, perhaps early in the day. It needs fresh energy to just hang out and not go away till they are happy to talk, till they trust your presence.
Hearing the news this morning of about 400 who drowned crossing to Lampedusa, I think that the numbers that will come to Calais may increase greatly. There are about 1500 here now – Francois says there were 2000 last summer – and they dispersed – he thinks that 400 got to England and I now have telephone numbers of two migrants who are living in England and who were in Calais last summer. I think the numbers will increase because I talked for half an hour to an Afghan boy, aged 18, called Tarek, who has been in Calais for 3 days. He did the crossing from Libya to Turkey when he was 15 (5 days without food or water – he said he thought he was going to die – he was sick until there was nothing left in his body – he was half-sleeping for much of the time, so weak — when all 50 of them got to the coast at 3 in the morning, it was 2 hours before the police came along – the crew had time to escape – and he said that he could only eat a biscuit but that he drank so much water so fast that he swelled up like a balloon – he said nothing ever tasted and felt as good as that) and lived in England for three years.
‘I love England. They care for me. I live with woman from Jamaica and she is my mother. I get education. Then I am 18, the English Government say I go back to Afghanistan, it is safe. It is not safe. Taliban kill my father, they kill me.’
He went back to Italy for 2 months, because that is where he first claimed asylum, where his fingerprints were first taken after that sea journey when he was 15. He was in Milan, but he wasn’t happy there and he is determined to get back to England – where he will claim asylum again. Why?
‘In my country they fight, fight. Fight – why? – why? – why they fight? I don’t want to fight. I want education.’
I think there are a lot of young men who are not interested in fighting in countries where there is fighting all the time and where the violence is terrible – Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea – and they want what Tarek wants – education, a job, a country where people respect you if you work hard. Ironically, there is another group of young men in England who are very unhappy with what England has to offer and want to become Jihadists. Some are running from war and refuse to go back and other young men are passing them, heading in the opposite direction.
So the numbers we see now may only be a trickle in comparison to the flood that may yet come from the Middle East. I am not thinking about the world exclusively in terms of young men but there are people who want to be warriors and as many who don’t and the vast majority of the migrants in Calais are men, mostly young men. Tarek has already tried to get on a lorry to England three times in as many days and he shows me the torn skin on his hand – the man he was with the night before was 55 years old and he lost two fingers trying to jump onto a moving lorry and is now in hospital.
The day started at 9.00 having breakfast with Tim from No Borders. He lives in a caravan outside the gates of Fort Galloo. His main activity is to repair and salvage bicycles for the migrants and he covers the flat blown distances of Calais on his bike. ‘I want to give every migrant a bicycle’. He has a couple of young women with him who are also eating jam sandwiches, one English and one French. I am not very welcomed by the young Englishwoman and he is soon saying that you can read all he has to say on the website. But he shares the whole sliced loaf and the jam with various migrants who come out and are grateful for his friendliness and generosity. There are only a few left in this compound but they walk down to the end of this little residential street and go off to town to do whatever they do in the day. The migrants amaze me how tidy and presentable they make themselves – if you see the conditions they share – one tap in Galloo for all and nowhere to put any of your stuff safe and no toilets and no electricity. Yet they walk off into town at 9 as if they were coming from a Youth Hostel. I walk around Galloo again but I find it so depressing.
In Boulevard Lafayette I talk to a young Sudanese who speaks perfect urban English – he has never been to England but he says he had a great English teacher. He is with three other Sudanese who don’t speak English but they are all drinking beer from cans and it is 10.30 in the morning. They are incredibly visible on this square as outsiders. At lunchtime, I sit in the park and there is a rough group of very young Egyptian men – they shout a lot and trample the edges of the flower beds. I pass a group of about a dozen young Ethiopians walking through Calais Nord who have the glamorous look of urban warriors.
I go out to the Jungle at 1pm and just hang out by my car. It’s very hot. There is no one else there. I watch a man-hole cover in the road disintegrate bit by bit as cars and lorries drive over it. It’s when I am standing there that Tarek comes up to me and says hello. Everything happens here. A group of officials arrive and get out of an Espace. They go off in to Le Jungle in their suits, a little way. The driver has a piss as if no one can see him. All the time very big lorries are coming off the motorway which is 30 metres away above my head – I am at the foot of an exit. SALAM turn up to distribute food. A young middle-eastern guy arrives in a car and gives out dozens of pieces of meat in polythene – a lot of Afghans come out to get some of it. I decide to walk into the Jungle myself and to see if I can get to the Jules Ferry Centre, a kilometre away, which is now supplying one meal a day to the migrants and allowing all to have a shower. The time for a shower given is 4 minutes each. The migrants said yesterday that that is too short so the director of the Centre has raised the time allowed to 6 minutes. Maya explains to me that, relatively speaking, this is amazing progress in terms of French bureaucracy and the migrants.
I walk across the sand dunes, it is a sort of moonscape here. It is easy to find the way because the Afghans are all walking across there with plastic containers to get water from the tap at Jules Ferry. I walk in silence with a bearded man in his 30’s. Once we are by the centre there is a lot of activity – CRS, as ever, mostly in their van on this hot day (as they are by the port terminal with no shade at all) and more officials coming to see the centre. Every shower is in use all the time and there is a long queue for the evening meal.
I walk back the way I came and stop by an exceptionally well grouped set of tents, like a miniature condominium in plastic. There are three young Sudanese and a French woman called Marianne and a Scot called George. One of the young Sudanese is very handsome and he is flirting a lot with Marianne – they are playing language games and just passing the sunny afternoon with mini-high fives and fist-to-fist touches. George and Marianne have been helping out in the Jungle, and with these residents in particular, for the last two months. Marianne recalls how terrible the weather was on the 31st of March when the old Jungle moved to the new – it was a tempest blowing and no one could put up their tents and many slept outside. George and Marianne have heard they they will put up a vast fence all around the new jungle but Francois says that is a myth – they might put one up along the motorway to prevent motorists seeing the Jungle but not around this new tent city.
I feel that I have seen quite a few like these two – people who are very attracted to the instability of these migrants and to the fluid situation that they are in — there is a certain migrant chic. If these people are ‘heroes’ for those as sophisticated as Francois and Maya, then they are certainly that for Marianne or the young women who didn’t want me around this morning at Galloo. And the fact that they are rejected by the French establishment, that they are ‘illegal’, that they do not exist when they most certainly do, the desperate nature of their situation , their courage in their nightly attempts to escape – all these factors make, for some, an afternoon in the Jungle a stimulating alternative to the conventional life.
The young Sudanese man said to me;
‘They call it The Jungle. There are no animals here. We are the animals.’
I finally interview Francois for an hour and it’s great what he has to say. He is 63 and was an activist when he was a student. All these pensioners are so tanned by living outdoors all the time and fit from carrying so many palettes and sacks of onions and potatoes and huge rolls of sheeting. We sit in the car, where I have parked it all afternoon and the hole in the road in front has become a serious hazard. The municipality are there arranging cones and then a very big lorry gets its wheel stuck in there – after 5 minutes, with a great noise and great shaking, it gets free and provides some amusement for a few migrants watching. In the middle of the interview, the sub-prefect of Calais turns up with a posse — we both get out and shake hands with everyone. When we get back in the car, Francois observes that, ‘it is not against the law now to help migrants – it was until a few years ago – you were ‘implicated in trafficking’’. They clearly all know and respect Francois. As they should – and, he tells me, he was, until three years ago, the regional director of some twenty agricultural colleges.
As I drive in on the Autoroute, I see a queue of lorries going back a mile along the approach road to the ferry terminal. I can see migrants flitting about on the side of the motorway, painfully visible to every lorry driver. Maya says, ‘It’s Thursday. It’s the busiest day’. Later, at the Jungle, I see young men returning home after having failed to get on – they are clearly tired and at the end of an adrenalin cycle. I interview one who was under the carriage of a lorry for 7 hours and got through the French customs only to be sniffed by an English dog, caught and sent back to the French side. He shows me his hands, covered in grease and he is exhausted and incredibly disappointed. ‘Why? Why? Why?’
I hang out by the Afghan zone underneath the motorway and young men come up and ask me if I have shoes for them. Maya gives them tiny green tickets with a shoe symbol on them and tells them to go to Secours Catholique on Saturday. The Emmaus van arrives and distributes mattresses. A man hovers into view pushing a full shopping trolley the final section of his 4 kilometre walk from the supermarket; fresh bread and soft drinks for the Afghan shop.
Five pompiers appear having been deep into the camp to check the level of hazard in this jungle. Then a man appears over the bank where I am parked with 5 large plastic containers for water to go the kilometre to the tap at Jules Ferry – he will have to find a car to give him a lift back, or a team of 4 men – you see poles slung across shoulders used to carry water long distances. He says to me, ‘This is my life. Live Jungle. Sleep Jungle’. Then a boy comes up to report that his friend got on a lorry going the wrong way, so jumped off when it was moving fast and he has broken his leg. He is sitting by the motorway with his phone. Maya tells him to find out exactly where his friend is and she then calls the emergency services who look at every section of the autoroute on their TV monitors (while she is on the phone to them) and spot him. He will be in safe hands soon.
I interview Maya for an interrupted hour – the Afghans here come to her for everything. From this, I find myself talking to two young men who have both lived in England from the age of 15 – the one I talk to most lived in South Harrow and worked with a Pakistani butcher. ‘The night I come back, I go to my job’. He has therefore got to England, lived there, worked there, his papers ran out when he turned 18, he stayed on until the police caught him and told him they would send him back to Afghanistan. He then went to Italy where he has asylum. Many of the Afghans go back to Italy but there is no work, no language training, no home for them. It is the fact of no work that drives them back to Calais to once again try to smuggle in to England. Every time they talk about England they smile – this guy lived with a family who looked after him very well. After all, he was only 15 when he got to Dover. So they have decided to return to England because it is the only place that they can work – England for them without papers is better than everywhere else with papers. And they speak English.
I meet Ahmed at 1pm and he introduces me to Mohamed, a very handsome Sudanese man of 26, about 6’ 2’’, very powerfully built. Ahmed asks for a beer and Mohamed asks for ‘un verre de champagne’.
Mohamed was a 2nd year student in IT at the University in Darfur and he agreed with his mother and father, three sisters and younger brother that he should be the one to escape illegally from Sudan and make the journey to Europe. He travelled for 10 days to cross the Sahara to Tripoli, the first six in the dark of a lorry and the last four on foot. There were 65 of them and they all paid money to a smuggler. I have his story in detail as, later, he agreed to let me tape him. Like Ahmed, he was smart enough to find the hostel after a few days and he has a bed and two meals a day. He says the worst time of the whole journey was the 5th hour of the crossing to Sicily from Libya when he felt certain that he was going to die. The journey on land had been dangerous enough – they know that if someone opens the back of the lorry they are dead. After the boat, the journey from Catania and then to Calais where he thought he would try and get to England. On tape, he says, ‘…to London, the capital city of the United Kingdom, the most good place in the world, I love London…’ ‘Why?’, I say, ‘if you have never been there?’ ‘Ah, we see it on films and on the B…B…C…I love the BBC. I love London.’
Apart from the possibility for so many to work ‘under the table’, to find work when they cannot find work in other countries, it seems that England also exerts a mythical attraction to those who have not been there – as well as to the many I have met who have been there. But Mohamed has made a very sensible decision, the one that I would hope that my son would take in the same situation: he is going to apply for asylum in France. He will get two months free language lessons and maybe he will do what Ahmed did; he will help an old person for part of his day, an old person who can only speak French – so Ahmed is now fluent in French after one year. If Mohamed is successful, he will also become fluent and get papers for ten years. Then he will have a French passport and be able to go where he wants – and he will be free to bring his family to France. It will take longer than jumping a lorry but he feels that he has been given several lives already and he does not want to risk it again going to England.
Ahmed and I go to Le Jungle and we walk right into the camp, walking towards the Centre Jules Ferry, where everybody is going for their water and their showers. Ahmed says ‘Salaam’ to many of the tents and we are invited in and we sit around a small fire made inside an old breeze block in which a plank is slowly burning. It’s very cold and the wind whips through the makeshift kitchen. One says that only one out of a hundred migrants are getting through to England.
‘The French police blind you for a couple of hours with gas but the English police say, ‘…try again – there’s always a next time.’
We walk on to the centre and we stop by some Sudanese building a house of wood. It has a roof and front door and it is made of heavy planks. It is permanent in comparison to all the others made of black plastic sheeting. When we walk away, Ahmed says, ‘I don’t want to do that. They are passing time and they will stay here and that is bad. You have to want to leave, not make it like your home where you want to stay. This is a bad place.’
I interview Ahmed in the car for 30 minutes and he speaks so well. His account of his own escape from the Sudan is very graphic and puts even more detail on the same journey made by Mohamed.
There is much ‘anonymization’ of migrants. These stories are precious and they are what I came here for.
I will return for another week or so in late July.
As we drive back and get into the queue of cars at the ferry port, I see a handler with a dog checking the lorries for stowaways. The handler says, ‘I know immediately if there is someone in there because she just stops in her tracks. Sometimes there are 9 or 10 and then security come for the driver as well because they suspect that he is smuggling them. But if it’s someone on the axle, we let the driver go on’. I ask him if they have reports of migrants making it through. ‘Less and less’, he says, ‘we get most of them. Only those in the lorries behind the ones we stop when we find people – then they sometimes slip through. But it’s cat and mouse and we get smarter. Just as they do.’ In the distance I see a tan Labrador doing the same thing with another queue of lorries. ‘We check every single lorry now’. I ask him if he commutes to work on the ferry and he says that he lives in Sangatte for 7 days and then has 7 days at home. ‘It’s good that we are finding so few, that’s the idea – put them off trying altogether’.
Despite the number crossing the Med increasing, it makes me wonder if The Jungle will disappear in time as migrants realize that they cannot get across to England from here – and the journey is too long from other ports. This is what Australia has done – turned all ships back and so no one comes – is this now Fortress England?
I am auditioning actors for a play in London and I get a call from a number I do not recognize.
I call back.
‘Hello, John. You gave me your card. It’s Tarek. You remember? We talked…’
‘TAREK! Where are you?’
‘Congratulations – you made it! Wow! Where are you staying?’
‘With my friend. Can I see you?’
I am astonished that he has done it.
This will be the beginning of my play for The Unicorn.