Calais migrants: We'll ‘never give up' on the UK dream

Photo: Sam Ball / FRANCE 24 | Migrants demonstrate in Calais on Sept. 5, 2014

On an overcast September afternoon in Calais, a few dozen migrants and activists gather near the town’s docks. Some unfurl banners with slogans such as “Stop police violence”, “We are not criminals” and, simply, “Help”.


Under the watchful eye of the police and international media, they have come to demand, among other things, better treatment by the authorities and respect of their human rights.

“We are here to tell everyone that we need real solutions to the problems here. Problems like police violence, like having somewhere to sleep,” says Adam, a migrant from Sudan who helped organise the demonstration. “And we want to say to people in Calais don’t be afraid of us, we are not criminals, we don’t want to cause them problems.”

Calais’s migrant problem has been making headlines in France and the UK for years. But the number of migrants in the city, currently hovering around 1,300, has swelled in recent months and tensions are rising.

In May, police forcibly cleared three migrant camps in the city in a move denounced by local rights organisations, while on Tuesday this week Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart threatened to shut down the port unless the UK did more to help with the situation. Two days later, scores of migrants attempted to storm a ferry headed for the UK.

Anti-immigrant sentiment among locals is increasingly common, says Honami Kobayashi, an aid worker originally from Japan who came to Calais to help distribute food.

“There are people here who hate the migrants,” she says. “They vandalise aid workers’ cars for helping the migrants.”

‘We just want a better life’

All along the Rue des Garennes, a road that passes through a sprawling complex of factories and warehouses close to the port, groups of men, women and children gather by the roadside.

Some have been here for hours already and are prepared to stay for many more as they wait for a chance to sneak aboard a passing lorry destined for the UK, a place they believe will offer them the chance of a new life, of work, housing and regular food.

“Sometimes we'll go two days without sleep trying to get on a truck,” says Khaled, from Sudan, as he sits on the roadside with around ten of his countrymen.

Boarding a lorry is dangerous work and injuries from traffic accidents are common. And even once on board, the chances of making it to the UK undetected are slim. Khaled has already tried and failed dozens of times.

Migrants walk past lorries on the Rue des Garennes in Calais
Migrants walk past lorries on the Rue des Garennes in Calais

Capture by police, he says, often means a dose of pepper spray or a few blows from a truncheon. The worst case scenario is being taken to a detention centre, several kilometres away, where the migrants are usually held for a couple of days before being released.

“It means we have to walk sometimes four to five hours to get back here,” he says.

Sudan is a common place of origin for many of Calais's migrants, but a host of countries are well represented here: Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, to name a few.

Many have travelled for months, or even years, to get to this point.

Khaled's two-year journey to France took him through Libya and Egypt then by boat to Greece, where he spent three months in jail, before a 36-hour trip in the undercarriage of a lorry as far as Italy and, finally, France.

Everyone's intended final destination is the same: The UK.

“We have many friends there and they tell us people there will help us, give us places to live,” says Khaled.

His hope is to continue his studies in computer science, which he was forced to give up when he left Sudan.

“We just want a better life,” he says.

‘No rights in France’

Many of Calais's migrants have similar aspirations. An Ethiopian man who gives the pseudonym Jackson, unwilling to reveal his real name, also wants to study when he reaches the UK. His journey to France included a perilous crossing of the desert from Sudan to Libya.

“We left with 30 people, only 15 made it to Libya,” he says, “The rest lost their lives from thirst, hunger.”

He would stay in France to study, he says, but the system here makes it an impossibility.

“There are no rights in France,” he says. “If you want to get a visa, you have to wait four months and in the meantime you have nowhere to go, no money, nowhere to sleep.”

Like most of the town’s migrants, Jackson has made a makeshift home in what is known locally as “Jungle 2” – a city of tents and tarpaulin shelters in the woods next to Rue des Garennes. The original “Jungle” was located a few hundred yards away before police cleared it out in 2009.

Jackson has only been in Calais for a month. Others have been here far longer, like Najib, a former journalist from Afghanistan, who left his home three years ago and has been in France for the past 12 months.

He leads the way to his tent deep in the woods. Next to it is an improvised cooking area where he and two Afghan friends prepare some tea. The water is boiled in a pan over a fire of twigs collected from the wood.

The area known as "Jungle 2", home to hundreds of Calais's migrants
The area known as "Jungle 2", home to hundreds of Calais's migrants

Najib speaks a little English, as well as a little French, Italian and several other languages he has picked up on his journey to Calais.

“I've been to Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Belgium, Holland ...” he says. “Greece was the worst, the police there were really tough. Now I'm going to London.”

‘Dire need’

Living conditions in Jungle 2 and other camps and squats around Calais are getting worse, says Isabelle Bruand, regional coordinator for Calais at the charity Médecins du Monde, which helps migrants get access to medical care.

“Before in places where you had 15 people living, now there are 200,” she says. The growth in numbers is partly seasonal, with more people travelling in the summer months, but also a result of growing conflicts in places like Syria and Libya, says Bruand.

The migrants largely depend on charities and local activists for things like health care, tents, food and other essentials.

Catherine Konforti works for the charity L’Auberge des Migrants, which helps provide food and other aid to the migrants.

Today she is meeting migrants at a disused gym next to Jungle 2 that has been turned into a squat. Inside, tents and sleeping bags line the floor of what used to be a basketball court. Clothes are hung out to dry on the tennis net.

“The people here are in dire need,” she says. “They need basics: food, blankets to keep them warm at night, tents.

“Sanitary conditions are also a big problem. We and other charities have installed toilets but there are only around 20 for 600 or 700 people."

"We also help provide showers but there are only around 100 available a day for more than a thousand people so many can’t even clean themselves, it’s not good for their health.”

A former gym in Calais now used as a shelter by migrants
A former gym in Calais now used as a shelter by migrants

The local government does very little to help and charity workers often pay for supplies out of their own pocket, says Konforti, while she describes the clearing of the camps earlier this year as “senseless and horrible”.

However, she has sympathy for the police.

“People are exasperated with the situation, including the police. They can be unfair sometimes but they’re not bad people. When you have so many people trying to get on the lorries every night, sometimes the police can lose their temper, it’s only human.”

The UK should also be doing more to help with the situation, she says. “The British government should be here to help people get papers, help with asylum requests here. Why should these people have to go to the UK to do it.”

Despite the various hardships of life for Calais’s migrants, they are often resolute, and remarkably optimistic, in their pursuit of their dream of a better life in the UK.

Back on the Rue des Garennes, Khaled says he will not be deterred from making the final leg of his journey.

“Five, seven, ten times a day we'll try to get on a lorry for the UK,” he says. “You have to keep fighting, never give up.”

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