“Sudanese ? – No, Libyan. – Oh, sorry. – No worries.” Long goatee and rasta hat pulled down over his head, Amjaad smiles at the mistake of the person who addressed him. After all, it is not obvious. Libyans are rather rare among the 2,000-2,500 refugees who came to settle at the end of July in the “new jungle”, open since early April, in Calais. They are mainly Sudanese, Afghans, Syrians and Eritreans, all gathered in this slum area, tolerated by the authorities ; a first since the final closure of the Sangatte center in 2002.
This sandy piece of land, sprinkled with shrubs, is an old dump site located seven kilometers from the city center. The “end of the world” for most of the residents whose only means to get around is walking. Going to a doctor’s appointment, a clothing distribution, the Leader Price Supermarket, or the sub-prefecture… becomes a real expedition.
“It was a matter of ’take it or leave it’,” laments Vincent De Coninck, responsible for the mission for Migrants at the Secours Catholique-Caritas France in Calais. We had a discussion with the migrants and the associations. We didn’t feel that it was a good solution to “Ghettoize” the migrants to the outskirts of the city. At the same time, we had been campaigning for years to get a tolerated camp. We had requested several places to avoid clustering too many people in one place, which can be a source of tension. But the authorities refused this option, and threatened with eviction.
A strong wind lifts clouds of sand and dust into the air, inflates the small blue igloo tents scattered here and there, and slams the large black tarps fixed to the wooden shelters spread out everywhere between the dunes. It feels as if a stronger gust of wind could make everything fly away. But it holds tight.
A few hundred meters away, you can see the motorway and up there, the cars of the holiday-makers laden with luggage and bikes are heading south. The road is protected by barriers four meters high and topped by barbed wire. This installation was, just recently, partly funded by the United Kingdom.
I will be able to decorate my room
Crouched up, hammer in hand, Amjaad finalizes the framework of a future building that is being erected right here, in this main pathway located less than 100 metres from the mobile clinic of the “Medecins du Monde” (Doctors of the World). “Amjaad, he is the builder in the slum, says Jeremie, a young man from Calais who comes to the camp regularly to help out. With him we built over a hundred huts.”
Kits of “wood”, “tarpaulins” and “blankets” – for internal insulation – are distributed to the migrants by the Secours Catholique Team. “For the rest, we soon realized that most of them are very competent, says Pierre Gobled, head of the team of volunteers. We just keep an eye on them and give suggestions, but they know what they are doing.” He continues : “Sometimes when they are all done, they want to show us what they built. They feel so proud !”
The most beautiful building is undoubtedly this church whose steeple reaches over five meters tall. It was built by the Eritreans, not far from the grocery stores and the Afghani restaurants.
The fact that the camp is now tolerated by the authorities is no small feat. “For years, migrants have had to set up makeshift shelters that could be destroyed at any time by the police, said Mariam Guerey, host to Secours Catholique in Calais. Today, despite the harsh conditions, when you are no longer wandering around unsure of where you are going to sleep at night, it changes everything.”
She recounts an anecdote : “Last week I was in the car with a young refugee. I saw he was looking at a small plant I was planning to bring back home. I asked him : ’Do you want it ?’ He replied : ’Yes, I will be able to decorate my room’.” She laughs. “That is new ! Like when they invite us for tea or lunch !”
The Council of Migrants
Facing Amjaad, Yasser, an Egyptian carpenter, finishes digging one of the four holes where the pegs will be inserted to support the new structure. Around them three Sudanese are already in position, ready to raise the frame. Passing by, Vincent De Coninck joins in to land a hand. “This will be a meeting place for those in exile and associations,” he explains.
A few meters away, a large tent was originally intended for this purpose. We can still read on it “Voice of Refugees”, in large blue letters on the white plastic canvas. But a group of Syrians in need of shelter took over the place. “This time, we will put a door and correctly identify the place as a meeting room,” clarifies Vincent.
Every Friday afternoon, representatives of the associations and of the many groups represented in the slum will meet to assess. The goal : to continue, as part of a Council of Migrants, the collaborative work that had already begun several months before the creation of the present camp.
“We had noticed, in the context of the micro-project we set up with migrants, that when we started from ideas that are theirs, and we took time to prepare it with them, we accomplished beautiful things. The idea is not so much to do it ’with them’ but to start from their suggestions,” says Vincent. Smiling, despite the tiredness you can see on his face, he adds : “It takes time and pedagogy.”
We have to recruit representatives. “Trying to discern in each group who is the leader, while ensuring that he is not a smuggler.” Convince them of the importance of these meetings : “It’s really when we got the authorities to install water points, rubbish bins and electricity, that the migrants have realized the value of all the work we did together”, recalls Vincent. The launch of the “Emergency operation” also played a role. “Finally, we had something concrete to offer them.” The idea of these meetings is to talk about the policy issues such as the Dublin Agreements and the asylum request, in order to transmit upward the word of the migrants. “But it is hard for them, there again, to see the benefit when they are told that it will take years to change.”
Finally we must ensure that what was discussed during the meeting is properly passed on.
Vincent evokes other constraints, there are many : the language barrier which requires the presence of translators ; the living conditions of the migrants and refugees, which looks more like survival mode ; the large turn over in the camp – “We especially had two Afghans and one Pakistani that were great, but they moved to England, so you have to start all over again every time” ; and the difficulty in reaching some communities : “The Ethiopians and Syrians, for example, are mostly focused on the crossing. They see less interest in investing in the camp. Besides, we found that they build very little.”
Today the Council of migrants has a dozen representatives. “For 2,000 to 3,000 migrants present in the slum, it is not a lot, Vincent admits. But, knowing that each group has an average of 50 people, this is potentially 500 or 600 people that are reached. It becomes interesting.”
We are still in our beginnings. Mariam was a bit disappointed by the lack of participation at the funeral she attended yesterday. A few days earlier, Houmed, a young 17 years old Eritrean, who had been in Calais two days, drowned on the Eurotunnel site.
“Only those of his group came, says Mariam. I wish others would have come, that there was more solidarity.” She imagines, in the future, having information boards updated daily in several languages that can be displayed in the future meeting room.
Abderraouf is one of the pillars of the Council of exiles. “It was important to have a meeting place for us and the associations to get together,” asserts the Sudanese student. A place where one can talk about the needs and problems in the camp, which can also be channelled to the government. “Finally a place where you can meet quickly if need be, to ease tensions.”
Fights break out sometimes : “These are not inter-ethnic disputes, says the young Sudanese. These are quarrels due to alcohol, fatigue, promiscuity, the poor living conditions… which start on trivialities and can escalate if we don’t calm the situation quickly.”
But overall, “residents are pretty amicable with each other,” mentions Vincent De Coninck. “With limits, because many things cost money”, confirms Abderraouf. The young Sudanese has been stranded in Calais for the last five months. According to the Dublin Agreement, he should make his asylum claim in Italy, where he first set foot on European soil. The administration requires evidence of his fingerprints recorded there on his arrival. But for him, it is out of the question that he will go back there. “When we arrived in Italy, we felt as if we were in Darfur.”
Today, he says he gave up going to England, like many of his countrymen. There are about forty of them who have set out to learn French. “One day they came to us and said : ’We built a school, we’d like some teachers to come and teach us’” remembers Vincent. The idea is to be able to communicate more easily with the associations and the administration. “We don’t always come across people who speak English,” says the young Sudanese.
The classroom sits at the heart of the area that Abderraouf and his group have set up as “theirs”, along the dune, among the reeds and thickets. The “neighbourhood”, one of the most organised in the camp also has a collective tent to house newcomers, and especially a kitchen, an essential place in the organization of the “new jungle”.
In a nearby “neighbourhood” Khamis, Adam, Abdallah,Suleiman and Yaya sit around a makeshift wood stove : a barrel of gasoline cut and topped by a stainless steel pipe. A tin pot is heating up on the hot coals.
On each side of the stove : small plywood shelves on which are stored potato or onion bags, canned, oil, salt, tea bags… and an old radio. In the middle of the room : a small table made of Formica.
“Coffee ?” offers Adam, holding a green clay cup with a matching saucer. They all came from Sudan or Chad, after a perilous crossing through Libya and Italy. They have been in Calais eight days or ten months. Abdullah stopped in Paris before heading north. “I was sleeping under the bridge of La Chapelle but it was too hard. I decided to come here.”
Some will try the very same evening to go over to England, scooting in small groups of three, five, ten or fifteen, throughout the night, along the guardrails and railway lines, to the tunnel. And then ? “And then, we’ll see,” smiled one of them. Others, like Yaya and Abdallah, decided to try their luck in France. Yaya has an appointment in Paris in a week to be heard by the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA).
There are about twenty-five of them, living around this collective kitchen. They don’t those who built it. “They have already gone to England,” they assume. They organise taking turns doing the cooking, the washing up and the wood chore. “We take turns going to the city to collect clothing or food, and then redistributes to everyone,” says Yaya.
Kitchens, observes Vincent De Coninck, have the double advantage of being both anchor points from which to get organized in the camp, and friendly places “where you can create links.”
Even though “we are always bombarded with requests for shelter, said the head of the Secours Catholique, we would like to put a little more energy on this type of construction now.” A library project and gym are also in the pipeline.
“Creating communal places is very important, explains Vincent. First, because we realize that there is a need among the migrants for social life. It is not for nothing that they built five mosques, a church, two school and several restaurants. Then, because they are places of encounter, it allows people to get to know each other. And I hope that these living spaces will help prevent or ease tensions.”
July 29. Calais is today in the headlines. Le Figaro announced yesterday a record of 2,200 crossing attempts in the Channel Tunnel in one night. The debate always revolve around the security of the site. The Eurotunnel and the French State pass the buck to each other. Amjaad is waiting for the umbrellas that the Secours Catholique team went to get. The meeting room is nearly finished. The next Council of Migrants will held there. But the young Libyan will not join them. Every Friday afternoon, he accompanies another camp resident to the psychiatrist. “A guy completely destroyed by what he experienced, not easy to manage, says Vincent. Amjaad just took him under his wing.”
Trauma from abuse suffered, but also from the exile, the confrontation with death, the separation from their family… We can easily see the physical wounds of migrants, but the psychological wounds are often deeply undervalued.