Life in Calais is an endless cycle of displacement, followed by disappointment. I arrived here in July 2016. I didn’t have much choice: back in Afghanistan, the insurgent Taliban had put out a warrant for my capture, incensed that I had supported the US military. So I left my family and friends. I fled.
Shortly before I arrived, the notorious ‘Jungle’ had been evacuated following clashes with riot police: thousands of displaced migrants were displaced once again. They have been trying to find shelter in several places in and around the city ever since.
Often they seek refuge in abandoned barracks or wooded areas, finding shelter in makeshift tents covered with tarpaulins. There isn’t much point in building anything sturdier, since the police launch eviction raids every 48 hours. The camps aren’t hard to find: they constantly smell of burning wood, mixed with the odour of waste that the local authorities refuse to collect. When the evictions take place, people do not always have time to collect their personal belongings, leaving the ground littered with blankets, wet clothes, and children’s toys.
Following several large-scale evictions in the past year, the authorities have destroyed the bushes and forests where the displaced were sheltering. Huddled people have been replaced by fences, concrete walls, and surveillance cameras that carry a simple message: you must not return. Much of Calais is like a war zone, with people surviving under the fear of the police, the evictions, and the violence that can arise between the different communities. It is difficult to access food, water, and medical services. And then winter sets in; every day, rain and wind flood and destroy makeshift shelters and lives.
Most of the people waiting here have fled countries scarred by war. Among the 1,500 people here are Afghans, Sudanese, Iranians, Eritreans, and Kuwaitis. Most of them are single men, but there are also families with children and single women. All of them see at the 30km expanse that separates Calais from England as a source of hope.
They all have different reasons for wanting to get across. Some have family waiting over there; some are left with little choice by the Dublin Regulation system, which could send them back the way they came. Given that the UK is no longer bound by the regulation, the beaches of Kent seem an enticing prospect.
For those wary of crossing in the winter months, there are some accommodation options in Calais — the Centres d’Accueil et d’Examen des Situations (CAES) are partly financed by the British authorities. But they are not particularly suitable for those people who only intend to pass through. They are in towns far from Calais without public transport — not ideal if you want to try a boat-crossing and need to be available immediately if the weather is good.
When I arrived in Calais, I didn’t know where I wanted to go: perhaps to the UK, or even Germany. The decision was made for me. Within a few months, I met an Afghan friend in exile who invited me to stay with him in his flat in Toulouse, while a friend of a friend helped me negotiate the asylum process and secure accommodation in Paris. Within two years, I had refugee status, and frequently returned to Calais to document the migrant crisis with my camera.
Every visit is more difficult; every story is more haunting. Since September last year, the prefecture has issued more than a dozen decrees to prevent organisations not mandated by the state from distributing water and food in the Calais town centre. When, last October, a hundred volunteers tried to prevent an eviction from a camp in Calais in a peaceful manner, the police responded with tear gas.
But it’s not just the police who have created this tragedy. The main funder of the aid providers in Calais, Choose Love, has actually hindered their work in recent months. In May, it forbade the NGOs it funds from distributing leaflets that provide basic “safety at sea” lifesaving information. Organisations were told they had to sign a “Memorandum of Understanding” promising not to “carry out activities which risk breaching [UK immigration] law” — or risk having their funding pulled. Last month, Choose Love announced its withdrawal from Northern France, presumably under pressure from the Home Office.
Choose love, they say, as long as you’re not in Calais.
The tragedy continues to unfurl in Calais. Without support from the French Government or British NGOs, the situation has become increasingly desperate. Although the Franco-British border has always been deadly — at least 336 deaths since 1999 — the last few months have been particularly grim. On 24 November, 27 displaced people, including children, drowned while trying to cross the Channel.
The week before, I had met several shipwrecked victims in Grande-Synthe, a town about 20km from Calais. Kazhall Ahmad was from Iraqi Kurdistan and was alone with her three children. She was exhausted; the police had evicted their camp that morning without allowing them to collect their belongings, and she had spent the past month desperately searching for water for her children. Despite their grim situation, the children were hopeful for their lives in England, dreaming of becoming barbers or art teachers. Whether they get there is a different question.
The shocking drowning in November of so many — the worst the Channel has seen since records began in 2014 — turned the spotlight back on Calais. It was the first time I had seen so many journalists in the area. The displaced people I spoke to took heart from this, hopeful that the media attention and the shock it has caused among politicians could make things better.
But if the past years have taught me anything, it’s that when it comes to meaningful action, don’t hold your breath. Over the past month, both French and British politicians have talked up the existence of legal routes and opportunities for visas. But this is nothing more than a distraction. Freedom of movement is a right for Western white people, not for those who are displaced like me.
On both sides of the Channel, governments accuse smugglers of being entirely to blame for the deaths of innocent people. In truth, it’s mostly the lack of legal and safe access routes to the United Kingdom that contributes to the development of these smuggling networks. The smugglers are a key part of the problem: they use people’s distress to make money; they put people in danger by overloading the boats; they lie to people about the crossing being safe; and when migrants refuse to take the boat, they are threatened and abused.
Such facts are inconvenient, though. It’s far easier for the French government to invest thousands upon thousands of euros strengthening border control systems and deploying a Frontex aircraft over the Channel. This militarisation of the border serves no purpose. It will not deter people from trying to cross. They have no other choice; they will continue to pass, but in a more dangerous and clandestine way.
And the smugglers will win, those who are displaced will lose, and the political class will look the other way.