Despite the situation he was in, Hamza was all smiles and asked me about life in England. Obviously, he was all too aware that getting over the Channel was nigh on impossible. But I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his life would be just as hard even if he did manage to make it, says BEN COWLES
“You will help me, please?” asked the young Eritrean lad as he helped me carry a heavy iron wood burner through his informal refugee camp. “I need credit for my phone.”
The boy, who we’ll call Jemal, is in his early twenties and has been living in the camp near a small French village close to the Belgian border for almost two years.
“You can’t promise anything, I know,” he said, repeating a line I guess he’s heard a lot from volunteers these past few years. “But you will try? I need the internet. I need to contact my family.”
I didn’t ask him why he had fled his country. Somehow it didn’t seem right to turn up at his home and begin asking about past traumatic experiences.
It’s probably safe to assume that he fled what a 2016 United Nations Commission of Inquiry called his government’s “totalitarian practices” and “wholesale disregard for the liberty” of its citizens.
Unfortunately, the EU, Britain and France also have little regard for the safety and liberty of Jemal, or any of the other approximately 100 men and women from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia in his European favela.
I visited his camp with two Care- 4Calais volunteers, initially thinking we’d just hang out and perhaps teach some English, after we’d distributed some much needed supplies. But it turned out the teenagers and young men there were far more interested in the sim cards we brought with us.
The three of us jotted down their new mobile numbers and promised to pass on their details to a grassroots organisation called Phone Credit for Refugees and Displaced People, which provides £20 a month to migrants in Europe, providing them with vital access to contact their families.
It’s hard to believe that people within one of the richest countries in the world are forced to live in a muddy field, with no electricity or heating, in shacks made of wood, tarpaulin and corrugated iron, cut off from the world outside and reliant upon volunteers rather than government officials to provide their basic survival needs.
As we left the camp, I couldn’t get out of my head the image of the Iraqi Kurds I met the evening before while distributing food with the Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) on a side road near the old Dunkirk camp. Ever since that camp burnt down a month ago, the displaced people there have no shelter, are hounded by the police and move from place to place, seeking ever more dangerous ways to enter Britain.
“Hi, nice to meet you,” an Iraqi Kurd said to me with his arm out stretched as the food was being passed out by the volunteers. When Kuvan (not his real name) shook my hand, I felt his fingers sapp all the heat from my body. The food the RCK volunteers had given him was warm and delicious (I can attest to that). But wearing only knackered trainers, jeans and a jumper, he fidgeted the whole while we spoke to avoid the cold. With the hood pulled tight around his head and the sleeves wrapped around his hands, we stood in the drizzle, beside the van the RCK volunteers were using.
He told me about his three younger sisters and his computer science degree. He said Iraq was too dangerous and that there were no jobs and so he decided to try to find a better future in Britain. “I go on shipping container on boat, in the dark, for three days from Turkey to Italy with two friends.” He smiled at my dismay.
A couple of cop cars, riot police and Gendarmerie vans drove past while we were there for no other reason that I could see than intimidation. We were just people eating by the side of a public road, many of our number were destitute and dishevelled; we were hardly going to lead a migrant march on the Bastille. Their presence made some of our Middle Eastern friends anxious.
I asked Kuvan what it was like here in Dunkirk now that his former home had burnt down. “The French police, no good,” he said grimacing at one of the cop cars as it drove past. He told me how in France, the cops didn’t believe he was 16 and threw his papers in his face.
Not knowing all the English words, he half explained, half mimed to me how most nights the police chase him and his compatriots about the outskirts of the city and pepper spray anything they drop, like blankets, clothes, food and belongings.
Everything I heard from Kuvan and many other displaced people in Dunkirk and Calais I spoke with corroborated with a report published a few days before on child refugees in Northern France.
In its report, called Six Months On, the Refugee Rights Data Project says: “96.5 per cent of minors [that they surveyed] had experienced police violence in the area,” and that “79 per cent had experienced tear gas, 56.8 per cent other forms of physical violence, and 21 per cent verbal abuse by police.”
One of the cop cars came back and a deaf boy Kuvan was travelling with grew nervous and desperately signed to his friend to stop talking with me and leave. We said goodbye and I watched the two of them walk towards the underside of a bridge. With no shelter to speak of, I wondered how long they could last like this.
It’s clear the French policy in northern France has no other purpose than to break the spirits of the migrants who they can’t catch or who would rather seek shelter in Britain. The politics of exhaustion is not working and seems to be having quite the opposite effect: making them ever more determined to cross the Channel. Worryingly, it seems to be entrenching a hatred of France.
On my first morning with Care- 4Calais, in a field near where the “Jungle” was before it burnt down in October 2016, I met Hamza (again, not his real name), a 17-year-old Afghan boy who’d been stranded there for several months after fleeing his country a year ago.
Despite the situation he was in, Hamza was all smiles and eager to practice his English. We talked about his journey to France and a little bit about his home. He asked me about life in England.
Obviously, he was all too aware that getting over the Channel was nigh on impossible. But I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his life would be just as hard even if he did manage to make it.
How do you tell such a boy about the Tory government’s lack of support; the refugees forced into destitution and homelessness; the immigration detention centres; the mass deportation flights; the “right to rent,” the ban on driving and the rest of Theresa May’s hostile environment policies; the incessant attacks they’ll receive on the front pages of the Sun, Daily Mail and Express; Britain First’s Facebook account; the casual racism they receive not just from the likes of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Katie Hopkins but from just about everywhere.
How do you tell him that Britain, which has long destabilised his country, is now willing to send irregular migrants back to Afghanistan but advises its own citizens, via the Foreign Office, to avoid all travel to most of the country except for a few provinces, which it advises against all but essential travel.
Care4Calais founder Claire Moseley is not optimistic about the future. “Since the camps closed down here, there are people living in the streets with no water and no sanitation,” she tells me. “In Calais yesterday afternoon [Wednesday May 3 2017] the police came and shut down a volunteer food distribution. There was a lawyer there who told them they couldn’t do this, but they did it anyway.
“The outlook is depressing. I see no change. A lot of the future here is dependent on the French election. Europe’s response is getting worse and with the warmer weather, more migrants are likely to cross the Mediterranean. But Europe’s concentration on deterrents and security has been shown to do nothing but cost lives. And the treatment of these people is just getting worse.”
I went back to the camp on my last day in northern France before making a journey the displaced there couldn’t. I got speaking to two gregarious men from Pakistan. They told me that they used to run a famous restaurant in the Jungle called the Three Idiots.
“We visited the the former site of the Jungle yesterday,” one of them told me in perfect English. “Of course, you can’t get in there now; it’s fenced off. It’s all flat ground. But we figured out where we used to run the restaurant. We got quite emotional.” He paused. Then, to his friend he added: “We had many good memories there, uh?” His friend nodded silently in agreement.
I asked him if he saw any hope here now. “I think so. If [Marine] Le Pen loses, then maybe we can stay here. And maybe the ‘Jungle’ will open up again. So, yeah. I think there is hope. At least, I hope there is hope.”
Ben Cowles is the Morning Star’s deputy features editor. You can tweet with him at @Cowlesz.