Winter In Calais – Part 2: Survival and Escape
HIP Issue 55 carried a first hand account of the experience of a 22-year-old Iranian refugee entering the Calais Jungle camp last November. She, along with her mother and brother aged 17 lived there for two and a half months through the depth of the muddy winter. She continues her story….
Many of the cafes and other public places in the Jungle had their own private generators – there was constant noise from them from around 11 in the morning to midnight. But the shelters came without any cooking, heating or lighting facilities. For many, candles were often the only source of either light or heat. I initially asked for and obtained, on the grounds that we were a family of seven, a small gas cooker fuelled by sprays. Two sprays would cost five euros and each would last less than an hour, which we couldn’t afford. But later I got hold of a 50 kg gas canister which would last up to three weeks. We would run it all day to keep warm. At night we thought it too dangerous to keep it going while we slept, even though it was really cold and I would wear all the clothes I had – three pairs of trousers, a hat, gloves, etc . – to try to keep warm enough. A few nights we did keep it going, and took it in turns to stay awake to mind the gas.
Each ethnic area had its own kitchen from which free food was available, donated (I believe) by charities but cooked and distributed by refugees themselves. The Khurdish kitchen, called the Ashram, was particularly good, and I worked there to earn some food or other resources, but foodstuffs arrived irregularly and were not always allocated in an orderly way. A van once arrived from England with donated food for distribution. News of the van’s arrival flew round the camp with people shouting “line, line” meaning that we should form a queue for whatever was to be given out. But the back of the van was forced open, and a large stock of eggs ended up smashed in the mud.
A steady supply of clothes and basic accessories – toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo etc – was also available for distribution. Clothes, however well-made or fashionably styled, didn’t last long in the Jungle mud. As there was nowhere to wash them they tended to be worn for a week or ten days until impossibly dirty, then flung out. The rubbish heaps were full of them.
Most refugees had some kind of phone, and most cafes had battery charging points. A group of us would go. We would pay for one coffee, then all of us would get our phones re-charged.
Of course every refugee in the Jungle had only two aims: to survive, and to make the crossing to England. We had been told by our traffickers that we should only be there a few days, and they put us in touch with a local agent who was supposed to find us a lorry to hide and travel in, but we ended up waiting several weeks. In the meantime others around us were trying every night to find means of making the passage – with the help of traffickers if they had funds (or funders back in their country of origin), without help if they didn’t.
Some would disappear forever – we hoped it was because they had succeeded but we never knew. Others would be gone for two or three nights and then re-appear. Sometimes they said they had hidden in a lorry which failed to go across the Channel but emptied them out in another part of France or else in Belgium, Italy, Spain….and then they would have to make their way back to Calais and start again. There wasn’t really much to stop them. Even if they had to take a long train journey back without tickets they could either avoid inspectors as we did or accept a “penalty” notice, which both they and the inspectors knew was worthless. The worst that would generally happen was police arrest and a short period of detention which might entail some meals, showers and a much warmer bed as compensation for temporary suspension of the main aim.
It wasn’t entirely risk-free though. I was told that sometimes the police would drag people out of the backs of lorries and kick them. One man named Majid was taken to hospital after having his teeth kicked out and jaw broken in three places: he came back to the Jungle only able to feed himself by drinking through a straw. Another man I saw had had his ribs broken.
As it became clear to refugees in the Jungle that their chances of making successful escape were small and perhaps reducing, some became more violent. They lobbed pieces of wood onto the main highway running outside the Jungle zone so as to halt the traffic heading towards the port. Then, when the traffic had backed up stationary on the road, they attempted to storm some vehicles.
The police responded with counter-violence. They fired tear gas into the crowd at the side of the road. I was not among them, but the gas drifted immediately over the whole camp. Even where I was, perhaps 300 or 400 yards away, you could not see anything and people were coughing and crying. Then the police destroyed a large part of the camp, including an area which housed a church and a school, on the ground (I heard) that they wanted to impose an exclusion zone within throwing distance of the road. Numerous shelters were smashed up, even though they could have been removed easily without damage for re-location elsewhere.
In February the writer and her family were successfully trafficked to England, hiding in the back of a lorry. They have claimed asylum here. They were given emergency accommodation in Hastings for a short period in April. Much of the Jungle was bulldozed by the French authorities in March, but thousands of refugees remain encamped there, still hoping to get to Britain.