AP Photo/Michel Spingler
Africa’s Refugees in Europe face major eviction from refugee settlement camp the Jungle of Calais, France.
“If I think about it, I will lose my mind” Khaled (real name withheld for security reasons) says, standing at the top of a sand hill, looking over the sea of blue, black, white plastic, mixed in with some darker coloured nylon.
“This is not a place, this is inhuman. You cannot treat human beings like this. I can’t think about it, I will go crazy”.
Standing next to him, I am overwhelmed by the sense of helplessness for what I see before me, and the sense of speechlessness that I feel toward his comment. I have no words.
In 2015, the debate around national borders and their relevance shifted to a focus on the refugee crisis that Europe was facing. Today, the notion of foreign policy is practically interchangeable with security policy; Schengen borders have been reinforced with layers of barbed wire, fencing and border guards and the number of refugee lives in transition continues to rise.
Of all refugee migrants that entered Europe in 2015, half came from Syria and the other half from predominantly African countries. The Guardian gives an estimate of the percentage of refugees coming from Eritrea (8%), Nigeria (4%), Somalia (3%) and Sudan (2%).
Many have walked away, or in this case, fled from, violence, poverty and hunger in their corruption-stricken African nations, which had once been signs of hope in the Western world. They have left their homes behind to “…brave the world’s deadliest migrant trail, across the Sahara and the Mediterranean, to Europe” says the Wall Street Journal; risking their lives in hope that one day they will reach peace, security and opportunity for themselves and eventually, their families.
Many of those who have reached Europe arrive at the destination that was earlier described as ‘inhumane’.
It is a place where people live in very limited spaces. Sometimes they are sheltered, most of them by tents that are barely standing, amongst piles and pits of mud, water, excrement and other human waste.
Perhaps you have heard of it.
It is on the edge of the European continent and has been on the news a lot recently; although drowned out by attention paid to Greece and Turkey during the crisis. It was once a nameless wasteland, an asbestos deposit site to be more accurate.
Today it has come to be known as the Jungle of Calais, the last stop for many migrants who are waiting to cross the channel to the UK. The Jungle of Calais is made up of a constantly fluctuating figure of people, some say between 4,000 and 9,000.
Every night, many of them walk to the main road that leads to the port of Calais, attempt to cross layers of thick fencing, hiding from the ‘gens d’armes’ (French police), slipping underneath trucks and behind them, risking their health, possibilities of any asylum opportunities, and lives, to make it across the channel.
One recent incident is a 16 year-old Sudanese boy who lost his life under the wheels of a truck, while exiting the tunnel in early December 2015.
Some are full of hope; others just need to get by.
A recent article by Pascal Hughes & Helen Spooner published in the Independent gives us an insight in to some hopes for the coming year.
Danny, 26, from Eritrea has been living in the camp in Calais for 3 months.
“I don’t hope for anything in 2016 because tomorrow is just another day. The 5 changes to a 6, you might write the date differently, but for me nothing will change. I fled Eritrea after being forced to serve in the in army for ten years when recruited at the age of 15. I had no choice but to flee – I would have been forced to fight until I died. I hoped I would gain the freedom to make my own choices in the UK, but here, in the jungle, I’m not free either.”
Mohamed from Sudan, 22 has been living in Calais for 10 months
“I hope that my hand will stop hurting. I tried to make the crossing on the train a few weeks ago, but the police caught me. They were very aggressive and broke these two fingers. I haven’t been able to see a doctor and I don’t think my fingers will ever look normal again. The police always seem so angry. Some nights, they throw tear gas from the road down into the tents. There are women and children here too. It’s not fair, where do they think we will go?”
‘Broken English’ is a common expression within the camp. Many of those who you ask will claim they speak it. When interacting with volunteers helping in the camp, camp residents help each other with translation, many of them having studied English at school or university in the countries they left behind.
Amongst these English speakers, a young Sudanese refugee explains to Africa Times:
“I have two books, one is the Quran and the other is the Bible. I do not have a problem with religion, I read the Bible to understand what others understand”
Having served us a hugely generous dish of tuna stew with Asseeda, as well as bread with beans and rice on a circular platter, he tells us about his past and his family that is still living in Darfur. I hear a tremble in his voice as he recounts what happened before he left Sudan.
He wants to study Political Science and has been waiting to cross the channel for about two weeks since he last tried it.
On the 12th of January, the Guardian reported that French authorities had threatened to bulldoze a third part of the camp, in an attempt to move residents in to the planned settlement they have begun to construct alongside it using containers to house families.
“Police have announced that they will destroy the homes of an estimated 1,600 people at the Calais Camp…” wrote Patrick Kingsley for the Guardian
The new container camp has been described as a ‘prison-like’ facility with no communal areas. This is in stark contrast to the unplanned Jungle, where one meanders amongst the tents and shelters, down David Cameron Street (yes! there are named streets) past restaurants, shops, a self-built mosque, church and cultural centre.
Not only are people worried about living in what seems like a makeshift detention centre, but more importantly, they are worried about the implications that accepting to do so will have on their opportunities to seek asylum in the UK.
This fear comes as a result of the Dublin Convention that became applicable on the 1st of January 2014. The Regulation is enforced to ensure that the responsibility of providing asylum falls on the country where the migrant first lands.
Migrants have few options; they are faced with threats of bulldozers on the one hand. And on the other hand, they are face with displacement to a new settlement. However most migrants see the move to the new camp as recognition that their presence in France will be permanent and therefore a provision of the evidence of their landing on French soil, which takes away any chance of claiming asylum in the UK. That is, if they ever reach it.
On a Wednesday morning, a couple of weeks ago, one of the volunteers leading our warm-up asks us to look up in to the sky and think of ourselves looking back down. What do we see? We see little dots of people moving around, in a great big world. What is important though, is that there is just one world she says, and we are all part of it, we all share it, no matter what our differences are.
In this frame of mind, the community leaders released a statement on the 11th of January about the eviction: “We, the united people of the Jungle, Calais, respectfully decline demands of the French government with regards to reducing the size of the Jungle. We have decided to remain where we are and will peacefully resist the government’s plans to destroy our homes.”
Nevertheless, it would appear that further displacement is now their fate. On the 15th of January French security forces announced that Jungle residents had until the 18th of January to pack up and move in to the formal container camp.
So whilst those of us who speak about refugees with apprehension for their situation and a desire to advocate for their defence in some way, are being insulted with rage and hostility by those who disagree with us; whilst events such as the atrocities of Paris, Cologne and Istanbul have clouded over our minds with gloom; there are those who have fled to Europe in search for peace and opportunity beyond the borders of the African continent; carrying their knowledge, memories, culture and loved ones with them, on their bare shoulders and in their hearts, arriving at a place where for a moment there might have been some hope for a better life.
But yesterday, today and tomorrow, these people are being forced to gather their things, pick up their shelters and half trodden-on tents, try and salvage any belongings they might have left and go… Where? Who knows?