Text and photos by Matthias Canapini* – Unimondo**
Delia did not budge an inch. Bar Hobbit remained in place, despite the pressure. “The numbers are down. The security decree is already creating an army of irregulars. Three weeks ago, a pregnant woman with a baby in tow paid 400 euros to a passeur, only to be chased by the gendarmes and left alone at the border. At night. Despite the risks, the complaints and the tears, it is essential to be there and to do good. It is necessary to imprint in the minds of refugees as many good moments as possible, so that they forget the misery and humiliation. I hope that today’s children, when they grow up, will also remember the good things they encountered along the way”.
Wahid (‘one’ in Arabic) is the first client of the day, just 31 years old. “I used to work in resorts with Europeans, Americans and very rich Asians. Who would have thought they would end up on the streets or sleeping in cold rooms where no one asks you how you feel or what your name is. I was spending money and having fun, I thought it would never end! I used to organise trips with quads and camels between the Sinai desert and the Red Sea, starting from the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh. With the coming to power of Al-Sisi, who has held Egypt hostage for years by systematically destroying any form of internal opposition, I decided to leave. I worked for a while as a receptionist in an Italian restaurant in Cairo, then, thanks to my savings, I flew to Naples. A friend of mine, an electrician, took the Libyan route for lack of money and almost died. The poor still eat sand”.
I travelled by coach through the glitter of Monaco, bivouacked on the pebble beach of Nice and finally landed in Marseille, in turmoil because of the anti-government protests of the Gilets Jaunes. In Harraga, they sleep under sumptuous shop windows, where carpets and textiles typical of Fes or Djerba, two of the main European tourist destinations in the Maghreb, are abundant.
The white cliffs of Dover are lost in the glare of the English Channel. At its narrowest point, 34 kilometres of salt water separate Britain from continental Europe: a forty-minute ferry ride. At the same time, the docks of Calais are encircled by sheet metal and fences, where a young Eritrean man, caught in barbed wire, shouts for help to passengers who have just disembarked. “London, London! Where are the ferries going? From London! Are you sure this boat goes to London?” the Eritrean’s sclerotic cries fade into the void.
The headquarters of Care4Calais, a charity that assists economic migrants and refugees in transit through northern France, are two huge hangars next to a Renault dealership. Volunteers come from London, Dublin, Cardiff and Paris. Boots, jackets, soaps, socks, donated from everywhere. Fine sand hits the yellow bars of the warehouses. Hot tea to shake hands and listen to David, Israeli, four white tufts on his head, 22 years old: “I’ve been working in Calais for about two years. I arrived after the eviction of the Jungle (at the time the largest informal camp in Europe), where 10,000 migrants and refugees lived from January 2015 to October 2016.
The operation involved hundreds of officers, including bulldozers that razed the squatters’ encampments to the ground. The aim was to remove 5,466 people (but it is estimated that the actual number was over 7,000, including 1,952 minors) and distribute them among France’s 301 reception centres. With the recent emergence of several squatter settlements, the situation is once again alarming. Humanitarian organisations estimate that 700 people are living there, sleeping in tents and makeshift shelters in the middle of winter. Those camped in Calais and Grande-Synthe try to get on lorries bound for Britain: there have been deaths among those who hide under the lorries or climb on their roofs, only to fall to the ground or suffocate. Last month, one of the victims was a 15-year-old boy.
Paris and London have developed a tighter surveillance system, entrusted to the French police, to deal with the congregation of migrants in Calais, while the UK has funded a wall one kilometre long and four metres high, in addition to the barbed wire fences and grids along the access road to the port. A project that cost the British exchequer 2.7 million euros. I don’t know which borders you’ve seen, but the one in Calais is the most heavily fortified. The police here are brutal and with the latest restrictions the success rates (i.e. successful jumps) have dropped dramatically”.
Janett Jenkyn-Jones, 65, artist, teacher, world traveller. “In the 1980s I lived in the Chinese district of Honk Kong with three small children and four farm animals. From 1986 I worked as a labourer with Vietnamese migrants. The faces I see in Calais today are the same faces I saw every day in Asia thirty years ago. It’s full of smugglers who promise a safe journey, but whoever arrives here still faces an almost impregnable fortress and thirty kilometres of strictly patrolled sea,” the woman says, sobbing. She swallows a large glass of white wine and continues: “Usually women and children find shelter or refreshment in Brussels; only single men and boys come here. Yesterday I met one who said he was 27, then 18, then admitted he was only 14, with two teenage moustaches.
Very few want to stay in France. Those who reach Calais want to go to England, sometimes to Ireland. We count waves of refugees, but the causes are upstream, at the origin, the abyss lies in Syria, in the Iraqi suburbs, in the palaces of Kabul. As long as the West bombs, they’ll flee, it’s a vicious circle. I have seen many get humanitarian protection in England, but the climate of hostility does not help”.
Together we visit Usman Bèc, 22, a Gambian. The prison guards interview the visitors for half an hour. The small room is damp and sunken, with no windows. “I dropped out of school and fled Gambia when I was 17. My father was a policeman and was killed in revenge for the riots that broke out after the so-called ‘April 2000 student massacre’, in which fourteen people were killed during a protest in Banjul. My dream since childhood has been England. I know it is my destiny. More than Libya, it was difficult to cross Niger and Burkina Faso. I lost many friends: some killed, some imprisoned, some lost in their own minds. Then I crossed the Mediterranean without incident, spent three weeks in Lampedusa, another three in Italy, and finally two days to reach the jungle by train via the Ventimiglia corridor.” Usman was caught by security guards on the ferry to Dover, curled up in the back of a lorry. He will be deported to Italy on a chartered flight.
It may not be widely known, but one gets the impression that Germany, Austria and France send more migrants back to Italy than land in that beautiful Country. These are the so-called Dubliners, who land in Italy as Usmans, are then passed on to neighbouring Countries and finally intercepted by the police and identified using data from the Eurodac network, the European fingerprint database. Dubliners are returned to the Country of first disembarkation, as if they were parcels. This takes no account of their aspirations (or their family or cultural ties to certain countries), nor of their real prospects of finding work in the various States.
As if Greece, Norway, Malta or Netherlands were really the same. “I lived badly in Italy. I had no humanitarian protection, only a provisional document that would soon expire. I was working off the books in a supermarket before I had the idea of going to England. Immigration is not a crime. It seems you have to be a war refugee to emigrate, as if looking for a job is not a valid reason”.
Meanwhile, Care4Calais distributing basic necessities in an abandoned car wash. The informal camp, which has sprung up under the cover of a stone hill and a power station, is in some ways similar to the cathedral in Bihac. All 120 migrants present, from Iranians perched on exhausted beer barrels to muscular Nigerians, complain of the cold and police raids. Nine will attempt the sea crossing tonight. In the anxious and euphoric faces of the comrades, one question is clear, monstrous and undeniable: will they make it or die trying? “We are not stupid. Of course we are afraid, but none of us wants to go back. They throw us into Italy, but nobody wants us. All we can do is go on,” repeats a small Iranian woman born on the slopes of the Demavend volcano (in the middle of the Elburz mountain range), the highest peak in Iran and the entire Middle East. Our vision is a world where refugees have a safe home and a bright future.
Paul, the oldest volunteer, looks at the hanging banner and shakes his head. “Nice slogans, but these guys aren’t doing so well in England. They spend an average of three or four years in detention centres for entering the Country illegally. Two per cent make it to England, 18% are sent back, 80% are in limbo in Calais”. Next to us, Jacob, an Israeli historian who has joined the organisation’s staff, whistles. “We have counted fifty-four deaths since 2015. Migrants who died of disease, cold, beatings, drowning… hundreds more, maybe thousands if you take into account previous years. Calais has always been a gateway, perhaps the only one, to London. Masses of men leave the commune of Grande Shynte. Next Monday, for example, one of the informal camps will be cleared and some people have already packed their bags.” On a surface of rubble and mud, traces and intimate fragments of existence can be seen: tampons, sanitary towels, nappies, a comb, a buried doll. Wherever the eyes rest, they intercept walls. Barriers of containment, exoduses.
* Matthias Canapini was born in Fano, central Italy, in 1992. He travels at a slow pace to tell stories with his notebook and camera. He has published five books since 2015 and is currently a news editor and reporter for the news outlet Unimondo
** Unimondo, founded on 10 December 1998 under the auspices of the Fontana Onlus Foundation, is an online news outlet dedicated to providing authoritative content on peace, sustainable human development, human rights and environmental issues. It offers diverse and timely information, amplifying the voices of different facets of Italian and global civil society. As the Italian hub of the OneWorld network, founded in London in 1995, it is part of a global network with 11 centres worldwide and 1,600 partner associations