Text and photos by Matthias Canapini* – Unimondo**
In February 2019, I spent a few weeks along the migrant route between Calais and Brussels. I share an excerpt from this choral narrative, collected between the docks and informal gatherings.
Dialects and nationalities stand out under the Calais sky: communities of Sudanese, Afghans and Eritreans like Alazar, a former medical student. “Eritrea has one of the longest and most repressive dictatorships in the world. Since gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after more than 30 years of war, our country has been a de facto totalitarian dictatorship in the hands of President Isaias Afwerki. In 1998, a new war broke out with Ethiopia over territorial disputes, which ended in 2000. At the end of the latest fighting, the Eritrean Government extended compulsory military service indefinitely for the entire population between the ages of eighteen and forty. This is outrageous! The GDP is one of the lowest in the world and the economy is based mainly on agriculture, livestock and fishing. Eritrea ranks last in terms of press freedom and there are no independent media, only government-controlled sources. All we can do is try to jump, every day. The biggest problem here in Calais is the dogs. They have a good sense of smell and almost always sniff us out. I arrived eight months ago, I have no family, just two friends waiting for me in Brighton. Without them, I would be lost.”
UNCHR estimates that around 5,500 unaccompanied (Eritrean) minors sought asylum in Europe in 2015. This represents 6% of all unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe that year. “We live under that bridge over there,” he points to a gully near the entrance to the Eurotunnel, “the police come now and then, tear down the curtains, kick someone, take photos. It’s a facade to build fences. It’s not like we’re criminals. But even on the side roads, three kilometres from the port, new barriers are being erected. From our shelter, we spy the passing trucks and wait for the right moment to dive in.”
In the afternoon, I meet Serena, a political science student from Bologna who has been in Calais for two months as part of an Erasmus project. She has a Mediterranean Saving Humans pin pinned to her leather rucksack. “To avoid the capillary checks that all cars are subjected to, some people throw themselves out of the port sluice and reach the docks soaking wet. Look at this video, Said sent it to me this morning. He is on his way to Oxford where Henriette, a former volunteer, is waiting for him… building a wall is never a solution. It is like living in a nightmare. A dystopian, militarised, sick society.”
On the screen, the strip of tarmac is visible, the signs for London, a nervous grin on the face of a sooty twentysomething huddled between a spare wheel and a muffler. Peshin Smatri, twenty-two, son of an aristocratic family from Sulaymaniyya, tried five times to squeeze under a lorry, but with little success. “I left everything I loved in Iraq: four sisters, my parents, my girlfriend. My three brothers are scattered between Finland, the UK and Germany. The French police did not treat me badly, apart from once beating me up and leaving me on a ring road with no shoes. My mother cried a lot before I left. I paid fifteen thousand euros from Sulaimaniyya to Calais, nine thousand just to get from Greece to Italy. If you pay, there are no big problems. To cross the Channel, they asked me for six thousand euros, whereas they usually ask families for twelve thousand. As soon as I have the documents, I will arrange for my fiancée to join me in the UK.”
The red van of Care4Calais, a humanitarian association active in the area, attracts small groups and loners. I catch sight of a bald head, and two bright eyes: “My fingerprints were taken in Denmark, but I left Iran in 2015. Life would be easier if I travelled alone, but I have to look after my wife and daughter. Farhad Mosapur, 27, says: “We arrived in Mytilene by boat and the reason for our fleeing is simple: like my father and uncle before me, I supported the Kurdish Democratic Party, which is actively fighting for the self-determination of our people and an independent State. It was not enough to fight and be outraged. For nine months we have been living in a hotel. Volunteers give us food, we have no means of subsistence, but morally we are down. We are practically living on charity. I would like to go home, but if I go back they will hang me, I am not joking! My wife fell into depression, she tried to slit her wrists more than once. Before we came here, you should know that the Danish Government sent us to a camp on the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea, one hundred and sixty kilometres east of Copenhagen and about thirty-seven kilometres from the Swedish coast.”
Farhad Mosapur still remember that “the Christiansø archipelago is further east than Denmark and does not belong to any municipality, but is administered directly by the Ministry of Defence. With a ruse related to my wife’s mental problems, we managed to escape, and at the border, I tore up the papers. Now we are waiting for illegal passage, but we are worthless, we have no rights. When my wife was ill, we didn’t even receive treatment: for twenty minutes, as her blood pressure dropped, she saw everything black. No one helped us. A friend of mine has been living in a reception camp for thirteen years, his children are well integrated and he does not want to leave for any reason. But sometimes I almost think it’s better to go back to Iran and be hanged than to live like this in Europe. My father has sold the family jewellery so that we could be here; he’s even thinking of selling our farm outside Qom, but I wouldn’t let him… Even though 12,000 euros would be good for us… That’s what it costs to get to England.”
I went to L’Unitè de Santè Mentale Adultes Georges Cabal for another interview. I know very little about Saeid Nasri, who is thirty-four years old. And what little I do know makes my knees weak. Saeid, a psychiatric patient, has been living in Europe for six years. He has had a difficult childhood, marked by depression, imprisonment and the suicide of his father. Daily survival in the jungle has certainly not helped the young man’s already fragile mood as he fiddles with a pen on the second floor of the hospital. “The others have someone waiting for them. Not me, I’m alone, I don’t know if I should stay in the jungle or leave… But where? I’ve been here for three weeks and every day is the same. The day after tomorrow I will be released and go back to the jungle. I like to draw,” he explains, taking a hardback notebook out of his locker. The room is aseptic, number 103; two spare parts, a toothbrush, a pair of shoes. “There are so many refugees in France, but what does it mean to be a refugee? I have yet to understand. As a child I supported AC Milan, I still remember some of the players, like Baggio or Schillaci… Six years in Europe and I still haven’t been to a match in the stadium… Maybe because I like living in the jungle too much, where there are no rules, just whisky, rats and hashish. I often dream of someone killing me, a stab or a gunshot, and kaput, the end”. Something is stuck in Saeid’s brain. We walk around the building, visiting hours are drawing to a close. Post-traumatic stress syndrome, I read in the file the loneliness of ghostly men.
Where the vast Calais jungle once stood, all I see is a sandy, wind-blown surface. Four Eritreans are playing cards behind a cage, waiting for darkness to fall. “The State also uses patrol boats and helicopters to patrol the Dover-Calais border. England pays France daily to patrol the secret routes, both by sea and by land. Did you know about this? The policemen stationed in Calais, who work for nothing, are paid an extra forty euros a day. We all know these guys are going to come through anyway, it’s just a stupid little drama,” exclaims Patrice, sixty-six, himself described as one of the worst musicians in the city. “I prefer to stand on the sidelines, helping a few kids in my small way with food or hot showers. The rest looks to me like a huge travelling theatre, a game too big to handle, where it’s not only the authorities, as many people think, but also NGOs that do business. The police catch a few unfortunates (they couldn’t arrest them all, it’s impossible, there are more than two thousand of them) and the associations get money to feed them and post pictures on social networks. It’s a dead end. Without taking away from the fact that Calesians care little about children dying in front of their sea. We have been in business for decades, always transporting people from Paris to London. Believe me, the locals are far more worried about Brexit than the migrants.”
On the last night, I stroll around the old part of the city, glancing back and forth. Crossing the walls of the local cemetery, I found what I was looking for: the inevitability of death. Under a rectangle of loose earth, three of the victims of that “stupid little drama” mentioned by Patrice are asleep. Djellab Ammar (1981-2018), Al Fadel Saleh (1993-2015), Rezapor Sakina (1991-2014). The thick smell of McDonald’s sandwiches stinks up the rough graves.
* 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