Derry girl Ciara O’Connor is a volunteer in the Calais refugee camps. This is her story...
A small crackling fire, coughs and tents unzipping as the occupants emerge out into the cold, grey morning, rubbing sleep from their eyes and joining the small group huddled around the fire. Everyone greets us with the same anxious question: “Police come today?” and we answer in the hopeful negative.
The police have already carried out two camp ‘evictions’ on this site this week, slashing tents and tear-gassing the occupants, so we reason that the eviction today will happen at a different camp in the area.
All the same, we wait, ears pricking-up and heads whipping round at the sound of every car passing on the busy motorway nearby. It’s the beginning of another day in a refugee camp in Calais, Northern France.
The famous ‘Jungle Refugee Camp’ was demolished by French authorities in October 2016. However, the refugees keep arriving in Pas-de-Calais, fleeing government persecution and bloody conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea and Sudan, amongst others.
According to humanitarian groups working on the ground, there are currently around 1,500 refugees living in Calais and Dunkirk, and least 200 of these are unaccompanied minors.
Some hope to claim asylum in France, while others hope to cross the border into Britain, risking their lives on the backs of lorries crossing the Channel to the promised land.
Some refugees I speak to say that they are not prepared to wait around in limbo while the UK and French governments process their asylum applications.
One man tells us that he has heard of some people covering their faces with a plastic bag to escape the border detection systems which pick up on heartbeats and raised CO² levels caused by hidden human cargo on lorries. He laughs at our exclamations that it’s potentially fatal - ‘Yes, but people still try.’
Life for refugees in Calais and nearby Dunkirk is hard. The rising wave of far-right populism in France has surged along on a tide of anti-immigrant hatred.
In March 2017, local authorities temporarily banned humanitarian groups from delivering aid to refugees in Calais, but in July a court ruling ordered the state to provide access to running water and permit charities to distribute aid.
However, there is still a heavy riot police presence to prevent the formation of a second Jungle camp. Police violence is a major issue in Calais, and many refugees are used to weekly beatings, tear-gassing and being shot with rubber bullets by police.
One Eritrean refugee tells me: “Police no good. They come in Jungle and destroy tents and beat us. When I see police, I run.”
During police clearances, which are a weekly occurrence, refugees have their tents slashed or confiscated, their sleeping bags or blankets gassed or confiscated and, sometimes, their phones or other personal belongings broken or damaged. Most recently, volunteers and refugees alike are reporting police confiscating refugees’ shoes and teargassing their water barrels.
Filing a complaint is difficult, because CRS consistently omit to wear their ID numbers.
Some refugees have been in Europe for quite some time. I meet an Afghan refugee with a surprising cockney accent who cheerily asks me: “Y’alright, luv?”
He tells me he was in London for almost two years before he was caught and is now in Calais to “try again.” He is angry at the treatment of refugees: “Theresa May, the PM, she doesn’t see us as people... at the end of the day, we’re all human, we’re all just trying to make a better life for ourselves.”
I met a 19-years-old Afghan refugee who has had to leave his family behind to escape Taliban violence in his native city, Kabul. He misses his parents, and especially his six-years-old baby brother, who doesn’t understand why he can’t come home. He has been in Calais for six months. Smiling, he tells me he is happiest playing cricket, because he can forget all his problems and pretend that he is home with his friends.
Despite their situation, the most striking thing about the refugees is their struggle to maintain some normality and dignity.
On one of my first evenings there, I see some Afghan refugees dance in a field next to a railway line, the trains thundering by as they spin and clap as the sky gets darker, laughing and singing in Pashto. Sadly, some refugees escape violence in their homelands only to find that Europe is not the safe port they had hoped.
Last month, Belgian police shot and killed a two-years-old Iraqi toddler, Mawda Shawri, in her mother’s arms in a van at the French-Belgian border. Her family had applied for asylum in several countries, including Britain and Germany.
In the wake of events in the United States with the treatment of Latin American refugees, it is important to note that these ‘animals’ - as President Trump was alleged to have called them – are people fleeing violent conflicts in their homelands.
This dehumanisation of refugees also occurs in political rhetoric much closer to home, notoriously in the anti-immigration platform that the Brexit campaign was run on, but also in language used by the British Prime Minister.
In January this year, she alluded to ominous-sounding “clandestines” attempting to cross the UK border, whilst announcing a further £44.5 million of UK taxpayer money for Calais border security.
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,” but it seems that governments across the world are forgetting this right, moving instead to criminalise and vilify those seeking refuge from violence.
Listening to many people’s stories, I found that there was a common thread; they don’t want to be refugees forever, depending on the kindness of strangers.
They want dignity, the chance to build a new life for themselves and, hopefully, return to their homelands one day.
That doesn’t seem like a crime to me.