The Calais evictions
‘Have you got a crowbar?’
‘If the police say something, we must do it,’ shrugs the resident of Calais refugee camp Sirajafridi. ‘We can’t face them; we just want to get to the other side of the camp.’ The 30-year-old from Kandahar, Afghanistan is being evicted from the area he has been living with friends for the past three months.
On 11 January the French authorities issued an eviction notice to refugees living within a hundred metres of the motorway that leads to Calais ferry port. Some 1,300 residents, including 50 children, have now moved from the proposed ‘buffer zone’ to an area of the camp levelled and prepared by volunteers to rehouse them. Originally, the authorities had given a quarter of the camp’s 7,000-strong population just three days to move. At the request of aid organizations, a temporary reprieve was granted until today.
The announcement came on the same day that 125 shipping containers in a fenced-off area separated from the rest of the camp were opened. With each container able to house 12 people, there is shelter for 1,500 refugees. But with a fingerprinting system in place most people are against moving there for fear of being sent back to France if they manage to enter Britain. So far, a hundred people have moved in; other containers are providing a white canvas for graffiti artists.
Tensions in the camp, now more like a shanty town, have increased since the announcement for the buffer zone was made. Two bulldozers on the edge of the camp waiting to demolish homes, were set alight overnight on 15 January and destroyed.
‘Have you got a crowbar?’
Independent volunteers and those attached to organizations such as Help Refugees and ACTED have helped refugees move over 300 tents, 247 wooden shelters and 25 caravans over the past few days.
‘Have you got a crowbar?’ Gary, an Irish volunteer connected with British based organization Care4Calais, asks me. Another volunteer searches for a shovel. Helping hands are plentiful, but tools are in short supply. ‘There are safe areas in the camp we are moving people to’ says Gary. ‘But I think today was the biggest emotional outpour that I’ve felt from the refugees. They’re asking ‘why? Why are we moving?’
‘I’ve heard that the authorities are trying to downsize Calais to turn it into a container camp’, he adds, emphasising that this is hearsay. Other volunteers and many refugees repeat his uncertainty. Nobody knows for sure.
The sandy soil has partially buried the bottom of some of the wooden shelters but once they have been pried away from their base or lifted up from pallets, they can be transported to their new home. This is either by foot or with the shelters’ owners precariously balancing them on the back of trucks to the other side of one of the camp’s main streets.
These shelters were built in a Calais warehouse by volunteers before being transported to camp. ‘When we put them up we bashed the nails in as far as they would go, not thinking we’d have to take them down again’, explains Tom, a British independent volunteer. ‘It’s a bit crazy really’.
The one per cent
The residents in Calais and Dunkirk – home to 3,000 refugees – constitute less than one per cent of more than a million asylum seekers who arrived in Lesbos last year after making the treacherous sea journey from Turkey. They are also less than the one per cent of the one million asylum seekers who currently reside in Germany.
‘I’ve been here, in this shelter for three months,’ says Khprlwrk, from Jalalabad, a city near the Pakistani border in Afghanistan. ‘The young Afghani generation just wants to go to England. They are tired of the fighting,’ he says, adjusting his woolly hat before getting back to work removing the sand burying the base of his shelter. ‘The winter here is too hard. I’ve tried many times to cross to Britain but I’ve not been successful.’
His shelter made out of timber and tarpaulin is proving hard to shift. The shelters are heavy. It takes around 10 people to move a single shelter the size of a garden shed. As more volunteers come to help, a friend of Khprlwrk’s insists on giving me a thermal flask with the words ‘London Ambulance’ written on it. ‘I don’t need it,’ he says, flashing a cheeky grin. ‘I will be in England soon.’
‘We move from this place because today is our last warning from the French government’, continues Khprlwrk. ‘We will go to another part of the camp, but not to the containers. We don’t know what will happen in the next months.’
The 23-year-old fled Afghanistan, but not because of the Taliban. His father was a politician in the country’s communist party, which, he says, has caused problems for his family in an Islamic state.
Despite a statement from the camp’s community leaders on 12 January outlining their intention to ‘peacefully resist’ the government’s plans, I couldn’t find anyone who was prepared to stay.
Most are scared of the police. Few options are open to them.
Hanshinwni, an Afghani from a border town with Pakistan, is a newcomer to the camp in Calais. He has been here for a week and is staying in his friends’ shelter. Already he has been tear gassed by the French police. The area is a site of regular clashes between refugees and the police. When small groups climb the motorway embankment, attempting to board British trucks bound for the port, collective punishment in the form of tear gas is dealt out to all residents in the area.
‘France is no good, England is good. Police are everywhere here, big problem,’ says Hanshinwni. ‘Afghanistan, Taliban! Calais, police!’ he exclaims.
Near the camp’s makeshift theatre and amid a hive of activity, Adam, three of his cousins and two friends are moving into their new tent. They lay sand around the edges of the tent to insulate it from the harsh wind. They are in high spirits. ‘What do you think?’ they ask, as they survey their work. Around them volunteers and refugees work to secure down shelters that they have transported across camp, working to make their temporary houses into homes once again.
Threats and intimidation from the police are no match for the solidarity and community within the camp: there will be little need for bulldozers today.