So much anger and so much love (I’m leaving soon)

Early morning on the 15th of December, I will leave the camp. I have a lot of anger, as well as a lot of love, to express before then.

It is a sad reality that, as a volunteer, much of the time and energy that could be spent preparing food in the kitchen, working to create and maintain a safe space for women, or providing legal support for unaccompanied minors, is instead spent battling with political decisions of other organisations, local politicians, or the state.

A couple of weeks ago, two volunteers who have been working with unaccompanied minors to push for their right to legal passage to the UK (through the sponsorship of respective family members in the UK, under the Dublin III regulation), were called into the office of the City Hall. The two were accused of having been part of an incident in which neither of them had been directly involved, and in which the charges were completely fabricated. At the end of the meeting, they were told that there was no problem.

Despite this, Afeji and security officers have banned the two from entering camp. Despite the City Hall saying that there was no problem, they have refused to communicate this to the actors who control access to the camp.

In practice, this means that many unaccompanied minors who have a right to go to the UK legally are refused essential legal support which could enable them to do so.

 

 

There are approximately 150 unaccompanied minors in the camp. Afeji argues that there are 4.

Some unaccompanied minors do not have shelters. Some sleep in open-air community kitchens, others sleep in the tea tent. When unaccompanied minors have approached Afeji, who are responsible for distributing shelters and for the welfare of minors, they have been met by scorn and laughter.

Yesterday morning, a 17 year old unaccompanied boy who has been sleeping in the tea tent went up, together with me, to an Afeji employee. I informed the Afeji employee that there is a minor who has no shelter, and that another Afeji member had told me to come back the next day in the morning. He told me that minors shouldn’t be sleeping in the camp, “They should be in Paris. Or the forest.”

Noticing the 17 year old, he laughed. This is not a minor, he said, and, laughing, walked deeper into the office, away from the minor who probably slept in the tea tent again last night.

 

 

Two alternative endings:

As I was leaving the camp along the highway, a man looked at me, confused, and said, ”I’m new. This is camp?”

“Yes,” I said.

I thought, You must have been through such much already. I thought, You must have so much more to go through. I thought, I’m so sorry.

Yet, everything changes. A friend who was severely threatened in Calais, and who has been at great risk in La Linière because of his ethnicity, has been trying to get to the UK for a long time. Last night, he sent me these messages:

dover

dover-map

Advertisements

Mowgli, from the jungle

A close friend of mine from the camp made it to the UK a few months ago. Last week, I went to visit him for the first time on British soil (NB: asphalt). We explored his new city, caught up on what’s been happening in the camp and what’s happening to my friend in the UK, and had cup after cup of sugary tea, just like in the camp.

He is relieved to be in the UK. He is relieved to, after months and months of getting into lorries and getting caught at border controls, have made it across the channel. He lives in a warm (albeit very run-down) house, and can no longer be stopped and taken away by the police on the charge of not holding identity documents. There are still many things to be worried about – winter, asylum, the Home Office – but also many former uncertainties that he no longer needs to worry about.

Yet, he misses the camp. He misses living in a community of 900 people where almost everyone speaks Kurdish, where Kurdish food is cooked and communal meals are served, and where most people are considered friends and look after each other.

He doesn’t want to go back to the camp as it is. But, he told me, if a community like the camp existed in a safe place like the UK, it would be perfect.

img_0103

A pregnant woman in the camp held her hand on her belly and smiled.

“Do you know the name of the baby?” I asked her.

Her smile widened. “Mowgli,” she told me, “because the baby is from the jungle.”

Inshallah Chance

                ”No chance today, my friend?” There are individuals in the camp who have been met by this sentence for over a year, as they step back into the camp after yet another unsuccessful attempt to cross to the UK.

Because although a lot depends on how much money you are ready to pay, where you are from, whether you are alone or with your family, and how strict the border police are on a given day, it is always ultimately about chance.

It can depend on the type of lorry you end up in. During the last week I have heard of one family in a lorry carrying bananas, another child in one full of Kinder eggs (he promised he didn’t eat any), and many people travelling in freezer lorries transporting meat. Usually the most difficult control to pass through is the one with the dogs. Some lorries hide your smell better than others.

It can depend on your body type. Like in hide-and-seek, some people are more easily hidden than others. I have spoken to many men (always men) who used to work as personal trainers, do professional weightlifting or who were body builders, and have been told about their attempts to quickly lose weight, in the hope of increasing their chance of crossing.

But chance also depends heavily on politics and on governments, and on choices made by individuals and organisations influenced by Paris or Westminster.

A large number of the approximately 150 unaccompanied minors in the camp in theory have a legal right to enter the UK. Despite this, only a handful of minors have been able to cross legally. Sometimes this is due to inefficiency or lack of resources. Other times it is deliberate. On the 8th of November (although recently made public), the Home Office informed their staff that they were further restricting their interpretation* of the Dubs Amendment (under which unaccompanied minors currently in Europe may have the possibility of entering the UK legally). Of the relatively large number of minors in the camp who had been likely to be eligible, the number of minors who fit the narrow criteria of the Home Office’s new regulations can be counted on one hand.

Going to visit minors in their shelters, I carry the news that their chances of going to the UK are lesser now than they were just a few weeks ago.

img_0095

*it is still uncertain to what extent the UK government will follow this new guidance

Prawns

Everyone is full of questions. Yesterday, as my friend and I were walking down the path through the camp, a man came up to ask if we could help him. Suspecting he might ask for shoes or blankets, we said that we weren’t sure that we could help, but we could try.

“Come here”, he said, and beckoned us towards a fire that was gathering strength outside his shelter. He and his friends had placed a pot of boiling water on the fire, filled with king prawns.

Concerned, the man turned to us, “How do we cook this?”

img_0075

Being vegan and vegetarian, respectively, my friend and I may not have been the best people to ask. My friend called her mom to ask for advice. I sketched a diagram which was of little help, but gave us some time while my friend’s mom was researching how to cook king prawns.

img_0080

The man and his friends appreciated our attempts, but decided to take matters into their own hands. They brought out an onion and a can of tomatoes, and decided to cook the king prawns Kurdish style.

“Are you hungry?”

We politely declined their offer, but wished them the best of luck with their dish.

img_0078

Children too young, children too old

There are around 300 children in La Linière refugee camp – roughly 150 accompanied children and 150 unaccompanied. In a camp of roughly 900 people, a third of the individuals are children.

Around half of the children are under 14, and many children have few memories of a childhood prior to refugeehood.  From a very young age, children are faced with the immediate consequences of distant geopolitics, and become bearers of responsibilities far beyond their years.

A young girl with frizzy brown hair and endless bouts of energy, was unusually still yesterday. During the family’s attempt to cross to the UK, there had been an accident, and her nose and one eye had been hurt. In the children’s centre yesterday her older sister was making her younger sister gifts, and encouraging other children to do the same. “Dlimn”, she sighed, “my heart”.

elian-nannie-crop

The other half of the children are over 14, and these children face the constant battle of having to assert that they are children.

There are children whom authorities claim to be adults, despite there being identity documents proving otherwise. It is possible to appeal, but the process can be so lengthy that the child in question might turn 18 in the meantime.

Many of these children have a legal right to go to the UK, but the legal processes are lengthy and complicated. During the months that a process may take, children decide to go elsewhere, or make it to the UK by illegal means, or disappear.

To state the obvious that somehow doesn’t seem obvious, these are children.

In your best interest

Yesterday I was in the shelter of a young unaccompanied girl as she was taken away. There are approximately 150 unaccompanied minors in the camp, all unsure of what will happen to them next. They are children without their families living in a refugee camp, and none of them want to, or should, be in the camp. Least of all the few girls among them.

The girl was taken by Afeji, the state-sponsored organisation responsible for the camp, to a centre for minors nearby. It is likely that this centre is warmer and safer than the camp, and that she will receive support. The girl had previously spoken to Afeji about the centre, and had been under the impression that Afeji were going to take her there over one week ago.

Yet, yesterday, the girl was taken away with force and without warning.

She did not object to going to the centre. She objected to being forcibly removed without a chance to tell her close friend, who was outside of the camp at the time, where she was being moved to. She wanted to go tomorrow, or later in the evening, when her friend had come back.

But, Afeji had a car waiting. Afeji needed to go right now. Afeji needed her to pack up her things and leave in three minutes.

Argued by Afeji: She is a young, vulnerable girl in a refugee camp. She is unsafe. She needs to be taken to a place of safety. It is in her best interest. And it is in her best interest to leave immediately.

As the girl was trying to explain, decisions were being taken without her involvement. Rather than being talked to, she was being talked about (in French).

The girl was crying. Afeji was telling her to hurry up – the car was leaving. She asked about her friend who would come back later. Afeji promised that the friend would be given the key to the shelter when she returned, and that all possessions would be left inside. (Note: when she did come back, a few hours later, Afeji was locking the door, refusing to give her the key, and four French national police vans turned up.)

It’s paternalism, but it’s ok – it’s all in their best interest.

In the lorry you wear 10 layers

A family I know through the children’s centre was trying to get to the UK last night, and the children know what is happening (even if no one can understand why it is necessary). A friend and I had come to visit them in the evening, and as we stepped inside their shelter, the eldest daughter told us that they were going to try that night. She is nine years old, incredibly bright, and translates between English-speaking volunteers and her Kurdish-speaking family and neighbours.

The eldest daughter explains to me and my friend that they have family in the UK, that they have tried to cross the channel many times, and that usually it is the police dogs that find them. The French police dogs are not very dangerous, but they cannot understand how the British dogs always smell them.

Her mother offers us sugary tea, and I ask one of the girls if she would like some from my glass. Surprised at my offer, she says, “No, no tea before lorry, I need to pee.” She has been inside lorries before – she knows what to do and what not to do.

15053380_10207832092256811_1000925057_o

The youngest daughter is just over 2 years old, and the white bear with the cuddly hat is her favourite toy. Her mother points at the toddler’s nappy and explains, with the oldest daughter translating, that her other daughters did not need nappies at that age. But, in the camp the toilets are far away, and in the lorry, it would be impossible without. Being a parent in the camp, parenting is within the context of the camp. When they are in the UK, it will be different.

My friend and I are in the other room, but see as the mother changes the nappy of the toddler, and carefully dresses her with layers and layers and more layers. Wanting to explain to us, she says, “Lorry very, very cold”.

Before we leave, the two older daughters start getting dressed. They bring in a box full of clothes, and are by the end wearing almost all of it. The three daughters have matching hats, which are all similar to the cuddly hat worn by the white bear.

As we leave, the middle daughter asks us, “You come look for us in shelter tomorrow?” We promise we will come back to check if they are back, or if they are still on their journey – in a lorry, in a police station, or in the UK.

anya-ada-crop

Maybe it’s winter now

Maybe it’s winter now, maybe it’s just rainy, but, either way, it is a time of change and upheaval. Most obviously, Calais: the camp has during the last couple of weeks been completely demolished. The 10,000 people who were living in the camp have since been bussed to centres all over France, with only a ridiculously miniscule number of unaccompanied minors being taken to the UK, and many individuals and families having disappeared off the radar of humanitarian organisations.

img_0026

A few days ago, a friend said that he was going to Calais to see if there was any information there about the possibility for unaccompanied minors to go to the UK through the schemes promised by the Home Office. Together with three other friends, we drove to Calais the next day. We were met by destruction, hundreds of birds, hostile but easily convinced police officers, a group of unhelpful officials, and another group of more helpful humanitarian workers.

Returning to our car after the unsuccessful attempt, we passed by the (former) bus that used to be the (unofficial) Women’s and Children’s Centre in Calais. And a man who was looking for treasures in what was left of it.

img_0033

Meanwhile, in La Linière, the situation has become more volatile after the demolition of Calais. Rumours about the camp closing, which have always circulated, are being taken more seriously. The efforts of Afeji, the state-sponsored organisation responsible for running the camp, to close the camp are becoming more difficult to ignore. Individuals and families are coming back after having been in a lorry, or in detention, to find their shelters (together with all the possessions) having been taken away.

img_0042

In August, Afeji decided to restrict entry to the camp to only allow people who they consider to be “vulnerable” – families, minors, and individuals with severe medical conditions. In October, the organisation decided to not allow any new individuals or families access to the camp (although many have found alternative ways to get in). Last week, in an effort to further regulate the camp, Afeji introduced wristbands. Although there had been rumours about the wristbands being individualised and users being forbidden to remove them, the wristbands now in place are flimsy rubber bracelets, which many choose to keep in their pockets.

Yet, a friend of mine tugged at his wristband in disgust and told me, “It is like we are sheep.” Another friend told me that she takes off the wristband and puts it in her pocket when she goes to the supermarket, fearing that she would be judged.

In Calais, the camp was completely demolished within the space of a few days. In La Linière, rules are tighteningtighteningtightening and everyone fears what winter will bring.

 

Bodies

In La Linière refugee camp, there are approximately 900 bodies. Some bodies are in a relatively healthy condition given the situation they’re in, others are bruised by truck parts or Belgian police, and yet other bodies are extremely new and tiny. Refugee camps are not a normal environment for any of these bodies, and they are all – directly or indirectly – attempting to exist elsewhere.

For individuals trying to cross the border to the UK on lorries, the body can come to be seen as an obstacle. The 37 degrees of a human body can be picked up by infrared cameras. The smell of a body can be smelled by police dogs. If the body is discovered, the body may then have to walk back for several hours to return to the camp.

More or less a quarter of the women in the camp are pregnant. For these bodies carrying other, smaller, bodies, so much more is at stake. Do they still risk everything on a lorry? Or does the husband make separate attempts to get to the UK, with the hope of one day reuniting in the UK?

There are bodies that are constantly questioned. Individuals under the age of 18 are legally considered children, and have the right to more protection than adults. However, many minors do not have documents proving their date of birth, and are therefore subjected to scrutiny by authorities trying to disprove their claims of being under 18. Often, this is based off little more than behaviour and appearance. In other words, bodies that look younger are likely to be given more protection than other bodies. Minors in bodies that appear older, may be denied.

Two days ago, a 6 year old boy came up to me and shaped his fingers into a heart. Dl. I pointed at his heart and he took my hand to show me how his heart was pounding. I put two of my fingers together and held it against his neck to show him how to feel your own heartbeat.

The camp is full of bodies.

bodies

 

Detention

Today I wasn’t in La Linière. Two friends and I borrowed another volunteer’s car and drove to a sterile high-security building outside Lille’s airport. We knew of four people from the camp who were detained in the centre, and today learnt of many more.

In detention, many people have given a different name to the police than what they call themselves in camp, in order to protect their identity. Because of this, it is tricky to ask to see someone without being certain of what name they were arrested under. Of the four friends we were planning to visit, we only managed to get the name of one in the end.

The visiting rooms are small, beige, and have four chairs nailed into the floor. I found a small chocolate in my bag to give the friend we were visiting. We hadn’t gotten anything else – it is Sunday and it is France, and not even the massive supermarket beside the camp is open. We asked how he was. We joked about him and his friends forming a boy band in the camp. After an hour, at 5pm, visiting hours were over, and we were ushered outside by the police.

The experience of spending time in a detention centre, and what is at stake, varies greatly from person to person. For some, detention, with the possibility of deportation, is the likelihood of being sent back to Bulgaria or Hungary, where systematic abuse against refugees is talked about a rule rather than as an exception. For others, deportation would mean being sent back to Germany or Belgium, from where it would take a couple of hours to get back to La Linière by bus. Detention can be a frustratingly long wait for bureaucratic procedures to be completed, or it can be the end to any hope of ever getting to the UK.

Walking back to the car, we heard someone yelling our names. In one of the windows, we saw the faces of the three friends we hadn’t managed to visit. “Chony bashi?”, we all yelled to each other, “How are you?”, before getting into the car, and leaving to go back to the refugee camp where these men are trying to leave from, but at this moment wished they could return to.

img_0021