This report was written one year ago by our editor Ryan Child after a trip to the refugee camps of Northern France. With the recent pictures of human slavery emerging from a CNN Report in Libya, we thought it was worth re-sharing these articles first published by Front Magazine. The second part of this report is available here.
Words By: Ryan Child
Additional Pictures: Paulus Sinbad
From the sea, aboard the Spirit of Burgundy, Calais is brutalist Berlin of the Cold War, split and sectioned by aggressive razor wire fences. Thick white smoke pours out over industrial factories and contaminated water. The boat chugs into port and France pulls us in. From the railroad tracks, migrants look out to the channel, drawn to the light of paradise. It’s just the white cliffs of Dover, though, reflecting the same light they have in northern France.
A False Dream
Paradise in England is a dream sold by gangsters and smugglers, who headlock vulnerable migrants up through authoritarian Turkey, through austerity Greece and nationalist Hungary, running past the Balkans and into Schengen. Following the whispers to Paradiso Brittania, the secret land behind the fence.
The biggest secret we faced was finding the donation warehouse, which was a mystery that took 2 hours to unlock and finished with a quick realisation that nothing in this migrant fiasco is what it seems. Five men in two vans with three hangovers and no idea.
Limited Resources, Maximum Need
The L’Auburge/Free Refugees warehouse is a traveler site tucked away next to some industrial units in Calais, France. Caravans and fires and the smell of overused spices. We unloaded our donations, “No pasta, please,” with the help of volunteers with good and bad teeth, with overfed and lean stomachs. They are a tribe not unlike the Kurds that live in the Grand Synthe Refugee Camp. Many feel persecuted at home. They talk about the ‘police states’ they have left. So they moved to Calais, the most heavily policed city in Western Europe.
Many Volunteers There to Be Saved
Some talk of the over politicizing of the migrant crisis. How much of the security measures, riot vans on every corner, A4 paper warnings from the UK border force before leaving, are just governments playing politics. Yet when I informed one volunteer that we were registered with the Help Refugees Charity she sneered, “Oh those guys, that’s a shame.”
Her group, Utopia 56, founded in Brittany, runs in quasi-competition with Help Refugees, creating a party political chasm that gets young idealistic women frothing at the proverbial. It’s embarrassing. Both groups do fantastic work, however, and the divide is superficial in reality. But it’s there nonetheless. Despite this, everyone is friendly. Some have come to help, others to be helped. Many are high, some are drunk. Everyone is friendly.
There’s a Job for Everyone Here
The warehouse itself is an amazing example of the resourcefulness of the volunteers who have shaped it. There are shelves specifically for yeast and marzipan, with colourful signs directing people to the right sections. Clothes are painstakingly separated, food is stored regimentally and the Asda-car-park-sized building is instantly impressive.
Outside, a forklift is accidentally reversed into a pallet of wood and we wait for a man called Sage who never turns up. One guy I know from back in Bristol, Henry White, is in charge of supplying and sorting firewood for the ‘Jungle Camp’ in Calais, which is roughly 5km down the road.
“It’s so stressful,” he says. “Just trying to make sure you prioritise women and children, so they have the firewood they need. But at the same time people are shouting at me, telling me they need more wood or haven’t had any.”
Limited resources, maximum need. Sounds like working at one of England’s public services. Britannia Paradiso. A few months in Calais and Henry will have the experience to run an Academy, or maybe an A&E.
After eating some donated coffee with donated milk and a few donated biscuits, the five of us in our two vans and three hangovers agree it’s time we headed over to the Grand Synthe Camp 30km away. The volunteers wave and say thanks for the canvas and wood and we head off, east across the A16 and it’s Disney-Giant pylons attacking the serene flatness, mainlining south to the France you see on postcards. We are in human power country, where metal makes energy and the water cries.
In 30 minutes our two vans slip off the motorway and into Grand Synthe Refugee camp. Police in 6 foot 5 inch bodies look down on all of us except one as we drive through the gates. Grainy men kick comets through the fading light. Fires made from plastic cough black from the concrete, circled by tracksuits and no sleep.
“Fuck staying here,” one of us says and we all think.