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 first part of this report is available here.
Words By: Ryan Child
Additional Pictures by: Paulus Sinbad
Running the camp construction is Ono, half French, half Japanese, full on wonder. His teeth are white and he smiles a lot. Things become brighter. He shows us around the camp, which holds 1,500 migrants, officially, although the real number is definitely higher.
No Wood Left Now Winter Approaches
Nobody can admit this, though, because 1,500 is the current limit set by the national government alongside a list of other requirements, including building regulations and fire safety. Dunkirk’s Mayor, the Green Party’s Damien Careme, defied the government by committing more than a million Euros to help Medicines Sans Frontiers build the camp.
The local funding means some structures are built, but they have run out of wood and winter is on the way. Many refugees have left and now live in the forests of northern Belgium.
A man and his wife look like Tibetans. Crimson cheeks and skin like caramel. They leave the camp and collect their twigs and branches from the woodland nearby. Their fire burns the same as it does in northern Afghanistan, but it cracks into a smaller sky. A toddler leaves it’s mother and points at some blue wellies in the back of our van.
Next door a doctor in a bright white T-shirt wears an uncertain smile and blue jeans. He walked from Iraq. We pulled out some cricket bats and laughed and bowled. He couldn’t hit a barn door. He lives in a 2.5 x 4m shed. They all do.
As we played a generator ticked over, feeding into a pair of hair clippers. The male grooming here is impressive.
The Kurds are known for their penchant for hair gel and a touch of Brut. Huge blue letters, PKK, shine in blue glossy paint on the back of a ‘shed,’ while Ahmed contours his friend’s seagull of an eyebrow. The PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) is recognised as a terrorist group in Turkey, while it’s founder Abdullah Ocalan is a hero to many Kurds.
The doctor balloons an ugly slog sweep into the air, watching on as it drops beautifully over deep square leg for four runs. He throws up his hands like any other man with any other bat anywhere else in the world.
And all the while the five of us hungover volunteers look, searching for something. To find savagery among the savages. Are we here to feel better about our western debt, broken aspirations and substance abuse? To help others or ourselves?
The Doctor’s name was Talan.
That night we drank strong beer in the ‘Family Bar’ in Calais with a table full of other volunteers. A table full of white twentysomethings. I wonder how many facebook likes this trip will get us all, combined. I’m not sure if it was the beer that made me vomit.
Work is Slow
Cynicism is a mood. The toddler greeted us with a smile in the morning, kicking around with his new blue wellies. A grizzled Syrian Kurd had taken over the Bike Repair Shop, helping a teenage boy fix his red Raleigh racer. Along the gravel and dust we listen to broken English from a French carpenter dressed in black, pinching his floppy hat, squinting into the sun.
He showed us how to build prefabricated extensions, which are then fixed to the ‘sheds’ as porches. Then off he went, rotating in another roll-up. Later, a man from Apocalypse Now explained the intricacies of drilling screws into wood as we walked away. Everything is slow motion here.
The wood went up without much trouble. The process starts by knocking on shed doors, asking if they want a new deluxe porch. Periwinkle blue unavailable, sorry. Behind the stable doors eyes stare out from everywhere.
Traffickers Padlock Shut the Cabins, Charging Entry
Inside the cabins up to 10 people look out to you. They are tired from the night before, when they spent their energy trying to get into England. One boy walks out on crutches.
“The police hit me and beat my friend,” he said. “They spray us with gas and hit us,” his face animated and far older than his body may ever be.
Next door, beaten shoes are piled up outside so we knock on the door. No answer, so we decide to build anyway. The boy on crutches tries to light a fire and watches us. Then from the corner of an eye, or wherever he normally lurks, a heavy set bald Kurd appeared.
“You make good on that, yes,” he says, sneering through golden incisors. “I have big family and need space.”
His bright white Nike Air Max’s flash the sun and spark the fire. Or maybe it was his gold necklace and watch, both strangling a jungle of black body hair.
“You help my friend as well,” he said, removing a padlock from the next shed along the row.
“Why is it padlocked?” I ask.
“I keep it safe from za gang-stars.”
The obvious truth is that he’s a people trafficker. Refugees and volunteers in the camp call them the ‘mafia.’ They run stalls selling coca-cola in the day, and smuggle humans at night.
Traffickers Tricking Volunteers
At Grand Synthe they place old shoes outside the cabins to make it appear that people live there. Tricked, volunteers pick those cabins for extensions. The traffickers then return to padlock the cabins up, before offering new arrivals a place to stay. The going rate is 2000 Euros, which rises if the shed has a shiny new porch.
It’s excruciating at first. You want to scream. But then you realise this is the world we live in. Vulnerable people get exploited. Other vulnerable people, namely volunteers, are the ones who offer help.
And everyone else just gets on with reading the Guardian. Armchair outrage. At least the far right is getting on with spreading lies and hatred. The left is in a sorry state, outraged at everything, pathetically impotent in anything but moaning.
A Drug Deal Between a Volunteer and a Refugee
From about midday to 3pm volunteers in old burger vans serve up food to everyone on the camp. Mountains of chick peas, salad and curried vegetables. It’s colourful and tasty food.
On our last day in the camp I sat at one of the pub benches eating alone. A Scottish man with bright white tombstone teeth and long black hair sat opposite me.
“This place is so confusing,” I said. “We build stuff for the gangsters, who sell red bull and coca cola on stalls everywhere. And the police turn up every other day to stop and search volunteer vans at the gate.”
“Yea, I’ve been here for six months and still have no clue about it mate,” he said. “This is another universe we live in, where the volunteers, including myself, are here because it’s a kind of hub of human activity. Something is happening that’s more interesting than many other places. That’s why I came for a weekend. Six months bloody later…Plus you can’t trust any media to show you what it’s actually like.”
Talan, the terrible batsman doctor, came to sit by us.
“It’s you that wants?” he said, looking at me.
“It’s me mate,” The Scotsman said. “What have you got left”
They lent into each other and looked into that middle distance under the table, where all good drug deals happen.
“It cost you 30 Euro”
“I’ve got 20 pal.”
And there it was. A volunteer buying weed from a refugee.
Nothing makes sense here. Not to someone from the bubble beyond.