I recently spent three days in Calais interviewing destitute migrants for my next documentary play for iceandfire. I met many of them at the feeding point on the docks, where the French charity Salam provides them with a daily evening meal. Here I found mostly young Afghani men, but I also met Iranians who had been arrested in the recent demonstrations after the elections and were fleeing the country with a price on their heads, having been imprisoned and tortured.
Most disturbing of all, I interviewed three young Afghanis, Ahmed, a boy of 13 and his two cousins aged 11 and 10. They had made the journey alone across land from Jalalabad in Afghanistan to Calais, via Turkey, Greece and Italy, in flight from the men who had kidnapped their politican fathers 8 years ago, and who were now threatening to kidnap them. A rumour that one of their fathers had been sighted in Birmingham had propelled their mothers to send them alone to the UK, paying over €3,000 for each child to smugglers, who then sold them on to a chain of other smugglers, all of whom abused them physically.
Had they arrived in Calais a few days earlier they may have found shelter in the Afghani shanty encampment known as the jungle. But the Afghani jungle was destroyed on September 22nd on the orders of the French Minister of Immigration on the pretext of rooting out smugglers and with the promise of treating the migrants humanely. 800 riot police turned up early that morning , with bulldozers in tow. The destruction of this camp led to the dispersion and further homelessness of around 800 mostly Afghani migrants. The humane treatment promised was nowhere in evidence and no alternative temporary shelter was provided. 278 migrants were arrested, 132 of whom were unaccompanied minors – not a smuggler amongst them. Hundreds of others had already fled the area, to doss down at railway stations and parks in Paris, or other ports along the Channel coast.
Those arrested were dispersed to the four corners of France, most of them to be released after a number of days. Needless to say, they are now making their way back to Calais, even more determined to reject France as a place of asylum, hellbent on getting to the UK, a country they have now elevated in their minds to the status of The Promised Land.
Concerned for their safety of the young boys on the night we met them, we managed with the help of French charity worker, Michel, to find them and five other young Afghanis, aged between 14 and 17, a B&B for the night. This was not without its problems, as offering aid to migrants is an offence under French law with a potential fine of €39,00 and up to 5 years in prison. Since this law was orginally aimed at smugglers, France was in shock recently at the widely publicised arrest of a number of French citizens for coming to the aid of destitute migrants, by offering them food or shelter or in one notorious case, for charging their mobile phones. The law is now being used to intimidate and thus prevent people from offering humanitarian aid. However there is an increasingly staunch number of French citizens in Calais and the surrounding villages who are refusing to be cowed by this law, Michel included.
It was a touching to see a how thrilled and relieved the 8 young Afghanis were to be finally sleeping in safe place, in proper beds with pillows and duvets, hot showers, and the promise of a breakfast. But deeply poignant to realise that this was a mere drop in the ocean for them and they’d be back on the streets the next day.
By Sonja Linden, Founder and Associate Writer